Littleton City Council voted to repeal the city's final urban renewal district on Feb. 4, bringing a quiet end to an issue that once shook Littleton politics. Though hearings on urban renewal once …
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Littleton City Council voted to repeal the city's final urban renewal district on Feb. 4, bringing a quiet end to an issue that once shook Littleton politics.
Though hearings on urban renewal once brought overflow crowds to council chambers, fewer than a dozen people were on hand as council voted 6-1 to repeal the city's final urban renewal district and abolish Littleton Invests for Tomorrow, or LIFT. Councilmember Karina Elrod, a former LIFT board member, was the sole vote against.
City officials said they once held high hopes that the Columbine Square Urban Renewal Area could revitalize a blighted former strip mall at Belleview Avenue and Federal Boulevard, but grew discouraged after years of silence from owner Carl Chang, the CEO of Kairos Investment Management.
“This has been going on for years,” said Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes. “The owners of the property are non-responsive. LIFT was collecting taxpayer money, and we had to say it's time to stop. The city needs that money, and we'll use it to make improvements elsewhere.”
LIFT has more than $429,000 in its bank accounts, according to city documents. In accordance with state statute, LIFT will be drawn down over the next six months, during which time it will pay back a $150,000 loan from the city, distribute property tax refunds to several taxing districts, and pay off attorney fees of about $3,000. The remaining $271,000 will go into the city's general fund.
Most of the group's revenue came from tax increment financing, meaning it was taken from sales and property taxes above a predetermined threshold. Had Chang or Kairos expressed interest, the money could have been used on infrastructure improvements like sewer, utilities or sidewalks and streetscapes.
Formed in 2014, LIFT was an outgrowth of the Riverfront Authority, an older urban renewal district that dated to the early 1980s. A consultant hired by the city identified four urban renewal districts: stretches of Littleton Boulevard, north Broadway, Santa Fe Drive, and Columbine Square, which was vacated that year.
The move set off heated political battles. In 2015, voters passed ballot measures, spearheaded by activists associated with the Sunshine government watchdog group, that limited the city's urban renewal powers. In 2016, city council voted 4-3 to eliminate three of the urban renewal districts, keeping only Columbine Square.
Valdes, the only member of the current council who was also on council at the time of the 2016 vote, said he was encouraged when Chang made a surprise appearance at the 2016 meeting and vowed to work with the city to improve the property.
Instead, Columbine Square sat vacant, vandalized and occupied by squatters. The buildings were demolished in early 2018 after a fire destroyed a former dance studio on the property.
LIFT was never able to establish contact with Chang or Kairos, said Cindy Christensen, the board chair. Chang did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails for comment for this story.
“Nobody could get them to call us back,” Christensen said. “It was very strange, but nothing was going to move forward unless the property owner was involved.”
The urban renewal area stretched beyond the Columbine Square site, and included O'Toole's Garden Center and two other shopping centers. A 2019 survey found that the other business owners in the district were content and didn't see the need for urban renewal activity on their properties, Christensen said, though several said they wanted Columbine Square turned around.
A developer representing Kairos brought a proposal to the city at the end of 2018 to build hundreds of apartments at Columbine Square, according to city documents, but city manager Mark Relph said the conversation never progressed beyond the initial pitch.
Without a project and with radio silence from Kairos, Valdes said he had been eager to abolish LIFT for years. In November, the city ordered LIFT to repay the $150,000 loan, with interest, and agree to other terms like hiring an executive director to oversee the group, but the LIFT board tabled the motion. The city considered LIFT in default on its loan in December, and in January instructed city staff to draft a repeal resolution. LIFT board chair Kevin Seiler tendered his resignation as chair at the end of the January meeting.
“Regardless of Columbine Square, the city has identified numerous infrastructure projects that could be accomplished in that area,” Seiler said. “City council seemed to have no interest in hearing what LIFT could do there. I feel we're letting the neighborhood down.”
Mayor Valdes said he appreciates Seiler's view, but he saw LIFT as a middleman.
“The city can still do that work,” Valdes said. “We don't need LIFT to do improvements.”
Relph, the city manager, said the city has identified more than $250 million of potential infrastructure projects around town.
“Up against that kind of need,” Relph said, “The LIFT money is helpful to have, but it's a drop in the bucket.”
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