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By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
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By Melanie Asmar
Is Belmar the solution?
Russell Enloe first brought his aesthetic proclivities to South Broadway when he opened American Aces Vintage Clothing in 1991. Back then, the block of small storefronts was dilapidated and struggling with a high number of vacancies, but the cheap rent and off-the-grid locale made it a perfect place for fringe concepts to take root. Enloe eventually closed Aces, but he opened Crown Mercantile at 46 Broadway six years ago, and he watched the strip grow up around him, filling with used bookstores, tattoo parlors, an independent performance theater, art galleries and other eclectic shops. Rock clubs such as the hi-dive and 3 Kings Tavern also helped South Broadway develop an identity as Denver's hipster haven and earn it a perfunctory urban-district nickname: SoBo.
No sooner had the tag been attached than the inevitable consequence of coolness followed: rent increases. Enloe was stunned when his landlord recently told him that rent for Crown was being raised from $900 to $2,400 a month. Likewise, Elisa Dowell, one of the three owners of Chiele clothing a few doors down, was shocked last month when she learned that her $700 monthly rent was getting boosted to $1,300. "When we came into this building, we brought something to it," says Dowell. "There were people sleeping in front of the door and peeing everywhere. And now, all of a sudden, it's like now that the area is hot, we're going to be pushed out."
Kendra Dehaven, who owns TS Boardshop with her husband, says the building's owners cited the area's popularity as the reason they were raising the rent by roughly 10 percent -- and that figure was settled upon only after much negotiation. "For this block, it's unnecessary at this time," Dehaven says. "The buildings are old, they're falling apart, it's tough. It just seems that landlords are doing it everywhere. It's making it harder for smaller businesses."
When the shop owners look down the street at one of the giant billboards hovering over Broadway, the irony of its message is not lost on them: "What if you could keep the funky coffee shop, but lose the funky plumbing?" it asks, suggesting that they head to Belmar, deep into the belly of suburban Lakewood. Located on the 105-acre site of the former Villa Italia Mall, Belmar aspires to something that the burb never had: a real downtown.
Denver-based Continuum Partners' $750-million-plus redevelopment follows the tenets of the New Urbanism movement, which began in the early '90s as a reaction to auto-bound excesses and the disorienting uniformity of suburban sprawl. As a result, Belmar's main streets cross in a traditional grid pattern, lined on each side by newly created five-story buildings. Above the shops are luxury condos as well as modest apartments and offices. The sidewalks are wide, with benches and trees. Everything feels correct and to scale, almost obsessively so -- like a Hollywood soundstage. No detail has been ignored, from the walkway awning that chirps rain forest sounds to the manhole covers emblazoned with the Belmar logo. The shops all look like downtown storefronts, but they are filled with national retailers such as Victoria's Secret, The Sharper Image, Guess, Cingular and Yankee Candle. There's also that bulwark of funkiness, Baby Gap. It's pure postmodern simulacrum. One almost expects Baudrillard and Derrida to come caroling down the street, hand in hand, distributing PEZ dispensers and Mickey Mouse hats to children. So, then, what does it take to build a new downtown but have it feel authentic?
"This is a big topic for us, and something we wrestle with all the time," says Tom Gougeon, chief development officer for Continuum. "There's many different definitions of what's urban, but when you're talking about the role of the downtown historically, in a community, it's more than just a commercial center. It really has some sense of common purpose and community identity."
Except that downtowns generally evolve over decades, with fluctuating market demands, land owners and trends constantly changing a city's look. By contrast, large indoor shopping malls are controlled by a single entity that can build -- and demolish -- in a single swoop. Belmar is somewhere in between: All the buildings are owned and managed by Continuum or its associated entities, but the streets, sidewalks and park are owned by the City of Lakewood, and are considered public space. At this point, Continuum has built about a sixth of the 1,300 housing units that will eventually be integrated into the site by 2008, along with 1 million square feet of retail and 900,000 square feet of office space. A massive 55,000-square-foot Whole Foods opened last December, and plans are being sketched for a hotel. That's a much larger and more diverse usage, Gougeon points out, than the decaying, single-use shopping mall that formerly occupied the land.
"Part of our burden is to try to figure out a way to accomplish all of those things but also do it today, in a contemporary time," he explains. "Would all of us [have] loved 23 blocks of nothing but unique, one-of-a-kind, locally grown retailers? Yup. Could we do it? No. It would be impossible today."
The funds needed to drive large-scale developments such as Belmar usually are available only through big-box retailers, hence the inclusion of a Dick's Sporting Goods, DSW and Pier 1 Imports. In Stapleton, for example, the very anti-pedestrian Quebec Square was erected to generate enough sales tax to pay the bills on the substantial parks system, walkways and playgrounds. And the reality is that, even though many American consumers sing the praises of a small, unique main street, they still do most of their day-to-day shopping at big chains.
"Knowing that, what we do is borrow the strength of those national retailers because we need them, because that's who dominates the U.S. retail world today," Gougeon says. "But we consciously make the decision that we're going to forgo some income and make a commitment to having a mix out there."
From the project's earliest stages, Continuum designed many smaller retail spaces with the expressed purpose of getting local independent shops into that mix. Continuum then formed a "wish list" of the types of shops they wanted. "We literally brainstorm, ŒOh, there's this really great garden store on Broadway,' or ŒThere's this great shop in Boulder,' or ŒThere's a great chef, or great whatever,'" says Eliza Prall, Continuum's director of marketing and community building. Then the company actively seeks out those "desirable locals" and gives them a leg up when it comes to adjustments on rent and lengths of lease, and in creating a strategic plan. That effort has netted Belmar The Oven pizzeria, the Press coffee shop, the girly, hip Ricochet gift shop and Bike Works, which deals in tricked-out cruisers and low-rider bikes. To bring art to the area, Continuum created Block 7, a row of 500- to 1,000-square-foot studios and galleries on Saulsbury Street that rent for $350 to $400 a month. Plus, there is the ambitious contemporary art program, Lab at Belmar. The organization's planned 15,000-square-foot building consists of an exhibition space, offices, a library and semi-private rooms for lectures and classes.
"Every place that's great and authentic was once new and inauthentic," Gougeon says. "So I don't think we have to apologize that Belmar is new or starts at that same place. The real question is will it be any good in fifty or 100 years?"
"South Broadway was desirable because these little, funky places weren't facing rents in a typical retail area," Prall adds. "But [rent hikes] are bound to happen as they become more successful. That structure isn't set up for a long-term plan for them. What happens is it becomes less and less individual and funky -- unless it's planned for."
Russell Enloe looked at Belmar as an option to relocate his business, but in the end, he chose to stay in SoBo and make rent by subletting part of his space to other merchants. Even if he had been able to get a good deal at Belmar, he needed to make sales work immediately, and the fresh-faced development seemed to be "a couple years out before it starts really kicking," he says. "And I don't have the kind of backing to last that long. Not like some chain stores would."