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If all goes according to plan, the long-vacant Columbine Square Shopping Center will be demolished by the end of February.
The shopping center at Belleview Avenue and Federal Boulevard in Littleton — the city's final remaining urban renewal district — has sat empty since 2014, accruing graffiti and broken windows. A fire that completely destroyed one of the buildings on Jan. 3 is believed to have been caused by squatters lighting a warming fire, authorities say, and a subsequent investigation by the fire department found evidence of habitation in numerous buildings and storefronts on the site.
With public pressure mounting to demolish the buildings, Littleton city officials are making efforts to engage citizens in the process of moving things forward at the site, which once housed Littleton Preparatory School, Big Papa's BBQ, El Lucero Restaurant, a Safeway grocery store and other small businesses.
City officials will head up an action committee with community members to disseminate information about the site, said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman.
“I'd like to take a new approach,” Brinkman said. “I don't want things to be so messy in the future.”
The committee will include Brinkman; councilmember Patrick Driscoll who represents District 1, where Columbine Square sits; and four or five citizens. Community Development Director Jocelyn Mills will chair the group. Brinkman said the selection of citizen members will come once the committee's scope and timeline is more fleshed out. Whether or not the property owner will have a representative on the committee has not yet been confirmed, Brinkman said.
The committee's goal will be for the city to communicate to residents how plans are proceeding at the site so that residents can be better informed, Brinkman said.
“That way people aren't getting madder every time they drive past it,” she said. “There's so much rumor and gossip. None of it's positive. There's stuff being done, you just don't see it.”
Driscoll said he's unsure what will eventually be built on the site, though he would be amenable to a mixed-use residential and retail structure. No application has been submitted to the city.
The seven-acre property is owned by Carl Chang, a California-based real estate magnate and CEO of Redwood-Kairos Real Estate Partners, which boasts a lengthy portfolio of large properties around the country. Neither Chang nor other officials from Redwood-Kairos responded to multiple requests for comment, but they have hired Littleton-based Sundance Mountain Development as an owner representative and construction manager.
Sundance is headed by longtime Littleton resident Frank Melara, who confirmed his involvement but said he was unable to provide more information yet.Melara said his first priority is demolishing the buildings as soon as possible.
Once formal permit applications are filed, Brinkman said she and Driscoll will step back from the committee to prevent a conflict with zoning changes that city council might be asked to vote on.
Interested parties who don't end up on the action committee can participate in an upcoming open house to discuss creating a Belleview Corridor Plan, encompassing an area that includes Columbine Square, scheduled for Feb. 5 from 6 to 8 p.m. at St. James Presbyterian Church, 3601 W. Belleview Ave.
“We're always eager for community feedback,” said Jocelyn Mills, the city's Community Development Director. “We want the neighbors to be as involved as possible.”
Building code doesn't require demolishment
Property owners were preparing to ask the city for a demolition permit, following approval from the state that asbestos on the property was properly abated, when the fire occurred, Brinkman said. The fire negated asbestos abatement efforts on that part of the property, Brinkman said, sending Redwood-Kairos back to the state to seek new approval.
City officials anticipate Redwood-Kairos will approach them for a demolition permit once they get fresh approval from the state, Brinkman said.
Brinkman said she doesn't know why the city never attempted to compel Chang to demolish the property.
“Honest to god, I don't know,” Brinkman said. “We look at it now and say, why didn't we? To be fair, we don't have laws on our books to allow us to do that. Staff is going to look at that — it may not do much for Columbine Square, but it would be good to have that in our toolbox in the future.”
The building code only allowed the city to compel the owner to secure the site, said City Manager Mark Relph, adding that the owners added the famous "green fence" around the property and boarded up broken windows. At a December 2016 city council meeting, Chang apologized for the site's condition and delays on progress.
Many, if not most of the storefronts' windows were broken out and numerous doors were open on a recent visit.
“We've talked about whether we need to review our code and put in some stronger language,” Relph said. “We've had other properties where the owners do just barely enough to keep it from being a real hazard.”
Carol Brzeczek, a member of the city's urban renewal board and vocal critic of the city's urban renewal policies, said the board was assured last fall that the site was secured.
“Obviously it wasn't,” Brzeczek said. “Ultimately, though, the owner has property rights.”
Brinkman said only so much could be done to secure a site on the scale of Columbine Square.
“The owners have been responsive” in boarding up broken windows and locking buildings, Brinkman said. “But it's hard unless you have people there 24/7. You can put on as many locks as you want, and people will find a way in.”
Driscoll said he's hoping to finally see some progress.
“If we see the owners building something in the next year, that would be great,” Driscoll said. “It's been way too slow for the community and the city. They should've had it down to dirt a year or more ago. It's time we alleviate the vagrants hanging out there.”
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