Columbine Square's future murky after developer cancels meeting

Confusion, silence reign after company appears to pull plans for massive apartment complex

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The future is as murky as ever at Columbine Square.

Neighbors to the long-derelict former strip mall at Federal Boulevard and Belleview Avenue received postcards from a developer in January inviting them to a Zoom meeting to discuss a proposal to build hundreds of apartments on the site.

But when they went to log in at 6 p.m. on Feb. 9, nothing happened.

In a Nextdoor thread, neighbors to the property checked and rechecked the meeting ID, sharing screenshots of the postcard, to no avail. The meeting never took place.

“Great first impression by a developer,” wrote Kyle Schlachter, a former Littleton city councilmember.

Will they or won't they?

According to documents filed with the City of Littleton, representatives from Lennar Multifamily Communities (LMC), a North Carolina-based developer, informed city officials on Christmas Eve 2020 they were under contract to purchase the 15-acre site from Kairos Investment Management, a California-based commercial property investment firm.

A letter of intent filed by LMC calls the site “an ideal location for higher density multifamily and mixed use development,” and proposes a five-building apartment complex, with two five-story towers and three three-story towers totaling 674 units. The plans also call for some retail on the site, with the potential for “public/civic services that the Littleton community may desire over time.”

Because the proposal would require an amendment or change to the site's zoning, LMC was required to hold a neighborhood meeting.

The meeting was a surprise to city staff, said Jennifer Henninger, Littleton's director of community development.

“We didn't know they were doing this neighborhood meeting until Monday morning,” Henninger said. “When we tried to log in, it didn't work. We tried to reach out to the applicant, but they were unavailable. Turns out they canceled the meeting a few hours before it was supposed to start.”

Henninger said later communication with Kairos suggested LMC was backing out of the proposal.

"The applicant is walking away from Columbine Square,” she said.

But Chris Gillies, LMC's Vice President of Development — and the contact listed on the postcard — was coy about the company's plans.

“We're still very early in our evaluation process on this parcel and consequently not in a position to share any information,” Gillies wrote in an email to Colorado Community Media.

Gillies did not respond to followup emails or phone calls to clarify LMC's plans, the canceled meeting, or whether LMC remains under contract to purchase the site from Kairos.

Arapahoe County property records still show Kairos as the site's owner, and it remains listed on the company's online portfolio. Kairos did not respond to emails or phone calls about the site.

Radio silence

The murky plans for the site have become par for the course. Littleton City Council eliminated an urban renewal district that included the site in early 2020, citing an inability to communicate with Kairos.

Formerly home to a sprawling strip mall, Columbine Square has sat vacant since 2014. Numerous buildings on the site sat empty for years, drawing vandalism and squatters, until a fire in the first few days of 2018 left one building destroyed and spurred the demolition of the rest.

Aside from a surprise appearance by Kairos CEO Carl Chang at a Littleton City Council meeting in 2016 where he apologized for the property's condition and promised to bring new plans forward soon, city officials had little contact with ownership.

Another developer submitted plans to develop the site in early 2019, proposing a 300-unit apartment complex, but those plans never went forward.

City Councilmember Pat Driscoll, who represents the area, said he is encouraged by the possibility of Kairos selling the site.

“In my opinion they have not been a good neighbor,” he said in an email. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Still, he said the surrounding neighborhood has been adamantly opposed to high-density residential development.

“I am happy (developers) are proposing some retail, but I think it can go a lot further,” Driscoll wrote.

In the zone

The site falls under a “planned development” or PD zone, Henninger said, though it bears little difference from B-2 zoning, which has no maximum building height or building setbacks.

The current zoning does, however, mandate that residential uses not exceed 50% of floor area, meaning a development on the scale of LMC's proposal would require a public process involving at least one neighborhood meeting, evaluations by staff, and public hearings before the city's planning commission and city council.

Littleton, though, is in the midst of a complete overhaul of its zoning and land use codes, with plans to ratify a new Universal Land Use Code (ULUC) in October, meaning the site's zoning requirements could be different by this fall.

According to the “future land use map” published as part of the city's 2019 comprehensive plan — a guiding document for the ULUC process — Columbine Square will likely fall under “corridor mixed use” zoning, which will focus on “'destination' developments that creatively mix uses, integrate amenities, and emphasize quality design.”

City staff told LMC at a Jan. 7 preliminary application meeting that they "may want to consider delaying the Site Development Plan" until later in 2021, "at which time the ULUC will have been adopted by the city," according to notes from the meeting. Staff also encouraged LMC to "become involved with the ULUC process."

The specifics of the site's future zoning — including building heights, setbacks, and residential allowances — are still yet to be determined, Henninger said. Also too soon to say: how much public input would be involved in approving future developments under new zoning, though she said the city is eager to meet the neighborhood's needs.

“It's one of our few larger remaining undeveloped parcels,” Henninger said. “We're going to be particular about what goes in there, and working with the surrounding community is very important.”

It's unlikely the site would become a park, she said.

“The reality is, we already have six times more open space than the average municipality. South Suburban (Parks and Recreation District) has made it clear they're not interested in maintaining more parks.”

A taxing decision

Meanwhile, she said, the city is facing tough times financially, exacerbated by the COVID crisis. City officials are hoping to expand the city's tax base, with more than three-quarters of the general fund coming from sales tax revenue.

“The land we have left, we need to make sure it has large aspects of tax-generating uses,” she said. “Columbine Square becoming open space or strictly residential is not a financially sound decision on the part of the city.”

Still, recent studies of Littleton's housing market have shown a yawning deficit of workforce housing. A 2020 analysis by Root Policy Research showed the proportion of young families in Littleton has been steadily declining for years, with many pushed out by high housing prices, while the number of renters paying more than half their income toward housing has increased to more than a quarter of all renters as rents soar beyond wage growth.

“There's not housing for teachers or firefighters to afford in our community,” Henninger said. “Any time we can work with a developer to get attainable housing, that's something we have to weigh.”

Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes said that doesn't necessarily mean the city needs a big boost in the number of apartments.

“We can't just say we need 10,000 apartments, let's build them now,” Valdes said. “I know they say there's a deficit, but I'd call that a projection. I'm not sure we need to build to meet a projection.”

As far as Columbine Square, Valdes said you can't please everyone, but he would like to see something come along.

“It's been an eyesore, and I don't like seeing it that way,” he said. “What it'll be, I don't know, but hopefully it works for a majority of folks.”

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