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

One weekend afternoon, a young woman and her mother strolled past the valet-parking kiosk into the outdoor segment of the mall, which was designed to resemble a European village.

"Are they closed, too?" she asked, peering into a shuttered storefront.

"Maybe they were too expensive," the mother offered. They both turned and looked across the corridor at another store where a large sign pronounced "Going out of business. Everything must go."


That space is now a seasonal Halloween costume shop.

Larkridge is set to open on October 20. Months before, the home site of Jordan Perlmutter & Co. featured a banner ad with a bulldozer pushing a pile of dirt and the question "When was the last time you felt the earth move?"

The earth is certainly moving in this part of the metro area -- and not just because of Perlmutter's development. Taking note of the transportation confluence of I-25, Colorado 7 and the recently completed E-470 interchange, retail developers have spent the past two years securing prime tracts of commercially zoned property that could provide convenient shopping for all those future consumers driving along I-25.

The borders of three cities and three counties converge here; all are racing to put the next big regional mall project on their side of the fence. Although some experts already consider this market oversaturated with retail, developers and municipalities alike are confident that the tenant mix at each project will be sufficiently unique to serve non-competing segments of the marketplace. These regional retail centers not only expect to pull the "underserved" customers from the 120,000 housing units already within a ten-mile circumference of the interchange, but they're betting that the retail and office developments themselves will spur an influx of new residents to the area.

They're in "edge node" mode. In Dolores Hayden's A Field Guide to Sprawl, a pictorial encyclopedia that defines different types of suburban development and uses numerous aerial photographic examples from Colorado to do so, an edge node is described as a large, loose grouping of office and retail usually found off highways. "People may work in edge nodes, but they don't like to live there," she writes. "So they jump in the car at 5 o'clock and drive for an hour to some place that they think is unspoiled, and that's why some of the fastest growing places in the US are the rural fringes."

Will Coyne, land-use advocate for the non-profit Environment Colorado, has been following the growth trend in the northern metro area and contends that regional shopping malls are the antithesis of sustainable planning. "Smart growth is about creating livable communities where people can live, work, shop and play all in the same area," he says. "Where you don't have to get in your car and drive ten, fifteen miles to go somewhere. These things are built on automobile culture." He argues that cities that allow low-density, auto-oriented housing developments end up forcing themselves into a position where they need to build large regional shopping centers.

"The cost of the infrastructure of services to residential subdivisions is so enormous that [the developments] don't come anywhere near paying for themselves," he says. "So to pay for them, they build a new regional shopping mall or a new Wal-Mart." Colorado cities have been inordinately dependent on sales-tax revenues since the state adopted the Gallagher Amendment in 1982, which stipulated that no more than 45 percent of the total amount of state property tax collected must come from residential property, while 55 percent of the property tax collected must come from commercial property. "The only way they can continue to feed it is to build," Coyne says. "More residential development for immediate money and then big retail developments to bring in more sales tax."

Thornton began prepping its northern property along I-70 for future development ten years ago, putting sewer and water lines in to make the area more appealing for developers. "We knew this growth was going to come, and we wanted to be prepared," says Mayor Noel Busck. But the city wasn't just trying to be accommodating -- Thornton officials recognized that their financial health was at stake as well. "The I-25 corridor is really our cash cow because we're so sales-tax-based," he adds. "Every municipality in Colorado is." So when Perlmutter and Co. approached Thornton a little more than two years ago with the idea of a mega-power center modeled after their earlier project in Northglenn, the city enthusiastically welcomed the proposal for Larkridge.

At the same time, both Broomfield and Westminster were shooting for their own regional retail centers in the area, and everyone recognized that the first developer to put its footprint in the sand could determine the ambitions of the other two. "This has been a horse race," Busck says. "But Mr. Perlmutter is a visionary person. He said, 'We can build this. We can do this now.'"

The developer originally projected that the power center would open sometime around 2008, but with a strong interest from retailers, it was able to fill up the tenant slots and open nearly three years earlier than anticipated. "So we got out of the blocks first," Busck says proudly. "We hit the home run first."

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