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

Essentially, the government had found a way to subsidize new real-estate development in locations far from the core city. "But what did happen as a result was that developers started to build faster and more cheaply since they knew they'd be turning these things over," Hayden goes on. "What was implied [in the tax code] was that there would be dead malls and dead main streets and declining places every time the new one opened up. And what's happening [in Denver] is simply the same process fifty years down the line. I think you see some areas where the older suburbs are in terrible shape, and other places where they are experiencing a revival, especially if they have some type of public transportation and a good location."

At the former home of Villa Italia, for example, Lakewood and developer Continuum Partners rehabbed the hundred-acre pad into Belmar, one of the nation's first attempts at creating a true urban downtown district on the site of an old shopping mall. The raves that Belmar has drawn stand in stark contrast to what's happened in Northglenn. Under pressure from a city council desperate for a boost in revenue, Northglenn Mall was finally demolished in 1998 by Jordan Perlmutter & Co.; the site has since been reconstructed as the Marketplace at Northglenn, an outdoor power center with a Lowe's, a Borders, an Old Navy and several other big-box mega-marts that stare at each other over an amplitude of parking and some obligatory landscaping.

While its longtime rival bit the dust, Westminster Mall celebrated its twentieth birthday as the northern area's supreme shopping destination, with 1.5 million square feet and 170 stores. By now, Joslins had become Dillard's, Broadway Southwest was Sears, and Montgomery Ward had jumped on as a sixth anchor. Sales totaled $289 million in 1998, the second-highest in Colorado per square foot.

Westminster Mall got a $10 million facelift to compete 
with newer complexes.
Anthony Camera
Westminster Mall got a $10 million facelift to compete with newer complexes.

Kenton Anderson, Westminster's general manager since 1985, credits the mall's lasting popularity to its tenant mix, which straddles the line between practical-minded purchases and high-end appeal. "We've always been the type of place where middle America shops," he says. But Anderson acknowledges that the lack of competition in the area has contributed to the mall's success, too.

The neighboring cities of Broomfield and Arvada had long watched with irritation as their citizens, guided by the magnetic pull of the Westminster Mall, drove into the heavily retailed town of Westminster to spend their dollars at both the mall and the 4.4 million square feet of surrounding retail space. So in the early '90s, both Broomfield and Arvada began rezoning huge swaths of land at their western boundaries to allow development of commercial and office space, in hopes of landing a large retail project that could compete with Westminster Mall.

Arvada's ambitions for the intersection of highways 72 and 93 were largely blocked by the parcel's proximity to the contaminated Rocky Flats site and Boulder's successful purchase of 1,100 acres for open space at the entrance to Coal Creek Canyon. But Broomfield's efforts were much more successful. The growth of the Interlocken office park along the U.S. 36 corridor added several hundred thousand square feet in office space to the area and, in the late '90s, spurred developers to choose the western tip of the city for a new super-regional mall.

Westminster didn't take the threat of the upscale FlatIron Crossing lightly. In 1999, city manager Bill Christopher proclaimed that Westminster was committed to maintaining its foothold in the northwest retail market. "In order to do this," he said, "aggressive reinvestment in a large economic engine like the Westminster Mall is warranted."

In partnership with the Westminster Mall Company, which owns and manages the center, the city covered $7.5 million of the $10 million facelift that gave the mall a more contemporary look, with new facades, skylights and seating areas. "Westminster Mall will continue to be a major player in the north area's marketplace," Christopher predicted at the ribbon-cutting in 2000, pointing out that the mall was tied with the then brand-new FlatIron as the second-biggest shopping center in Colorado, behind Park Meadows' 1.6 million square feet.

Despite the city's investment, recent years have not been kind to Westminster Mall. The remodel of the food court promised in 2001 has yet to be done, and most of the eateries have closed, save for an Italian and a Mexican joint. While some stores seem to be prospering -- cell-phone outlets and sports-jersey shops are uncommonly abundant -- the classic hot-air balloons are deflated and the fountain is empty.

From its peak in 1999, sales-tax collection at the Westminster Mall has decreased by 35 percent. Meanwhile, the vacancy rate has risen by 15 percent, and today only 80 percent of the leaseable space is filled. BC Surf and Sport moved from the mall's almost-empty north wing to a spot near the interior earlier this year. "We were so dead up there it was crazy," says assistant manager Zach Romero. Business has since picked up, but the shop isn't doing anywhere near the numbers it was when the mall was hopping.

While Anderson admits that FlatIron has affected the mall's sales, he points to other factors, too. The economic downturn in 2001 had an impact on all metro-area malls. And the big-box discounters and power-center-type developments that transformed the retail landscape in the '90s have hurt his traditional anchors. "You don't have department stores anymore with the strength in the changing retail environment," he says. "Sears is combining with Kmart, Foley's is merging with Macy's, and Target is spinning off Mervyn's. That's quite a change in a short period of time."

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