Development at Santa Fe and Mineral could get green light

Public hearing will set next steps for residential, retail plan; traffic is big concern

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A public hearing could soon give the green light to housing and retail development on one of Littleton’s largest remaining parcels of open land.

City council will decide on April 20 whether to approve a rezoning proposal from Evergreen Devco, a Denver-based developer with plans to build hundreds of apartments, senior housing units and several commercial establishments on the Ensor property at the southwest corner of Mineral Avenue and Santa Fe Drive.

Evergreen bought the 33-acre parcel for $6.5 million in 2017, but sought to amend the site’s zoning, established in 1985, which mandated commercial development beside the South Platte River and residential uses beside Santa Fe Drive.

2018:  Developer proposes mixed-use project for Ensor property

Evergreen wants to reverse that, saying residential uses make more sense beside the quiet river, while commercial uses should be placed beside the highway where they can be seen and accessed by drivers.

If the plan is approved, Evergreen hopes to build a development called Riverpark, featuring 270 multifamily residential units, a 170-bed senior housing facility, two anchor stores, two restaurants, three “quick-service” restaurants, three shops and one gas station.

Click here to review documents submitted to city officials

The rezoning proposal, originally slated to go before council in 2019, has been repeatedly pushed back as city staff have undertaken a lengthy analysis of the project’s impact on traffic and the city’s economic health.

2019: Development in the works at Mineral and Santa Fe

“This has been the longest entitlement I’ve ever been involved in,” said Tyler Carlson, a managing partner at Evergreen, referring to the process of seeking development rights. “As a result, it’s also become the most collaborative. This is an important parcel, and we want to work with the city to get it right.”

Traffic woes

The intersection of Mineral and Santa Fe, among the most congested in the city, is the biggest challenge. City officials have said they would ultimately like to build a “grade-separated interchange” with off-ramps like the Belleview exit a few miles north.

That idea, however, is likely years away and will require tens of millions of dollars in investment from numerous government entities, said City Manager Mark Relph.

In the meantime, city officials want to buy time with a “quad road” through Evergreen’s site to bypass the intersection. A sort of mini-beltway, the road would replace the left turn from northbound Santa Fe onto westbound Mineral, routing it through the development.

Carlson called the quad road idea “a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s a blessing for the retail component, because it will bring more traffic through, but it’s more noise and traffic for the residential component,” he said. “It also eats up some of the developable land.”

The city has already secured a $9 million grant from the Denver Regional Council of Governments to build the quad road, Relph said. In the future, the city also hopes to build another quad road section on the northwest corner of the intersection, though that idea faces far greater hurdles because it would need to cut through the RTD Mineral Station parking lot, which already faces capacity challenges.

No amount of asphalt will solve traffic problems at the site, Relph said.

“You can’t build your way out of congestion,” he said. “It has to be balanced against other modes of transit.”

The city is participating in a years-long intergovernmental study of the entire Santa Fe corridor through the Denver metro area, with hopes of eventually proposing more holistic solutions along the highway.

Park it right

In efforts to encourage transportation methods other than cars and minimize surface parking, city staff have recommended that the development be limited to not more than two parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of retail space and half a parking space per dwelling unit.

Carlson called the parking proposal unworkable.

“Nobody has half a car,” he said, saying the stipulation seemed to be designed to force Evergreen to build a parking garage or underground parking, which he said would cause costs to skyrocket.

“We want to keep rents low so the residences can appeal to the broadest number of people, which will help keep it occupied, but we can’t do that if we have to spend so much building parking,” he said. “We can’t live with that condition. If council approves this with that parking requirement, nothing will get built. The project hangs in the balance on that issue.”

Competing pressures

The project’s mix of residential and commercial development lies at the intersection of competing pressures in Littleton. Because city revenues rely heavily on sales tax, city planners hope to maximize money-generating uses. But recent years have also seen calls to boost the city’s stock of different housing types, seeking to fill a shortage of starter housing.

“This does add to the housing stock,” Relph said. “As we look to the future, we’ll largely look toward building additional housing along major corridors, so it works with that too. Affordability is another issue — we won’t be evaluating this project on housing affordability.”

The city currently has no adopted affordable housing standards, Relph said, nor does it have any legal mechanism to require or subsidize below-market-rate housing.

The city’s 2019 comprehensive plan calls for the city to facilitate building more than 6,500 new housing units by 2040. The plan will form the basis of the Universal Land Use Code, a total overhaul of city zoning expected to be ratified this October. Because Riverpark was initiated in 2017, Evergreen is seeking to have the project grandfathered in under the current zoning and code structure.

“Vesting those property rights helps us keep things predictable,” Carlson said. “There’s nothing the development world dislikes more than unpredictability.”

An economic analysis by city staff also determined that the proposed senior housing facility on the site would do little for city revenue, prompting staff to call for a revenue sharing agreement requiring Evergreen to pay a fee of $120 a month per occupied unit in the facility.

Three-quarters of the fee would go to the city, with the other quarter going to the Riverpark metro district. Carlson said the revenue sharing plan has been “blessed by all parties involved.”

Carlson said Evergreen is excited about the project.

“I think this will truly become a gathering place for Littleton,” he said.

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