Nearly 30% of the vehicles that travel along the University Boulevard corridor each day do not stop or start their drive in Centennial, instead rolling through the city as “pass-through” traffic, according to Centennial city staff.
Meanwhile, the city has faced vacancies in its shopping centers on that major road — and a need for more sales-tax revenue.
One way to address that problem: Take the existing traffic along University and hopefully divert some of it to the shopping centers by allowing more drive-thru restaurants.
That's the decision the city council made on July 19, taking the first set of what may be several rounds of steps to enact policies that aim to economically boost Centennial's major retail corridors.
The city has pointed to what it calls the “retail revolution,” noting the trend of consumers buying more products online and spending money on experiences rather than traditional goods.
It's a shift that poses a threat to “cities like Centennial, cities very common in Colorado that rely heavily on sales-tax revenue to provide service, spurring us to respond to these changes and make sure that we're preparing for (the) future retail changes within our centers,” Neil Marciniak, Centennial's economic development director, said during the city council meeting.
City staff's recommendations about allowing drive-thrus — and about making changes to how other types of developments move forward — arose out of a planning process intended to revitalize University and other corridors in the city. Five were to be studied: University first, followed by Smoky Hill Road, County Line Road, Arapahoe Road and the Interstate 25 corridor. The order was subject to change. Generally, the city planned to examine the full length of the five corridors within the city's boundaries.
The city began studying the University corridor in 2019 by interacting with shopping center owners, analyzing trends and market factors, and conducting a survey of shoppers' experiences in the corridor.
The city council's July 19 decision allows shopping centers roughly between Arapahoe and County Line roads to have one stand-alone drive-thru and one attached — or “endcap” — drive-thru. Endcap spaces sit at the end of multi-tenant buildings where different uses, such as retail or office, could occupy the same building.
The new rules allow a total of two drive-thrus in any one center — but overall, the city limited the number of drive-thrus to seven among the University corridor centers.
The existing Burger King in the University Towne Center area would count toward that total, so the city could eventually see six new drive-thrus under the new rules, Marciniak said.
There are some exceptions: The new drive-thrus could only locate in areas with Activity Center zoning and a certain designation called a “Neighborhood Activity Center” title, according to a city staff report.
On the west side of University, the Woodley's furniture store area doesn't meet that definition and would not be allowed to have a drive-thru restaurant, according to city staff. The changes to the University corridor also do not apply to The Streets at SouthGlenn outdoor mall, which falls under different zoning.
And due to the constraints of the existing buildings and land uses along University — along with the city's new “tough standards” drive-thru developers must meet — Marciniak would be “amazed if we saw six new restaurants with drive-thru in this corridor for some time well into the future,” he said.
The city hopes adding drive-thrus to the University corridor will pump more activity into the shopping centers, a change that could lead to “incremental redevelopment” and “potentially catalyze development of multi-tenant retail buildings,” according to an earlier city staff report.
The city's July 19 ordinance also changed certain guidelines and standards for other types of development elsewhere in Centennial.
“The amendments are going to push retailers, going to push developers, to deliver high-quality spaces, high-quality redevelopment to the City of Centennial,” Marciniak said.
The city updated its definition for “mixed use” and the Activity Center zone district language, aiming to prioritize pedestrian connectivity and to describe a clear intent for mixed uses to “create remarkable places,” according to the July 19 city staff report.
The term “mixed use” refers to areas where a combination of residential and commercial spaces — or different commercial spaces together, such as office and retail — are located on the same development, according to Centennial's earlier definition.
When people think of mixed use, they often think of residential space above and commercial uses on the first floor, Marciniak said. But that's “the most difficult type of mixed-use development to pull off in a suburban area,” he added.
The city's new definition “contemplates horizontal form,” meaning individual buildings adjacent to each other with those mixed uses, Marciniak said.
Activity Center zone districts are intended to provide for mixed-use developments, according to the earlier city staff report. Aside from along University, a few other areas in Centennial are Activity Center-zoned and could see changes in future development based on the updated language. But the only location where restaurants with drive-thrus were not allowed that the city's new ordinance now allows is along the University corridor.
The city also updated the design standards — or standards for construction — along the University corridor, including requirements for high-quality materials on building facades and a requirement for “distinctive design elements that are iconic, recognizable and memorable and/or unique to the University corridor,” according to the July 19 city staff report.
Before the vote on the new measures at the July 19 council meeting, officials heard some concerns about traffic.
But generally, restaurants with drive-thrus do not generate “a great deal of new traffic,” Marciniak said.
“They come to corridors, come to areas, where the traffic volumes already support their business,” Marciniak added. The drive-thrus are likely to bring new turn movements into the retail centers, Marciniak said.
He added: “There could be some outliers (there) but generally, we don't believe it's a driver of new traffic to the University corridor.”
Some residents had expressed concern about traffic and pedestrian safety at the southwest corner of University and Dry Creek Road, Marciniak said. Arapahoe High School sits to the north.
The city discussed the issue with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office and asked the office to pull several years' worth of incident data within that area, according to Marciniak. For the sheriff's office, the shopping center's proximity to the high school is not a safety concern, Marciniak said. City officials also heard from the principal of Arapahoe High School, who didn't object to more drive-thrus locating in that area, Marciniak added.
Councilmember Tammy Maurer was the lone “no” voice on the 8-1 vote on the new measures.
In certain areas, “we're setting the developer up to fail,” Maurer said before the vote, pointing to certain proposed design standards that could serve as hurdles to developers. “It would be very difficult for them to meet these requirements.”
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