Change of Plans

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The retail drain is a particularly acute problem for Colorado municipalities. Since 1982, when the state adopted the Gallagher Amendment -- which limits the percentage of taxes coming from homeowners' property taxes -- cities have relied on sales taxes for as much as two-thirds of their budgets. This puts leaders in a never-ending race for sales-tax dollars and the shopping destinations that generate them. But the big mall developers are looking for strategic geography that's based not so much on population as on income levels. Retail developers follow the money -- and the money follows the retail developments.

While most of the housing stock in Northglenn is affordable -- about 97 percent fits the guidelines, according to Sullivan -- and accessible to a broad pool of people, that pool is also shallow and could dry up during an economic downturn. A greater diversity of income levels (i.e., more rich people) would mean more disposable income, which would mean more money spent at local retail outlets, which would mean more tax dollars that the city can spend on fixing potholes and buying firefighter uniforms. "But we don't have a balance of housing that we need to attract people to come to the community with a higher income bracket," Sullivan acknowledges. For a town, it's like trying to play a game of Battleship with only tugboats.

And so an inner-ring suburb like Northglenn is stuck both geographically and economically in the middle of everywhere -- and going nowhere. Its housing is too old to be new and too new to be old. Its population isn't affluent enough to draw upscale retailers, but not downtrodden enough to qualify for federal or state renewal dollars.

"So when the city's mothers and fathers take a look at the numbers," Sullivan says, "They say, 'My goodness, is this what's going to happen? How do we intervene?'"

Kathy Mott became an official suburbanite in 1960, when she moved to 11183 Northglenn Drive with her husband and two small children. She was 25 years old; her husband, a Denver native, worked for the Civil Service. They chose the cheapest home North Glenn offered, the "Matchless" model, for $11,700. It had two bedrooms, a 10-by-11-foot kitchen, an unfinished basement and no garage. But no down payment was required, just $400 plus closing costs.

The North Glenn subdivision was a Perl-Mack project, devised by Samuel Primack and Jordan Perlmutter, who'd recently completed their first development of more than a thousand homes near 77th Avenue and Pecos Street, an area now within unincorporated Adams County. The team had been looking for more space to build on, and settled on some land along the recently completed expansion of I-25, then known as the Valley Highway.

"There was a need in the metropolitan area for this type of housing," Perlmutter recalls.

Suburbs were not a new phenomenon; Denver had been sprouting developments of single-family homes along streetcar lines since the 1870s. But the rise of the automobile had provided millions with superior mobility and convenience, and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 would birth another 42,000 miles of new highways, providing access to cheap land outside the city center for completely auto-dependent developments. From 1952 to 1960, the nation invested $100 billion to raise 11 million housing units across the country. With the Federal Housing Administration underwriting new housing and the GI Bill underwriting veterans, families hurried to their little houses on the former prairie.

Many of the post-World War II developments were mass-produced Levittowns: row after row of units laid down on the landscape like plops of cookie dough, with little consideration given to public infrastructure or employment and retail centers. But Perl-Mack wanted North Glenn to be different. The developers mapped out drawings for a functioning regional center with housing, industrial, commercial and retail laid out along a wide-open bucolic landscape. The residential component included parks, neighborhood schools and recreational amenities like swimming pools.

"People weren't planning total communities at that time," says Perlmutter. "It was a new idea."

"It was exciting to move into a brand-new community," Mott remembers.

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Jared Jacang Maher