For revenue-hungry cities in the northern metro area, it's shop 'til you're dropped

Right across I-25 in Broomfield, three major projects are planned, says planning director Terrance Ware: the 120-acre Northlands, with 1.1 million square feet of retail space; the 2,700-acre Anthem, with a mix of 11,000 housing units, retail and an office park; and the 75-acre Palisade Park development, which will include yet more retail. Five miles south on I-25, at 144th Avenue, Forest City has broken ground on a mixed-use "shopping village" in Westminster that will put 500 residential units on a pad with 900,000 square feet of shopping, including a Foley's, a JC Penney, a twelve-screen AMC megaplex and a Super Target. Certain characteristics make the northern Denver area appealing to developers, Ware says, including cheap land, flat topography and, most important, secure water rights.

The exploding development has Rieken worried. "It's going to have a huge impact on us," he says. "My ability to hop on a bike and escape to the north is going bye-bye. And that makes me feel a lot more claustrophobic." But all those trails and the open space that Rieken loves so much -- that convince him and other potential homebuyers to settle somewhere -- cost money to purchase and preserve. In order to keep their budgets healthy, municipalities need a wide sales-tax base. The town that has the next big regional mall project on its side of the fence reaps the revenue, while the town across the highway has to find another way to pay for all the increased infrastructure associated with new growth.

With another new mall, perhaps.

Eric Rieken appreciates the open feel of the north 
metro area -- but new developments (see map) could 
soon have him feeling closed in.
Anthony Camera
Eric Rieken appreciates the open feel of the north metro area -- but new developments (see map) could soon have him feeling closed in.
Will Coyne worries that cities will pay a high price for 
banking on regional shopping centers within their 
Anthony Camera
Will Coyne worries that cities will pay a high price for banking on regional shopping centers within their boundaries.

As retail projects continue gobbling prairie to the north, they leave behind aging malls that were once considered economic boons, and now become economic bombs.

"Anyone call my phone?" a hulking guy in his mid-twenties asks into the tiny cell phone pressed into his ear. He's wearing an oversized basketball jersey, and his hair is pulled into cornrows. "Just check my fucking phone, a'ight?"

He hangs up; he's in a bad mood. But as he and his crew of bad boys with eyebrow piercings, neck tattoos and rat tails saunter past the Disney Store and the Orange Julius stand, he brightens up when one suggests hitting up Foot Locker. "I want to check out some new kicks," he mutters.

Westminster Mall has seen dramatic changes in recent years -- the most conspicuous its changing clientele. There are many more minority shoppers than you would have found here a decade ago, reflecting the demographic shift in the surrounding neighborhoods. Not everyone is decked out in thuggery, though, and there's a fairly even mix of teenagers, seniors and young families.

Westminster Mall opened in 1977 at Sheridan Boulevard and the Boulder Turnpike, at what was then the city's edge. It started with a Joslin's and thirty smaller stores; after a major expansion in 1986, it grew to include four more anchors: Foley's, Broadway Southwest, Mervyn's and JC Penney. Like many suburban communities, Westminster lacked a downtown or any other pedestrian-friendly gathering place, so the mall quickly assumed this role by default, if not by design. Its layout was similar to other enclosed malls of the era, with smaller businesses lining the long arteries that ran between the big department stores. Residents would stroll its long hallways on weekends, while teens lingered in the arcade and hung out in the food court. The mall's trademark hot-air balloons rose and fell in the central court area above a fountain series of wide stairsteps that generations of sugar-fueled kids darted across.

From the moment it opened, Westminster Mall began drawing customers away from Northglenn Mall, six miles to the east. Northglenn had gotten its start in the early '60s as a development of 3,000 single-family homes near the intersection of 104th Avenue and I-25, the first large-scale project by Jordon Perlmutter, then operating as Perl-Mack Co. In 1962, Life magazine proclaimed it "the most perfectly planned community in America"; one of its main features was the regional shopping complex planned at the center. The area incorporated as a city in 1969, and the recently opened "North Glenn Mall" provided as much as 45 percent of the city's sales-tax revenue, but that dropped after the Westminster Mall opened and shoppers headed off to greener pastures. In 1997, with only 20 percent of its space leased, the mall's sales-tax contribution to the city fell to a meager 7 percent.

Other early metro-area malls suffered the same fate. But dead malls don't disappear; they linger on as monumental eyesores that blight neighborhoods. At one point, Englewood's 65-acre Cinderella City was the biggest mall west of the Mississippi; it was finally demolished in 2000 after a decade of pitiful deterioration, and the area has since been turned into a mixed-use mini-downtown. Lakewood's Villa Italia Mall fell to the wrecking ball in 2002.

Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture at Yale University, has written numerous books examining the often-ignored history of America's suburbs. This omission is strange, she points out, since "most Americans live in suburbs these days, not in inner cities or rural areas." In Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth 1820-2000, she outlines the evolution of single-family housing from the street-car suburbs of the late 1800s to the mass-produced, post-war "sitcom suburbs." One of the critical developments in the creation of modern-day suburbs and, in particular, modern-day malls was the gradual change in tax codes between 1954 and 1986 to include accelerated depreciation for commercial properties, she says. Basically, this accounting trick meant that instead of assuming a property built on a previously undeveloped site had a life of thirty or forty years, you could assume it only had a life of seven years. "It meant that you could have losses -- tax losses, paper losses -- you could set against your profits, and therefore the whole thing was going to be less profitable; you could pay less taxes," she explains.

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