BY FREDA MIKLIN
When the City of Centennial devotes eight hours in public meetings over two days to discuss a proposed redevelopment and that redevelopment is the subject of the front-page headline in The Denver Post (December 7), it’s a sign that something significant is changing.
After the original SouthGlenn mall, built in 1974, closed in 2005, the Streets of SouthGlenn (SOS) was rebuilt by Alberta Development Partners between 2007 and 2009. It was one of the area’s first mixed-use developments combining residential, retail, and offices in one place. Although it took a little while to catch on, SOS eventually experienced some success, but that changed in recent years as brick-and-mortar retail stores fell victim to changing purchasing patterns from in-store to online. Large department stores were one of those that were hardest hit in the retail sector, partly because they developed their own online shopping websites that increasingly compete with their stores.
The COVID-19 pandemic only hastened the inevitable. According to data presented by Alberta’s Don Provost to the Centennial City Council on December 6, 12,200 retail stores around the U.S. closed in 2020. Of the 1,600 remaining large department stores today, half are expected to close by 2025. The anchor tenants at SOS were Sears on the south end and Macy’s on the north. Sears at SOS closed in 2018 and Macy’s is set to close in 2022.
At the same time, Colorado’s population continues to grow and housing is in short supply in the metro area, driving prices higher. In 2017, Northwood Investors, a Denver company that specializes in mixed-use development, bought the Sears property, anticipating the store’s closing. In 2018, Alberta bought the Macy’s property, anticipating that it too would soon close.
In 2019, Alberta and Northwood began a process that would eventually lead to a proposal to the City of Centennial to redevelop the Sears and Macy’s properties as 900 new residential housing units to anchor SOS in place of the failed department stores, providing much-needed housing for people whose presence there would support the retail, restaurants, movie theater and other businesses.
After what Kyle Whitaker of Northwood described on December 6 as two years of listening to the community’s concerns in three large-scale community meetings, 18 small group meetings, and 14 individual meetings, the developers scaled back their original plans, eventually settling on proposed amendments to the SOS Master Development Plan (MDP) and the Master Development Agreement (MDA) that included less density and height than originally planned, plus larger setbacks and stepbacks. They also added a new 25,000 square foot (0.57-acre) contiguous green public space.
City of Centennial Planner Jenna Campbell presented the developers’ proposal at the large public city council meeting designed to solicit public input. Campbell described Southglenn as, “A mixed use center that includes shopping, dining, living, civic, and offices that serve adjacent neighborhoods, the City of Centennial as a whole, and the South Metro Denver region.”
She noted that a traffic impact study required for the development had been reviewed and approved by the city, as had the required drainage report for the proposed project. She described in detail the requested changes to the MDP and MDA for SOS. Noting that the proposal had received a unanimous recommendation for approval from the city’s planning and zoning commission, she outlined its most significant aspects:
- Increase the number of allowable residential dwelling units from 350 to 1125 by adding 550 residential units at the south end and 361 additional units to the north end that already had 214 existing units.
- Reduce the minimum required leasable retail floor area at SOS from 910,000 to 621,000 square feet.
- Increase the maximum permitted building height on the north end (Macy’s) from 50 feet (3 stories) to 75 feet (5 stories), as was already allowed on the south end.
Presenting to the council on behalf of the developers was Carolynne White, land use counsel for Alberta along with Rob Kaufman, Don Provost and Dustin Anderson from Alberta, and Kyle Whitaker and Brian Cleary representing Northwood Investors.
Require a minimum 25,000 square-foot public open space within the south end.
White pointed out that the increased residential would positively impact new and existing retail thus improving the long-term viability of SOS. She also noted that it would remove the existing blight on the Sears property and potential blight of a vacant Macy’s. The new residential would also “attract and retain a range of age groups to live and work in Centennial, add more green community space” and improve walkability in SOS overall.
Provost talked about how Alberta had converted the Southglenn Mall into SOS 15 years ago with an investment of $300 million and how Northwood and Alberta have now invested between $40 million and $50 million to acquire the Sears and Macy’s properties. He added that SOS is responsible for 2,100 average jobs created. He described SOS as a development that, “Offers a diverse mix of uses and offerings: retail, entertainment, food & beverage, residential, and office, with a mix of local and national tenants.”
Chris Fashing of Felsburg Holt and Ullevig (FHU), the area’s premier transportation-focused consulting firm, noted that his firm has been involved in collecting and analyzing traffic data in the area for 35 years, largely for purposes of assessing its impact on development. For this project, FHU “developed short-term and long-term traffic projections” (pre-COVID). They found that the proposed redevelopment would meet the city’s level of service traffic goals both long and short term with some possible traffic signal phasing adjustments and some possible lane redesigns.
Concluding the presentation of the developer, Attorney White outlined how and why the proposed redevelopment met the approval criteria of the City of Centennial, including its consistency with the Southglenn subarea plan, the intent of the design and mixed-use concept of the MDP as amended, it’s providing of public benefits to the SOS and Centennial as a whole, its compatibility with existing development, and its financial fitness. Next, City Planner Campbell explained why city staff agreed that the plan met Centennial’s approval criteria.
With two hours gone, the city council began hearing from Centennial residents. Although close to 20 had signed up, about half of those still wanted to speak. The most important speaker was from the Centennial Council of Neighborhoods (CenCom) who expressed her sincere appreciation for the time and efforts of the developers to listen and respond to residents’ concerns over the past two years. She said that CenCom generally supported the redevelopment, although it, “still objected to the 75-foot height” because there is already a parking shortage at SOS. Other residents who spoke also objected to the 75-foot height, as well as the density, lack of affordable housing units, lack of compatibility, and the belief that people who live in apartments “come with a transient lifestyle.”
After further discussion about traffic, the three and one-half hour meeting was adjourned until the following night, when members of the city council asked developers about the revenues that would be generated by the project, the architectural style and reason for the requested 75-foot height of the residential, the mix of sizes of apartments, and adequacy of parking,
In discussion about the number of residential units proposed to be built, Attorney White described the 1,125 total apartments that would be in SOS when combining the new development with the existing residential, as the amount of residential that “creates a critical mass of residents to energize the center… to make it possible to build the rest of the commercial that we hope to be able to build here.”
Council Member Kathy Turley asked Provost whether any condominiums were planned in addition to rental apartments. He said he thought there might be an opportunity for some condos at the north end depending on the market. He said this was a great location to live because one could “walk a block to Whole Foods.”
More than three hours into the meeting, Mayor Piko asked council members to share their thought processes about the project, noting that no formal vote would be taken until January.
Council Member Mike Sutherland said, “Change is difficult. The comprehensive plan was developed to guide that change…We need to think about providing places that will be attractive to both current and future residents and I think this proposal provides for both.” He talked about the need to provide housing for current Centennial residents who wished to downsize and those who wished to live in Centennial but weren’t ready to buy a single-family home. He also pointed to the, “definite public benefits to having this kind of mixed-use development within our city, to have a place where people can go and get something to eat, go to a movie, and live in an area where they can walk down the street, get a cup of coffee with friends or walk to a restaurant and get a meal with friends without having to get out onto the streets and add to the traffic…”
Council Member Tammy Maurer expressed support for the project, noting that residential development “has the least amount of (traffic) impact.” The data that had been presented by the traffic experts showed that offices generate nearly twice as many trips per day and retail generates four to five times as many daily trips as does residential.
Council Members Mike Sheehan, Marlo Austin, Rick Holt, Christina Sweetland, Candace Moon, and Kathy Turley, along with Mayor Piko, also voiced their support. Sweetland said, “The only way that we can have that vibrant community where we have great restaurants and good things to do on a Friday night that I can walk to is to increase the number of people that are actually in that community that will live, go out, and work there.”
Moon commended Chris Fashing of FHU for the excellent work his firm had done on the traffic study.