You would think that developer and financier Larry Mizel would have bigger battles to fight. Mizel, who has an estimated worth of more than $100 million, is chairman of M.D.C. Holdings, Inc., the largest real estate developer in the Denver area. Three months ago he sold his interest in Omnibancorp for an estimated $67 million.
Now it appears as though he is fighting over ten feet of land.
In addition to his corporate holdings, Mizel owns a 2.2-acre parcel on the corner of East Evans Avenue and South Colorado Boulevard that until recently was home to a busy car dealership. Earlier this year Boulevard Ford moved several blocks south to a larger location; the property is now for sale.
Mizel's chunk of vacant land also happens to lie just inside a narrow corridor scheduled to have minor land-use restrictions added to the current zoning. Supporters hope the changes will make Denver's busiest retail strip more pleasant. As of late this fall, the modifications, which enjoy the support of local neighborhood associations, seemed headed for approval.
Recently, however, a last-minute lobbying and letter-writing campaign attempting to scuttle the plan has sprung up. City planners, along with Councilwoman Mary DeGroot, who represents the area and is pushing for the new land-use requirements, suspect that Mizel is behind it.
Mizel's attorney and lobbyist, Michael Sheldon, has met twice with DeGroot, who says Sheldon has asked that she delay the zoning changes, presumably to give Mizel a chance to redevelop his plot before the additional requirements kick in, and to redraw the proposed area so as not to include Mizel's property. Sheldon also has lobbied other councilmembers to oppose the plan, DeGroot says.
And beginning last month, DeGroot and city planners started receiving a flurry of letters allegedly from concerned business owners protesting that they had not been permitted to comment on the proposed changes. Although the letters all bear different letterheads, their wording is exactly the same.
The first letter in the city planning department's files, received in October, is from a company called Histrio Investors. Its offices are at 3600 South Yosemite--the same address as Mizel's M. D. C. Holdings.
Another letter of complaint was sent to DeGroot's office by Harriet Goodman, who owns the Midas Muffler shop at 333 South Colorado. Goodman says she's not entirely sure what the rezoning proposals are all about. But she says she sent the letter to DeGroot after receiving it in a package from "some lawyer who's working for some guy who owns property down on Colorado Boulevard"--Michael Sheldon.
The write-in campaign "is obviously coming from one or two people, because the letters are exactly the same," says Gretchen Williams, an aide to DeGroot. Adds Doug Hendrixson, a city planner, "I'm pretty sure it's been through Michael Sheldon's efforts. He has drummed up this opposition."
The primary force behind the zoning tweaks being contemplated on South Colorado is Councilwoman DeGroot, whose district encompasses Colorado Boulevard south from Cherry Creek to Iliff Avenue. The street, she asserts, needs a facelift: "I want to put the `boulevard' back in Colorado Boulevard."
The proposed land-use changes are taken out of a 1991 document called "The Boulevard Plan: A Development Framework for South Colorado Boulevard." Among other things, the plan, which was two years in the making, recommends that the city take measures to improve the look of the street's booming business district. The suggestions include a wider setback from the road for new buildings, some landscaping, sign restrictions and more parking placed behind buildings instead of in front.
Until now, the suggestions have been just that: New businesses, or those remodeling, are encouraged to follow the plan's recommendations. Last year, however, the city began allowing what are known as "zoning overlay districts." In such districts the underlying zoning laws stay the same. But a neighborhood can choose to add more restrictive modifications in a predetermined area. Historic districts, which require buildings to conform to certain aesthetic standards, are a form of overlay district.
The proposed Colorado Boulevard changes would affect only new businesses and those going through a redevelopment. DeGroot says she began notifying businesses of the proposed changes early last year. She also began rounding up support from the surrounding neighborhood associations. In April she held the first public meeting to explain the proposed modifications; about thirty people attended.
Soon after that, she says, she began hearing from Sheldon. She says the contact from Mizel's representative came as a surprise. "I never even realized that [Mizel] owned property" on Colorado Boulevard, she says.
DeGroot says Sheldon first asked her to end the proposed overlay district at Evans Avenue, rather than at Iliff, two blocks farther south. DeGroot refused, noting that the only two things on the west side of Colorado between Evans and Iliff were Mizel's land and a church.
At a subsequent meeting, DeGroot says, Sheldon requested that the councilwoman delay implementing the new changes for one year. Again she refused. "I told him that the problems on Colorado Boulevard were too immense," she recalls.
The letters of complaint, which all end with the words "We have substantial concerns. Do not take action until our concerns are adequately addressed," began arriving in the councilwoman's office in October. DeGroot says she has received about fifteen. The planning department has received another ten.
The late opposition to the proposed zoning modifications has caught homeowners who worked on the plan off guard. "This has a large amount of neighborhood support," says Tom Tayon, president of the Cory-Merrill Neighborhood Association, which runs from Tennessee Avenue south to I-25 and from Colorado Boulevard west to University. "I wasn't aware of any problems until this week. I was, frankly, surprised."
Adds Williams, DeGroot's aide: "The neighborhood people didn't think it was going to be an issue. They didn't think it would be necessary to go out lobbying for this."
It's unclear why Mizel is putting so much effort into influencing the overlay district for a two-acre plot. Michael Sheldon did not return several phone calls. Mizel, through his secretary, referred calls to another of his attorneys, Steve Farber, who could not be reached for comment.
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According to DeGroot and Hendrixson, the city planner, Sheldon has said his concern is that Mizel's Colorado Boulevard property is narrower than most. As a result, he contends that when he redevelops the land a ten-foot setback would take too large a chunk out of it and, presumably, lower its value. (Neighborhood rumors have Mizel building a McDonald's restaurant on the site. But in a letter to the city, Sheldon wrote that a fast-food stop was only one consideration.)
Mizel "feels that with a strip commercial development such as his, being as close to the street as possible is an advantage," says Hendrixson. "And we feel that ten feet is not burdensome."
The eleventh-hour campaign against the zoning overlay district seems to be working, at least in delaying the project. DeGroot has postponed a late-December public hearing until sometime early next year. She adds that she doesn't know when the plan will make it to city council for a final vote.