A “Train Wreck” in Southwest Littleton…Coming Soon?

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By Don Bruns

Many have long puzzled over how things became so disjointed in the world of planning, especially for land use, management and master plans. A main reason why is that the real world is not at all so disjointed. Biologists have a handy metaphor for walled-off compartmentalization of the real world, the “territorial imperative.” In human society, it’s commonly called “turf.” People like to stake out territory, protect and defend it.

Pros and Cons of Walled-Off Turf
Among many reasons for territorialism, not all are bad. No one can be equally knowledgeable about all subjects across the board. So administrators commonly create departments to help staffs address various bite-sized components of the real world that lies beyond their office walls.

Yet real world complexity and interconnectedness is seldom reflected in the ways that inter- and intra-office planning and staffing is structured and functionally integrated. While it’s much easier for a single entity to plan independent from outside influencers and affecting providers, consideration of their actions through collaborative engagement is critically important to ensure success. Especially if success is measured in terms of maintaining desirable conditions and delivering satisfying end-results to those being served.

Other “turf” results from each organizational unit’s sense of mission, including its administratively conveyed sense of empowerment. Among local governments in particular, this is where planning particularly gets messy. When special interests walk on stage from outside organizations bringing funding with them to achieve their own ends. Another, less conspicuous but even more troubling, is when special interests find their way to sit at the table by masquerading as public officials.

Among Littleton’s city departments are separate organizational units for Community Development, Economic Development, Public Works, Human Resources, and Communications among others. Conspicuous by their absence are any units responsible for Community Stewardship and Natural Resource Management. The short answer seems to have been that South Suburban Parks and Recreation (SSPR) does that natural resource piece. For all the good SSPR does, its scope of influence is nonetheless limited. There appears to be no department or departments charged with responsibility for maintenance of neighborhood community character and the stewardship of natural/open space resources. This however is critical for balancing the well-orchestrated efforts of community and economic development departments. This deficiency is particularly problematic in the world of planning—in all of its phases: comprehensive, land use and master plans.

Needed: More Broadly Focused Plans & Key Affecting Provider Engagement
Several of these problems are manifested in the city’s current approach to plans underway for both South Platte Park (SPP) and the Mineral Light Rail Station. In the case of SPP, significant offsite challenges have surfaced in the park’s management plan update process that lie well beyond the scope of SPP managers, its planning process, and the purview of SSPR as well. This leaves SPP managers caught between the proverbial “rock and hard spot.”

In the case of the Mineral Station plan, the city is in control of what that effort does to SPP. However this plan’s scope of work was evidently not designed to ensure that whatever happens at that site—including new trails being considered as “low hanging fruit” to SPP across the RTD site and its environs (although favored by many)—would not introduce further crowding on Park trails, reduce visitor safety and adversely impact park experiences and resources.

Until and unless the city engages other significant affecting providers and influencers within both planning efforts, it is extremely unlikely that either plan will optimize benefits and avoid adverse impacts generated off-site. And these could well be substantial and irretrievable.

Mineral Station Plan Threatens to Adversely Impact South Platte Park
More specifically, the Mineral Light Rail Station planning effort appears to have been structured without regard to the pressing need to address its sizeable adverse impacts. It is now clear that these include direct impacts from the kinds of commercial and retail development favored by the city, RTD and DRCOG to SPP environs, to its visitors and to affected neighborhoods in particular. Transit Oriented Development (TOD)—this planning effort’s focus—and any new two and three-story structures would further obstruct highly valued views to this unique floodplain park. Looking at things from the inside out, park aesthetics and experiences would be compromised from the urbanization’s impact on natural countryside. Value-wise, planned developments risk exchanging public resource integrity for privately owned visual park access from the new developments.

Inadequate Planning Frameworks and Approaches
For the Mineral Light Rail Station planning effort, it is evident that development interests funded by RTD and DRCOG helped set the stage. Initially billed as a master plan, its scope falls far short of what is required for such plans. The planning contract focuses narrowly on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and limits the areal scope to one-quarter mile of the RTD site. That pre-decisional determination, made even before any planning was done and any public input was sought, is unwise. Primary issues facing this effort—confirmed by public feedback and Planning Commission dialogue—are the enormous threat that urbanization of this site holds for SPP and affected neighborhoods. Also is a failure to address what publics have identified as even greater challenges: inadequate on-site parking and yet unresolved Mineral-Santa Fe traffic congestion.

Most significant challenges to South Platte Park’s public service delivery system and its stewardship appear to originate off-site. Besides planned urbanization of Mineral Station, there is the challenge of how to manage public use originating beyond the City of Littleton. Of course these challenges lie beyond the purview of SPP and SSP&R, but not that of Littleton’s City Council and its Planning Commission. It is therefore unthinkable that the critical need for an expanded planning framework that collaboratively engages other municipalities to address their effects on the Park and its users could have been overlooked. Even greater geographic and socio-political on- and off-site challenges face the Mineral Station planning effort, especially traffic and parking.

Because both plans are being done by Littleton, independent the involvement of other affecting providers, it does not seem unreasonable to conclude that they are insufficiently comprehensive for adequately addressing all critically important key influencers and their effects.

Community Engaged but the Window for Corrective Action is Closing
It is heartening to have seen several citizens bring key issues before the City, but definitive action is urgently needed to avoid that proverbial “train wreck.” Citizens appreciate that the Acting City Manager in particular and some staff as well have begun to wrestle with this situation. But City Council itself must not remain disengaged.

Absent significant changes to both planning efforts, adverse, irreversible and irretrievable impacts to South Platte Park and those it serves seem certain. Yet none of them are being adequately addressed. Neither are adverse impacts to Santa Fe-Mineral traffic, affected neighborhood character, and even Aspen Grove. The most imminent threat is the out-of-character development being envisioned for Mineral Station. Out of character with the Park and affected communities and out of touch with supply-demand realities of light rail commuter travel. Even area retail business enterprise and values held dear by Littleton’s citizens are sure to be adversely impacted unless the conceptual framework for this plan is significantly altered.

There is far too much at risk to imagine that current plans and conceptual planning frameworks will somehow avoid these impacts. Citizens can only hope that City Council will act expeditiously.

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Did You Know: Historic Preservation Board Says No to Littleton Mixed Use

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Littleton has a long history as an agricultural community but did you know we once were the home of Centennial Racetrack? Just north of Bowles on the west side of the river Centennial Racetrack attracted audiences for 33 years before closing in 1983. Little remains from the horse racing days in Littleton and the demolition of the Valley Feed and Supply at the end of Main Street marks another rite of passage from those days.

Paul Sutton opened his Valley Feed and Supply in 1936 and provided the farmers in the area feed for their livestock and when the racetrack opened it was only natural that his business would serve the racetrack. Today the racetrack is long gone and Valley Feed is no longer. Paul’s son, Gary, retired recently and sold the prime piece of real estate in downtown Littleton and everyone has waited to learn how it would be redeveloped.

The wait was over in December when plans were presented to the Planning Commission for a very attractive but very big (four stories high) project named Littleton Mixed Use. Although staff recommended a denial the Planning Commission approved a conditional rezoning of the property. The condition imposed required the applicant to get a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) from the Historic Preservation Board, (HPB) which had many scratching their heads – how could a new building be historic? But we have seen dirt designated historic in downtown Littleton so…………..

On December 19, 2016 HPB found that “revisions to the proposed design are necessary to bring the application into compliance with the criteria for a COA.” (Staff Report to HPB dated 1/18/2017) On January 19th HPB once again held a public hearing on the project that had been slightly redesigned in an attempt to garner favor for approval. The meeting attracted several citizens from several different areas of the city to testify why the project did not warrant the COA. The applicant, the owner and the owner’s partner in LaVaca testified in favor of the project.

Even though the staff recommended approval after hours of testimony and deliberation the HPB voted to deny the COA based on the following criteria not being met:
1. Parking lots shall be located at the rear of the building and side parking lots shall be avoided along Main Street. (this designed had a side parking lot)
2. Buildings shall be designed to provide human scale, interest and variety while maintaining an overall sense of relationship with adjoining or nearby buildings. (the four stories was not in relationship with the adjoining buildings)
3. Proposed buildings on Main Street higher than two stories shall step back the upper story so only 25% or less of the upper floors is visible to the pedestrian from the center sidewalk directly across the street. (HPB did not believe this standard was met)
4. It is not visibly compatible with the development on adjacent properties. (The mass, size, scale and height were issues)

But the story has not concluded. The applicant has options. They can, according to the city:

1. Appeal to the city council to over-rule the HPB
2. Submit a revised plan to HPB again for review/approval
3. Ask the Planning Commission to remove the PDO (Planned Development Overlay) and build under the B2 zoning code which would require the parking and open space regulations of B2 zoning to be met.

Even though the story is not over, we commend the HPB for a thorough review of the criteria as it pertained to the project and having the resolve to vote their own conscience rather than follow the staff recommendation.

Grove Lawsuit Update

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By Leah Burkett

This is just a quick note to let you know that appeal proceedings are underway in the legal case against the City of Littleton and the Grove Project.  We still believe that Judge Horton (Arapahoe County 18th Judicial) got it wrong when he decided the case in Littleton’s favor in September 2016.

To recap, in October 2015, a legal complaint was filed seeking judicial determination of whether Littleton’s code allows neighboring property owners the right to challenge a staff zoning decision (through a hearing at the city’s Board of Adjustment).  After nearly a year of litigation, Judge Horton ruled in September a neighbor did not have that right. We immediately asked the judge to reconsider his ruling with a formal motion for reconsideration, but in November 2016 Judge Horton again ruled against us again (this time without any further explanation).

A notice of appeal was filed on December 29, and is just the beginning stage of the appeal process.  Once the court creates an appeal record, briefs will be filed and ultimately the case will come before a panel of 3 judges who will either uphold Judge Horton’s original ruling or overrule it.

The entire appeal process is likely to drag on for at least another year, so unfortunately Zocalo’s project will be nearing completion by the time a decision is reached, one way or another.  Even if we win the appeal, most likely the Grove will be here to stay.  Still… we must follow through and win this battle to make sure a story like this cannot happen again, here in Littleton or elsewhere.  It is the principle of the matter and it is an important cause to keep fighting for.

We will continue to keep you posted as this next stage of litigation unfolds.  Thank you again for your interest and ongoing support –  we could never have made it this far if it weren’t for all of you.  Thank you so very much!

PS – We plan to organize a large garage sale this Spring to raise funds toward legal costs of appealing this matter.  Please consider hanging onto any items that could be donated to Advocates for Littleton for sale at our event. Details to follow once the event is fully planned!

In the meantime, we are still happily accepting donations toward legal costs through our online fundraiser at www.gofundme.com/fightthegrove or by mail to PO Box 620253, Littleton CO 80162

Colorado Finance and Housing Authority (CHFA) Presents to Council in Conjunction with Littleton Crossing Development

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By Deanna Cook
(Council Study Session ID# 17-25. See More High Density for Downtown Littleton for the back story.)

In a nutshell: CHFA’s representative, Tasha Weaver, made CHFA look foolish.  She admitted they rarely hear from the public and that our opposition, while “unprecedented” and the likes of which CHFA has “never seen before”, was ignored by them in their decision-making. She stated she ‘bundled up’ the Petition and numerous letters and emails and gave them to the CHFA Voting Committee. According to CHFA’s own inside attorney, the Summit application documents provided to the Voting Committee for a final decision did not include our opposition. It did, however, include what CHFA called ‘support’ that CHFA itself sought out and by notifying South Metro Housing Authority which then, in return for hearing about the project, provide a letter of support to Summit.

Weaver confirmed CHFA’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) goals in 2016 were for four specific types of projects for extreme needs such as the homeless, special needs persons, low population areas and disaster area victims. Summit’s project did not fall into any of those categories.  She also confirmed when LIHTC properties are found to be non-compliant after construction and occupied, they have never sued any of those developers or investors. Further, after Summit sells as planned at year 15, there appears to be very little oversight or control for the next 40 years. In this case the original developer and investors will be gone. CHFA looks at ‘vacancy’ rates but no specific low income housing needs. They don’t even investigate what other low income housing already exists in a community. Downtown Littleton currently supports a very high percentage of low income housing.

The City Council advised CHFA its process was “flawed” and essentially chastised it for ignoring the public voice and dropping down a 55-year low income project without involving the City which is tasked with managing the dispersing of socioeconomic properties and zoning and also taking into account that properties like Littleton Crossing may even be exempt from paying sales and use or property taxes to the City.

During council discussion, it was brought up that this piece of property may have been illegally rezoned. The zoning change required an approximately 4 acre plot whereas it is only 43,000 squ ft. The City Council ended with a plan that they would delay as much as possible to review the potential improper zoning issue.

Legal counsel has been retained by various community members – including residents and business owners.

For the Record: Urbanization of Littleton’s Suburbs Outruns Citizen Support

By Don Bruns
Across much of Littleton there is growing concern about adverse effects of urbanized development.  Much of that new development appears wildly out of character from its surroundings, bio-physically as well as socio-culturally.  In other words, it includes intrusive architectural designs, disproportionate structural scales, and undesirable changes to the human environment.  Impacts show up as disappearing green space, loss of neighborhood community character, growing crime, and mounting costs of associated infrastructure maintenance and community services.Although results are readily observable, entities responsible for development approvals exhibit an alarming disregard for the primary reasons why so many Littleton residents choose to live here—young and old alike.  Unlike those driving the urbanization “growth machine,” a great many citizens still like the Littleton that brought them here.  Their concern about the erosion of Littleton’s defining character is therefore understandable.

Real-world evidence suggests that much of Littleton’s development activity is geared primarily towards bringing higher residential density.  The pro-growth passion seems to be driven by non-residents and locals mostly interested in immediate cash flow to stay out of the “red.”  This shows up in several ways.  One is the sizable grants and contributions flowing from the U.S. Treasury and pro-growth associations that make it possible.  Both the real estate and construction industry have become skilled at partnering with regional funding conduits.  DRCOG (Denver Regional Council of Governments), RTD (Regional Transportation District) and CML (Colorado Municipal League) are also effective partner advocates for the growth and development industry.

Something yet more disconcerting may lie at the root of the transformative urbanization movement.  Some representatives of powerful pro-growth organizations seem to have assumed public decision-making positions as elected officials and as members of various local boards and commissions.  But how could anyone know that?  Simply by watching how people act and vote, not by what they say.  Seldom, in such capacity, do those committed to the development industry exhibit as much enthusiasm for maintaining community character and mitigating adverse impacts to citizens’ quality of life as they do for advancing urbanization and the development industry.

The current passion for urbanization of Littleton’s defining suburban character has far outrun available evidence for doing it.  That drive instead appears too often to be only a surrogate for promoting local economic stability.  Affected citizens therefore need to become more adept at recognizing what is actually going on.

Before it is too late, many more citizens need to become involved in holding municipal representatives and officials accountable for responding to their interests, rather than those of the development industry.  But only if the people want to keep what they most value about Littleton—the character of its neighborhoods, its parks and open space resources, its downtown historic district, the character of its varied communities, and their residents’ quality of life.

How to get involved?  See dates and times for Littleton’s regularly scheduled meetings, study sessions and agendas for each at http://www.littletongov.org/connect-with-us/city-leadership/meeting-videos-documents.  The city’s website states: “The public is invited to attend all regular meetings and study sessions of the Littleton City Council or any city board, authority, commission, or public program.  Individuals can speak before each regular meeting in council chambers at 2255 W. Berry Avenue for three minutes each, and comments may be sent to members of each body.  See http://www.littletongov.org/connect-with-us/city-leadership/city-council-members for City Council and http://www.littletongov.org/connect-with-us/city-leadership/authorities-boards-commissions/planning-board for Planning Commission members. Learn more at http://www.littletongov.org. Citizens can make a difference—you really can!

Gardening: A Fungus Among Us

By Betty Haris

In the Blue Mountains of Oregon lives the largest single living organism on earth. It covers over 3 square miles of land but is 1 cell thick but eats everything it touches. It girdles trees and prevents water and nutrients from moving up and down the trees. DNA testing confirms that it is one organism. Based on its rate of growth the age is estimated to be between 2000 and 8000 yrs old. Its scientific name is Armillaria. And its common name is honey mushroom which is quite safely edible and also is called shoestring fungus.

This also exits in Michigan and Germany but the largest one discovered so far is this one in Oregon. It has been studied for over 40 yrs and the methods to remove it have been too expensive for lumber companies to do it because every little string of it has to be removed from the soil. The department of Natural Resources are experimenting with trees which may be able to live with the fungus instead.

Its main purpose seems to be recycling of trees for its own benefit. While this helps birds and other wildlife it does destroy a lot of trees. And it’s pretty obvious that if one wanted to grow trees in this area it would have to be a variety that the fungus doesn’t eat. Since evidence has been shown that fungi can be trained to live on just one food source it could be hard to find one this fungus couldn’t adapt to eating to survive.

It seems that fungi are totally focused on surviving (go figure) and take a long view of what survival means. They are extremely efficient in detoxifying the world around them. Would that we were that concerned about detoxifying the rest of the world.

On the farm we never mulched anything so when I started using wood mulch here I noticed some odd looking yellow fungus that was “creepy” to my human mind. Later I learned that this was in fact an important organism to help break down organize matter. Now I find that fungi help trees talk to each other and that some trees end up being parent or nurse trees and they send messages and food to seedlings of their own species but not others. Are you not amazed yet?

There are many places we don’t want fungi, like in your mouth which is called thrush (a recent 2 week treatment for H. Pylori left me with a bad case of it) or in your eyes, etc. In our bodies this needs to be treated. But there are many places that we do need fungi because of the benefits they provide. Besides some of them being edible like mushrooms they provide other important services to planet life.

We seem to suffer from microphobia – an irrational fear of fungi. As a result we end up destroying an organism that can actually save plant and animal life. It is time to understand our environment better. So how do fungi work?

Recently I brought this up to a group that is highly interested in food and farming, gardening, etc. and they gave me a blank look when I mentioned mycorrhizae. That’s when it occurred to me that we humans have been mostly ignorant of fungi in relation to plants and other life on the planet.

Plants and fungi do not have mouths and stomachs like most other species so to survive they do what they do best which is absorb nutrients and water from the soil and swap it to plants for food (sugars made from plants photosynthesis). So these mushrooms/fungi create great massive underground networks called hyphae which attach to plant roots and then put out tiny hair like filaments that reach far into the soil increasing the surface area of plant roots up to a thousand times. These mycorrhizal filaments produce compounds that improve soil structure and make it more porous. These same mycorrhizae decrease soil-borne pathogens and protect plants from root disease. These fungi are not fertilizers even though they serve the purpose of increasing growth and tolerance for drought and disease.

Mycorrhizae help plants by breaking down hard-to-reach nutrients in the soil and assisting with water retention (remember those water issues we’re concerned about?) Mycorrhizal fungi excrete unique enzymes and antibiotics that support plant health offering increased disease resistance. Because the mycorrhizae support plant health, they are most effective as preventative treatments with regard to disease organisms.

In our attempts to grow things we can over-water, over-fertilize and use too many fungicides which can eliminate mycorrhizae usefulness or even kill the fungi. As microbiologists and others learn more about these organisms it has become possible to buy mycorrhizae from nurseries and landscapers. Often these mycorrhizal fungi are mixed with other beneficial organic matter. As far as learning about how to grow more with less inputs we are way behind. What we know so far is that most commercial fertilizers kill many of the soil critters. What happens if we don’t figure out in time which are the most important players and find a way to preserve them? What can we do now before we learn all we need to know?

While we are learning we need to help build the right fungi in our garden soils so we can grow more food under changing circumstances. Evidence shows fungi help clean up pollution, which we humans seem to excel at creating. Our actions of tilling or excavating, covering the soil with pavement, adding chemical soil fumigation or fungicides and applying high phosphorus fertilizers is detrimental to us and the planet. If we just figured out how to use mycorrhizae we’d not need to use much fertilizer at all. Imagine what we’d save in money along with significantly less pollution.

Life on earth for humans was improved when early people learned to create fire but it really stepped up when they learned to carry fire with them from place to place in a mushroom called Amadou. Mushrooms are trail followers and the Amadou spread along trails made by animals and humans than in the rest of the forest. The same thing happens with most all fungi and or mushrooms. It seems that as humans and animals travel about we shed fungi. And we thought we’d bathed well before starting that hike.

Plants cannot exist without fungi. There are fungi that are parasitic meaning they exist on a host and eat it as they break down materials in plants. Some act as shields that protect plants such as trees, some do not break down dead trees but live in the dead matter when other fungi have broken it down.

We are more closely related to fungi than to any other life on this planet so when someone says you are a monkey’s uncle you can tell them that you’re mostly fungi – don’t tell them about the pond scum until you get to know them better.

Fungi eat rocks to get to the minerals in them. We live on this tiny rock (tiny compared to the universe) covered with a thin layer of soil that harbors fungi which sweat water as it eats rocks to get at minerals it needs and then shares with plants that use photosynthesis to make sugars that it trades with the fungi.
Mushrooms are the spore (seed) producing part of a fungus. Like all living things mushrooms can have many different shapes and colors depending on the variety. Some mushrooms are very edible and some are poisonous or simply just don’t taste good.
So how do we use mycorrhizae where we live? The research done by Paul Stamets and others show that seeds that are sprouted in the presence of mycorrhizae grow much larger faster and end up with significantly larger root system which then produces larger plants and trees, etc. They wondered how hemlock trees growing around the base of massive old growth trees could get enough sunlight to grow. So they took some of them to a greenhouse and gave them the same amount of light and the trees died relatively quickly. Their work showed that other trees of other species outside the old growth area were sending nutrients via mycorrhizae through the soil. Fungi take apart the residue of life and create soil. Sounds sorta like neighbors helping each other doesn’t it?