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.

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.

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!

Community Upset with Valley Feed Store Redevelopment

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By Robin Swartzbacker

So why are people so upset? Because at the west end of Historic Downtown Littleton’s Main Street, a massive four-story 41,691 sq. ft. lot filling building is proposed to replace the already demolished Valley Feed Store.

To understand why this building is completely wrong for the location, let’s first take a look at the circumstances surrounding it.

On August 22 the project went before the Planning Board (PB – now the Planning Commission), applying for a Planned Development Overlay (PDO), city code 10-9, which would allow for changes to its B-2 zoning requirements. The city planning staff recommended disapproval to the PB. On a 4-3 split PB okayed the PDO, and required the building to join the Main Street Historic District.

The PDO allows for an almost 50% reduction of code required parking spaces. The Historic District allows for this reduction as an enticement to join it.  Considering the lack of parking in downtown Littleton, this incentive should be reconsidered.

So strangely, after a potentially historic building was demolished, on December 19, 2016, the Historic Preservation Board (HPB) heard the application for a Certificate of Historic Appropriateness (COA), city code 4-6-14, to allow a brand new building into the Main Street Historic District, city code 4-6-5, as a non-contributing building. In a nutshell, this means it has no historic significance, but must meet the Littleton Downtown Design Standards and Guidelines. The proposed structure would be shoe-horned in between two single story buildings: Bradford Auto Body and Genuine African Braiding and Boutique, which is next to the truly historic Carnegie Library.

According to the HPB chair, in her seven year tenure on the board, she has never before seen such a large turnout of citizens against a project. In fact, she had the board take a recess so they could read the dissenting emails included in their packet of information for the meeting.

While Littleton’s planner adequately espoused on how the Littleton Downtown Standards and Guidelines were met (city staff analysis starts on pg 6), paradoxically they left out where the redevelopment did not meet the requirements.

From Littleton Downtown Design Standards and Guidelines, Subarea 5 – Main Street, here are a few excerpts of note:

5.1.1 Existing character – Main Street is the location of the Main Street Historic District. It has a simple but powerful urban design form: a straight street lined by one to two story commercial store front buildings framing a view to the west of the old Carnegie library… with the mountains beyond and a view to the east of the old landmarked Arapahoe County Courthouse…  The Main Street Historic District draws its integrity from these important design elements.

5.1.2 Desired character Other gateway elements… may be appropriate, but must not spoil the views of the Courthouse, the mountains, and the Carnegie Library.

5.2.1 Urban Design Obj 4 To coordinate the forms and orientation of buildings to frame views of the old Carnegie library and the mountains beyond…

Unfortunately, this building would not only spoil the view of the mountains and the Carnegie Library, but it also does not frame them – The Melting Pot (old Carnegie Library) is dwarfed and in fact seems to disappear into the horizon, completely negating the entire objective of Main Street’s desired character.

Another potential issue would be 5.2.2 Pedestrian and vehicular access; Obj 2 To minimize conflicts between automobiles, trucks and pedestrians.

At this location, right where Main Street curves toward Santa Fe, exiting traffic would create conflicts between vehicles jockeying to be in the correct lane with little road left to do so. Plus, as there will be much traffic entering and exiting, it could easily cause conflicts between pedestrians and cars. Main Street is highly used by pedestrians.

Finally, under Architecture 5.3.1 Building scale, form, massing and character;

  • Obj 3 To maintain the existing scale of predominantly 1 to 2 story building frontages found along Main Street
  • Obj 7 To moderate scale changes between adjacent buildings
  • Obj 8 To maintain the architectural dominance of the two landmarks at either end of the street (the old Carnegie Library and the old Arapahoe County Courthouse)

As this new four story building would be next to a single story structure to the east (Bradford Auto Body) and is very close to the Old Carnegie Library, its scale and mass would not meet these objectives – it simply towers over its neighbor to the right and left, and dwarfs the old Carnegie Library, the present day Melting Pot.

Unfortunately, from just these few examples it would seem that major objectives of the Littleton Downtown Design Standards and Guidelines simply cannot be met with the present design. The HPB agreed and while not outright denying the COA, asked for a continuance.  Their comments (HPB resolution 02-2016 to approve a COA for a new development at 2679 W Main Street, listen to Public Comments and Board Discussion or read Righting Wrong Done to HPB… ) surrounding the continuance made it clear the building has too many stories, is too massive and does not fit Main Street character under its present configuration.

According to Community Development the next HPB meeting on the Littleton Mixed Use building will be scheduled for January 18th.

“Our oldest assets are at risk of being torn down to make way for higher-density housing.”

This statement could easily have come from a Littleton resident, but it didn’t. Across the Denver metro area communities are struggling to “preserve our heritage.”  Both these quotes are from the Denver Post article Lakewood Looks to Preserve the History of a Neighborhood… Littleton is not unique in its endeavor to maintain its character and view development as a way to benefit the community instead of just the builder. Attention to quality of life is at stake here. It is good and right for people to participate in their government. As we have seen here in Littleton (see article Public Works Collaborates with W Mineral Neighborhoods), when the city and citizens work together great things can happen. Let’s make it that way always.

Pro-development Doesn’t Mean Pro-rampant-growth

By Carol Fey
The phrase “if you’re not growing you’re dying” implies that growth is necessary.  But especially this time of year, after the holidays, it might be a good time to take a fresh look at what growth is.Consider the human body.  For babies and children, growth is expected.  Encouraged.  Normal.

In parallel we could look at brand-new frontier towns like Littleton.  When Littleton was founded on March 13, 1890, it was a newborn.  It needed to grow.   In the early 20th century, Littleton was comparable to a child and then an adolescent.  It still needed to grow.

But somewhere in recent history, Littleton became full-grown.  It’s land-locked.  Littleton is the equivalent of an adult.

We all know—especially this time of year after lots of holiday food indulgence—that adults can still grow.  But for adults, growth is not a cause for celebration.  It’s called “putting on weight.”  To put it bluntly, it’s called “getting fat.”

With a suburb, high density development is the equivalent of getting fat, and as with human beings, no matter how you try to hide it, “it ain’t pretty.”  You can call it whatever you want, but a big ole gut is still a big ole gut.

Just as there seems to be an obesity epidemic in the US with people, there is a high density development epidemic in cities.  As obesity is becoming normal with people, unfortunately, it’s becoming normal in cities as well.  We don’t have to go far up South Broadway to see that Englewood and Denver are allowing high density apartments to stretch out all the way to the sidewalks.  Littleton is following suit with multiple sidewalk-to-sidewalk developments.  Already under construction is the Grove on the east end of downtown Littleton. The proposed replacement for Valley Feed (see story in this issue) would do the same to the west end of downtown Littleton.

Sure, all the other cities are doing high density development.  They are indulging in obesity.  But is that what we want for Littleton?

We want to see Littleton city government manage development like smart people manage their health. High density development without careful planning is like rampant habitual binge eating.  It has huge long-term community health consequences.  Snarled traffic, parking shortages, and inadequate infrastructure are a city’s equivalent to diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.  It makes more sense to prevent them than to try to treat the—or not–after we get them.

There are ways for both cities and adults to develop without blind over-indulgence.  Cities and adults both can learn new things, make new friends, trying to improve themselves, and generally taking their lives in all different directions.

For our beloved city of Littleton, the way to prevent the diseases of high density development is to think before we indulge, and to plan how we want to feel about our city before we gobble up every morsel (of land) in sight.

Who’s First in Littleton–Citizens or Developers?

Recurring conversations among City Council members about private property owner rights—and by extension, those of realtors and developers—to maximize profits have become increasingly alarming.
The subject recently came up when Council discussed the question of building heights downtown.  That conversation concerned citizen desires to maintain downtown’s historic small-town character.  Councilmember Doug Clark suggested that heights could be limited to maintain that character.  But Councilmember Bill Hopping claimed that restricting building height would limit what he called the developers’ right to build a four-story hotel. He added that a limit would require the city to reimburse the developer for lost revenue–because it would be a “taking.”  The city attorney has already told the council that restricting the height would not be a taking of personal property rights.
It is alarming that Council believes that maximization of developers’ profits overrides the will of the citizens of Littleton and the community itself.
We ask, Why does as Council as a whole remain silent?  Why does it allow itself to be represented by  a few Councilmembers who are greater advocates for private developer interests that they are for the the citizens that they were elected to represent?
It is difficult to escape the impression that the silence of the rest of Council indicates an unwillingness to address this crucially important matter.
Unless this situation is rectified, citizens can expect further urbanization of our—still yet, at least in some parts—small-town suburban community character to continue, unabated.