Opening day is drawing closer for a controversial senior apartment complex formerly known as The Grove, even as a legal fracas over its approval continues to work its way through the courts. The …
Opening day is drawing closer for a controversial senior apartment complex formerly known as The Grove, even as a legal fracas over its approval continues to work its way through the courts.
The first residents are slated to move into the complex at Littleton Boulevard and South Bemis Street, now called Vita Littleton, in May. The 159-unit development, which is restricted to residents 55 and older, is the outcome of years of wrangling over development on the site.
Vita, a project of Zocalo Community Development, was approved by the city's planning and building departments as a use-by-right development, meaning it did not require public comment, review by the city's volunteer planning commission or approval by city council.
A citizens' group that opposed the project, called Advocates for Littleton, argued that the project contained a laundry list of code violations. They sought to appeal the project's approval through the city's Board of Adjustment, but were rebuffed on the grounds that city code dictates that only permit applicants who are denied may appeal to the board.
The group, headed by Leah Burkett, who once lived across the street from the development site, filed suit against the city in 2016, arguing that citizens and neighbors should be able to appeal to the board. A judge threw out the lawsuit the day before it was scheduled to go to trial, a decision the group has taken to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Oral arguments will be heard on the appeal on Jan. 24.
“I think it's shocking they've gotten away with it all,” Burkett said of the development.
Though Advocates for Littleton cites a litany of code violations in the project, much of the opposition centers around the fact that the site's zoning designation, B2, mandates that a development not exceed 50 percent residential space, according to documents provided by Paul Bingham, a Littleton resident who has been closely involved with the opposition to the project.
In order to meet the requirement, Zocalo said that the project's parking garage constituted a commercial use, even though Littleton code requires parking spaces for residential units, the cost of the spaces are included in residents' rent and none will be leased to non-residents. Residents can lease additional parking spaces for $100 a month.
The project also includes three spaces for retail, including a restaurant. Zocalo currently has a letter of intent from Bacon Social House, an upscale brunch and cocktail restaurant in Denver's Sunnyside neighborhood, to open a location at Vita. The project also includes 20 “live/work” units, residential apartments with a room that can be used for commercial activities.
Advocates for Littleton argues that the project's retail space violates code in a variety of ways.
In essence, Burkett said, the project is the wrong one for the spot, presenting an overbearing edifice where once there was a small office building that dated to the 1950s. Burkett moved last year to near Mineral Avenue and Santa Fe Drive, a move she says was “100 percent because of the Grove.”
“I feel beaten and sad,” Burkett said. “Even if we are granted the hearing, the building is there and I think it would be naïve to think anything about that building will change.”
Still, Burkett is steadfast in her insistence that citizens deserve a chance to appeal city staff's decisions on zoning.
“There are so many opportunities for corruption if a decision cannot be challenged,” Burkett said.
The controversy over the decision to approve the project sent shockwaves through city government in 2016, culminating in the firing of City Manager Michael Penny by city council.
Mayor Debbie Brinkman said the project is a done deal, and she'd like to see the city come together and move forward.
“People will be moving in and will be our new neighbors,” Brinkman said. “They'll eat in our restaurants and shop downtown. The sooner we can embrace that the better.”
Brinkman said the project was approved because of what she called Littleton's antiquated zoning code, and said opponents should focus their energy on helping the city develop new land-use regulations.
“It's not fair to the community to keep operating on the code we have,” Brinkman said. “Let's learn from the lessons of the past so we don't repeat them. It's regrettable that this development got caught up in an old-fashioned interpretation of our existing code. People don't live like they did when it was written, in the 1970s. Without updates you're subject to what you've got.”
Brinkman said she's reserving judgment about the project's aesthetic impact until it's finished.
“It's still being built,” Brinkman said. “We haven't seen it without the fences or construction guys. I think it'll be a beautiful building. Is it bigger than I thought it would be? Yes, but visualizing something on paper is different than watching it come out of the ground.”
The project wasn't the first to be proposed for the site, which was previously home to an old office building that once housed the regional offices of the Rural Electric Association. A prior proposal for a large apartment complex on the site, called Broadstone, drew public ire in 2013 from many of the same players who opposed Vita.
Because Broadstone was submitted as a totally residential project, it would have required a zoning change, which brought it before public input in city council and the city's zoning commission. The project was rejected by council after a contentious back-and-forth that saw the developer repeatedly shrink the size of the proposal.
Brinkman said the brouhaha over Broadstone made Zocalo gun-shy about going before the public with Vita.
“I would love to see the public have an opportunity for public comment on these large developments,” Brinkman said. “But if there are people who come at things with too vehement of opposition, developers will find a way to get things done without that. We need to be more welcoming as a community to different ideas and developments. It doesn't mean we'll scrape everything. Dialogue didn't happen with the Grove because the developer didn't want to take chances with a volatile city.”
Zocalo is looking to move on from the controversy over the project, said Susan Maxwell, the company's chief operating officer.
“The controversy is history,” Maxwell said. “I would say that we've worked very hard to develop good relations with the immediate neighbors.”
Maxwell said the company is satisfied with how things turned out.
“We followed the approval process that the city required,” Maxwell said. “We're a service business. Our ultimate customer is our resident. Providing them with a wonderful place to call home is our first priority.”
Maxwell said she's confident that the community wants the project based on the number of apartment leases thus far that have gone to locals. Maxwell said about a quarter of the units have already been leased.
Apartments at Vita start at more than $1,900 a month for a 712-square-foot, one-bedroom unit, according to a sales flier, and range up to almost $3,500 a month for a two bedroom. As of Dec. 1, Littleton's median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,450 and $1,840 for a two-bedroom unit, according to apartmentlist.com, a website that tracks rents across Colorado and the nation.
Amenities will abound for residents, said Deziree Biggins, the executive assistant community director at Vita's leasing office at 2505 W. Alamo Ave.
Residents can enjoy a saltwater swimming pool, hot tub, firepit lounge, community garden and amphitheater, Biggins said, as well as a variety of planned social activities. Units will be outfitted with high-end fixtures and furnishings.
“You get the luxurious lifestyle here,” Biggins said. “The price isn't much for the luxury you're getting. It'll be fun.”
Biggins said the 55-and-older age restriction will make things harmonious for residents.
“A big selling point is that they get to be around people like themselves,” Biggins said. “They're surrounded by people who get what they've been through and what angers them. They understand each other.”
Biggins said she's signed up residents from around the country, from as far as California, New Jersey and Wisconsin.
Biggins said she's felt some of the controversy around the development.
“When I was first marketing this place, people would come in and not say the nicest things to me about it,” Biggins said. “It is what it is and I had to let it go. It was two or three times a week in the beginning.”
People will get over it, Biggins said.
“Some people didn't want their town to change, but this will be great for the town.”