Change of Plans

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When construction started in 1959, more than 15,000 people visited the first five show homes and deluged the Perl-Mack staff with sales. The concept of suburbia as its own functioning center -- rather than a mere addendum to an urban core -- was heralded as visionary. Magazines such as Look, along with the National Association of Homebuilders, cited the development as an amazing innovation. In 1962, the same year it featured a cover story on how bomb shelters could be decorated to accommodate houseguests, LIFE declared North Glenn "the most perfect planned community in America."

"We were the first family to move in on our street," Mott recalls, but others quickly followed. "At the time, there was only one other house north of us, and there was a big lake and no houses around that lake. And it wasn't too long until the old farmer who owned it sold the lake and all the area around it. So they drained it and tore up all the trees and built houses up there."

Most of those houses held young families with children. Lots and lots of children. "I just remember that there were kids everywhere," Mott says. "Our kids had lots of playmates. They loved the big back yards. They dug tunnels and built forts and all kinds of stuff back then."

The initial development a success, Perl-Mack began focusing on the west side of the highway, building more high-end homes there. "We were building about 1,000 houses a year," Perlmutter says. With more residents came the retailers, the office space and the crown jewel of Perl-Mack's plan: the Northglenn Mall. The enclosed shopping center opened in 1968, the same day that massive Cinderella City opened on the other side of Denver, in suburban Englewood.

The area was still unincorporated at the time, and residents' groups opposed the efforts of nearby Thornton to annex it. In 1969, the Colorado Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing "North Glenn" to form its own city. With 27,937 residents, Northglenn immediately became the largest population center in Adams County. The Northglenn Mall attracted up to 100,000 shoppers a week and provided as much as 45 percent of the new city's sales-tax revenue. And Perl-Mack soon moved on, opening the Southglenn Mall in what is now Centennial in 1974, the same year it started the Montbello housing development in northeast Denver.

In 1976, Northglenn adopted an official city song, "Our Glenn," a ditty that went to the tune of "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue": "Several years ago/No way to grow/Now we've built a City for show/Then everybody loved our Glenn..." The lyrics spoke to the optimism that officials had for their thriving municipality. But in 1977, the Westminster Mall opened seven miles to the east.

"The Northglenn Mall was wonderful when it was first built, but after a number of years, it started to decline," remembers Mott. "JC Penney pulled out and went to Westminster because it was bigger and better and newer." As more shoppers and retailers moved to the new mall, the Northglenn facility began to struggle. By 1997, only 20 percent of its space was leased, and its sales-tax contribution had fallen to a meager 7 percent of Northglenn's budget.

Northglenn might have avoided the sales-tax crunch early on by annexing new land to accommodate future growth, as neighboring Thornton and Westminster had done for decades. This enabled those suburbs to diversify their retail and housing stock (and the income of their residents) as they continually added newer, larger homes. In fact, Thornton and Westminster managed to push boundaries right up to and around Northglenn, effectively choking off Perl-Mack's perfect town.

Jordan Perlmutter and Company, the descendant of the original Perl-Mack group, repurchased the near-vacant Northglenn Mall in 2001, only to tear it down and redevelop the property into the big-box Northglenn Marketplace. Smaller shopping centers have deteriorated, too; the Garland Shopping Center now houses a head shop, a pawnshop, a tattoo parlor, a liquor store and the Bingo Barn. But failing strip malls are mostly symptoms of decline, not causes.

"People are leapfrogging Northglenn," says Kathie Novak, a native of the suburb who spent ten years on the Northglenn City Council before becoming mayor in 2002. "So the question is, how do you get your sales-tax revenues to increase with the same population? Well, you either have to increase the tax rates or you increase the purchases. And if your retail centers are dying and going from restaurants and stores to nonprofits and churches, you have the same problem that central cities faced thirty years ago."

An attempt to draw higher-income residents by building a $32 million recreation center -- complete with two ice rinks and an indoor turf field -- was narrowly voted down by Northglenn voters in 2005. Mott now works part-time at the Northglenn Library, which is small and outdated. She's miffed that voters declined a proposed sales-tax increase to build a replacement and that the city council wouldn't give any land to a new branch. She says the library district might move the branch to Thornton, leaving Northglenn without a library.

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Jared Jacang Maher

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