Boulder's Twenty Ninth Street retail district held its grand opening in mid-October, and thousands of shoppers strolled along the wide sidewalks and plazas, eyeballing the 875,000 square feet of restaurants, specialty retailers and office space. Built at the intersection of 28th Street and Arapahoe Avenue atop the ruins of the 33-year-old Crossroads Mall, the new "lifestyle center" differs from its predecessor in its open-air, pedestrian-friendly "main street style."
The developer is California-based Macerich, one of the largest owners/operators of regional malls in the nation. Macerich wanted to "de-mall" the 62-acre slab and so organized it into "three distinct neighborhoods" and integrated the plot into the city grid. Canyon Boulevard and Walnut Street, two of the town's main thoroughfares, were cut off at the old mall, but they now run through the property, along with the Hop bus lines and bike routes. Even the name of Twenty Ninth Street is a carefully chosen reference to urban neighborhoods like Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive that evolved organically within the fabric of the surrounding community.
But even though the sidewalks, the streets and the plazas borrow from the architecture of public space, they are, in fact, privately owned and governed by Twenty Ninth Street's security team and regulations. "People will think that they are city streets because they're built to those standards," explains Twenty Ninth Street senior property manager Lain Adams, adding that "all the streets are private property, including the sidewalk. So private property rules in Colorado govern." For example, even the uniformed guy directing traffic in the main intersection during the opening was a mall security guard, not a Boulder police officer.
It's deceptive," says Betty Ball of the Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. "It looks like public space, but it's not."
Ten blocks west, downtown Boulder's Pearl Street Mall is one of the most successful central business districts in the nation. On any given day, the publicly owned sidewalks are home to protesters, panhandlers, street performers and others exercising civic rights secured under the First Amendment. But those rights don't extend to Twenty Ninth Street. So what would happen if a protest march -- practically the official team sport of the People's Republic -- were to take a turn down Pearl Street and hey-hey-ho-ho through Twenty Ninth Street's seemingly public roads?
Marketing manager Patti Hazlett had never considered the scenario, but Adams says the corporation has put together an application process for groups who want to demonstrate or petition. "We've obviously given it a lot of thought," Adams says. "It dictates a time, place and manner in which a group could do that." Even so, it puts a private entity in the position of deciding what can be said and where -- and it doesn't take an MBA to know that protests and controversy are not good for sales.
"It'll be really interesting to see how they handle it," says Ball, who remembers when Boulder activists were evicted from FlatIron Crossing (owned by Macerich) property -- including the parking lot -- when they organized a small protest there in honor of Buy Nothing Day.
Former Boulder mayor Will Toor doesn't see Twenty Ninth Street's private roads and property as a huge concern; he argues that there are plenty of other areas in Boulder where citizens can exercise their right to free speech. "Boulder has such a strong downtown that is still the location for very vigorous public protest," he says.
A longtime champion of sustainable urban planning, Toor spent much of his late-'90s tenure focused on the aging Crossroads Mall, which was bleeding tenants and sapping the city's sales-tax coffers. Boulder city leaders envisioned Crossroads redeveloped as an "urban village" that fully integrated shopping and much-needed housing. But in order to make that dense, urban-style development work, Macerich proposed a tax-increment financing plan -- a type of public funding scheme the city had traditionally avoided.
Such a partnership might have earned the city control of the streets, "but it was very difficult to actually make the urban-village concept work financially," says Toor, now a Boulder County Commissioner. "Especially since many major retailers wanted the traditional suburban approach with large amounts of parking. It would basically kill the economics of it for the city."
When the redevelopment finally did move forward, it was funded 100 percent by Macerich. And while there's no housing in its "neighborhoods," there is a possibility that the company will build residences on the site's northwest corner, which is currently a parking lot. "It's not the kind of urban village that we were hoping for and were trying to negotiate five or six years ago. I think it will nonetheless be a pretty important step in the right direction," Toor says of the project, which is expected to generate around $4.25 million in sales-tax revenue in 2007.
Of course, Twenty Ninth Street isn't the only New Urbanist-inspired development to blur the lines between public and private. This month also saw the unveilings of the 300-acre "mixed-use lifestyle village" Southlands in Aurora, and the 1.2 million-square-foot Northfield at Denver's Stapleton, which praises itself as mixing with the "urban tapestry" of the surrounding neighborhoods. Though both have tree-lined boulevards meant to look like normal streets, both properties are wholly owned by private entities, right down to the manhole covers. In 2004, the developers behind Clayton Lane did a tremendous job of filling in a Sears parking lot with shops, restaurant and a hotel so that it would mix with the rapidly urbanizing Cherry Creek. In fact, the continuation of Clayton Street is so good that most people wouldn't know it is controlled by Clayton Street Associates, not the City of Denver.
Lakewood's Belmar development, however, took an entirely different approach when it opened in 2004. Denver-based Continuum Partners built a new downtown on the 105 acres that were once Villa Italia Mall, but the streets, sidewalks and parks are owned by the City of Lakewood and considered public space. The infill project was accomplished with a significant partnership between the developer and the city -- not to mention a complicated public/private financing arrangement. The result is that citizens not only have the ability to window-shop on the sidewalks, but they could also hold a peaceful protest of Victoria's Secret or seek signatures for an anti-abortion measure -- or bum change for a sandwich. Or not.
"By creating public streets, we were saying, 'Look, this framework belongs to the community now -- it doesn't belong to us anymore,'" says Tom Gougeon, chief development officer for Continuum. "We, as the developer, can't decide down the line that we don't want that street anymore; that's the city's decision, the community's.
It's a subtle thing, but public ownership of the streets has a lot of implications about free speech and all kinds of behavior," he continues. "If someone wants to go out and say 'I'm against the war' and they're not bothering anybody or creating a hazard, they can. Because that's what public space is about."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.