Aspen Grove could see overhaul

Battered by COVID economy, shopping center in Littleton looks for a restart

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Aspen Grove shopping center in south Littleton could be headed for a total overhaul into a mixed-use residential, retail and office complex, if plans proposed by its owners move forward.

Gerrity Group, which owns the shopping center beside Santa Fe Drive just north of Mineral Avenue, is in the “very early stages” of exploring a sweeping redevelopment, according to a statement and documents filed with the city.

The plans would involve tearing down most of the complex in phases. In its place, Gerrity would like to build a new array of buildings on a grid of streets, combining market-rate high-density housing, retail, office space and possibly a hotel.

“The goal is to create a more sustainable, socially conscious and walkable property that meets the broader community needs,” reads a letter of intent filed with the City of Littleton in late January.

The timeline for the project remains murky. Gerrity's plans would require an amendment to the site's zoning, mandating several public meetings and hearings.

In a January pre-application meeting with city staff, officials recommended Gerrity wait to submit formal plans until after October, when the city's Unified Land Use Code — a new set of zoning regulations — is expected to be ratified, though Gerrity said they may push ahead before that.

Communications for the Gerrity Group are being handled by former Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman, who has been hired on as a consultant for the project.

MORE: Former mayor Brinkman wound up on both sides of development fights

Gerrity plans to hold robust public engagement on the plans and is planning a website with more information, Brinkman said.

Tough times

The 33-acre shopping center, built in 2001 and 2002, consists of a long perimeter of shops around a central parking lot, with anchor stores including Tattered Cover, an Apple Store and Ted's Montana Grill. The center is also home to an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, part of a chain that declared bankruptcy in early March and announced it would permanently close two Texas theaters and a theater in Missouri while keeping other locations operating as they have been.

What would become of current retail tenants will be announced down the line, Brinkman said.

COVID-era shutdowns and restrictions hit the shopping center hard, sales tax receipts show — though even before that, the center appeared to be stagnating.

Annual December sales and use tax receipts, which record one-month numbers from the month prior, show November tax revenue of $213,953 in 2015, climbing to $236,236 in 2018, before dropping back down to $213,025 in 2019 — then plunging to $128,319 in 2020, a year-over-year drop of nearly 40%.

On a recent visit, 12 out of 54 storefronts around the perimeter of the center — nearly a quarter — appeared to be vacant.

“How we shop has changed,” the letter of intent reads. “The convenience of online retail and evolution of the industry has changed the type of real estate retailers demand and the environment customers seek.”

'A sound strategy'

The redevelopment plans could be a good move, said City Manager Mark Relph.

“It was a struggle before, but they've got a real struggle now,” Relph said. “Old-style shopping centers aren't what they used to be. These plans would absolutely be a positive. It's a sound strategy. If done right, I've seen where a residential-retail mix can be spectacular.”

Adding residential units would also meet one of the goals of the city's 2019 comprehensive plan, which called for adding more housing citywide, but with an eye toward protecting older neighborhoods, Relph said.

“Looking at residential along bigger corridors like Santa Fe would help meet that need,” he said.

The comprehensive plan, and a landmark 2017 housing study, also say Littleton suffers a serious deficit of attainable workforce housing, though Relph said the city currently has no legal mechanism to require developers to include below-market-rate units for sale or rent.

Still, maintaining a robust retail environment at Aspen Grove is important to the city, Relph said.

“We need to do everything we can to protect the sales tax base,” he said. “I'm deeply concerned if we don't, the quality of life in Littleton will diminish.”

Aspen Grove accounted for 7.81% of Littleton's sales and use tax revenue in 2019, city records show. Sales taxes make up more than three-quarters of Littleton's general fund.

Traffic troubles

There's also the issue of traffic, however. The intersection of Mineral and Santa Fe is among the most congested in the city, and is the subject of significant long-term planning — and headaches. A proposal to build a flyover interchange could be many years away, with a price tag topping $100 million.

In the meantime, city officials are planning to buy time with a “quad-road” interchange, which would add a sort of mini-beltway around the intersection, cutting through the RTD Mineral Station parking lot and the Ensor property to the southwest — itself targeted for mixed-use development in coming years.

Relph said the Aspen Grove overhaul could be a model for transit-oriented development if properly connected to the Mineral light rail station — a connection he said Aspen Grove sorely lacks at the moment.

“Aspen Grove could be a better position to take advantage of mass transit than almost any other development we have,” he said. “People there wouldn't have to rely on Santa Fe for mobility quite as much.”

The site is bordered on the west by an apartment complex built in 2011 and on the north by a housing development built in the 1980s and 1990s.

'A community asset'

The redevelopment makes sense, said Pat Dunahay, the co-chair of the Littleton Business Chamber.

“I've seen their sales tax numbers,” Dunahay said. “I don't think they have a lot of options but to redevelop.”

Dunahay said the site, close to South Platte Park, the Mary Carter Greenway and Carson Nature Center, could make for a pleasant setting for residents.

“We're excited about this,” he said. “We're interested in Aspen Grove's long-term health.”

The redevelopment could be a benefit to some of the complex's stores, said Jennifer Winslow, who co-owns Red Hen Createry, an eclectic art studio and event space.

“We want to be a community asset, so more residential would be good for us,” she said.

Red Hen opened at Aspen Grove just as COVID shutdowns took effect in March 2020, but Winslow said management helped her persevere.

“They worked with me on rent, and let me paint windows to work some of it off,” she said. “They told me, 'whatever we can do to get you through to next year, just let us know.' I'm glad we're here, and I would love to stay part of a neighborhood here.”

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