Reconfiguring 9th and Colorado

 

With the ending of the Walmart War at 9th and Colorado the main players are back at the drawing board.  Mayor Hancock, developer Jeff Fuqua, City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb and others have their say in this press release from the Mayor’s office, as well as in this story from the Denver Business Journal.  According to a Denver Post report:

After Walmart exited, Hancock convened all the parties — CU, Fuqua, City Council members, city staff and the development authority — to come up with another plan, [the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Janice] Sinden said. “Quite frankly, it was to say, ‘We’re going to do this right, not fast,’ ” she said. “And we’re going to really ensure that this is something the community is incredibly proud of. And that is going to take some time. And he put a lot of responsibility on the developer to reach back out into the retail community and come up with options.”

What the developer has come up with as an alternative anchor tenant is the well-known Kroger/King Soopers chain of grocery stores.  The particular kind of store that will anchor the site is still being discussed, but according to the Post:

…one option being explored is a Fresh Fare store — one of Kroger’s new-style stores that have upscale meats and seafood, gourmet cheeses and natural and organic foods, as well as chef-prepared meals to take home, besides the usual array of grocery items.  “That’s what we are advocating for, as upscale a market center as we can possibly secure in that community,” Sinden said…

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King Soopers Fresh Fare store at Kent Place, University and Hampden, Denver (D. Saitta)

The news of King Soopers as anchor tenant inspired the following ringing endorsement from Councilwoman Jeanne Robb:

“The grocery store is fine. It’s maybe not exciting, but it’s definitely fine…What we need to work on is mixed uses. We wouldn’t get that with the previous tenant.”

I’m not sure why having Walmart as an anchor tenant would have precluded mixed use.  The potential for adding more “rooftops,” to use Councilwoman Robb’s words, was always there. Walmart certainly would have brought more merchandise and price variety to the mix.  But that issue aside, there’s certainly more talk today about including office space, senior housing, affordable housing, and even a hotel.

Citizen responses to the prospect of having King Soopers as an anchor tenant have run the gamut from “Anything is better than Walmart” to “Kroger is just as bad as Walmart.”  There’s widespread relief that Walmart is out of the mix, but also a palpable lack of excitement about the substitute.  One of the more thoughtful comments on the Post story comes from “RB”:

I don’t like the idea of a grocery store — we already have a Whole Foods, a nice Safeway, and Marczyk’s in our neighborhood, and a King Soopers is of a lower quality than all of these.  I’m not familiar with Fresh Fare, but it would seem to duplicate the WF and Marcyzk’s at least somewhat.   The problem with a grocery store is that it requires a lot of surface parking, which is exactly what we DON’T want at the 9th/Colorado site. We want a dense urban streetscape, not a suburban-type auto-oriented development with a sea of surface parking. If they can place all of the parking into underground structures of some type, or simply have a very limited amount of parking …that would be more acceptable. But the neighborhood will fight any development proposal that isn’t high density and that includes surface parking lots that are visible from the major arterial streets surrounding the site.

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Denver City Councilwomen Susman and Robb addressing the Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District Board Meeting, Hill Middle School, 6 December 2012 (D. Saitta)

 If “RB” is right that the neighbors don’t want surface parking then they’re in for some disappointment.  As disclosed at last week’s Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District (CBHD) board meeting—and as anticipated by RB—King Soopers doesn’t need underground parking. So, that feature appears to be off the table (Walmart, on the other hand, planned for it).  Interestingly (but unsurprisingly), neighborhood opposition to surface parking apparently doesn’t extend to the Trader Joe’s store that’s committed to moving in at the corner of 8th and Colorado, just across the street.   Last week’s CBHD meeting also disclosed that Trader Joe’s will not only have surface parking but also a surface lot that’s bigger than what they anticipate needing.  And apparently that’s just fine with the neighbors who were in attendance because there was no noticeable outcry.

TJs

Trader Joe’s site plan for 8th and Colorado

Haunting all of these discussions is a concern about whether the development will have any “sense of place.”  Citizens are of multiple minds about placemaking.  Some want a place that says “local”—as in a majority of local Colorado retailers.  Some want a place that says “upscale,” in order to attract a particular kind of crowd.  Some want a place that the local neighborhoods can “own.”  Some want green space. It’s not clear what any of this means from the standpoint of urban design.  On her Facebook page City Council President Mary Beth Susman says that there’smore of a chance of having a sense of place” now that Walmart has been vanquished.  But just like I’m skeptical of Councilwoman Robb’s claim that Walmart’s presence somehow precluded mixed use, I’m not sure why King Soopers would facilitate placemaking any better than Walmart.  Especially since grocery stores generate less tax revenue—and thus fewer placemaking resources—than other anchor tenants.  Folks at the  anti-Walmart website that’s been renamed as Do It Right at 9th say that King Soopers is a  step in the right direction, but that has more to do with liberal politics rather than any coherent placemaking vision.  Except for offering up a few boilerplate generalities the website offers no real substance about what’s “right” at 9th.

In multiple posts on this blog we’ve advocated for placemaking that (1) reflects–in both substance and architectural style—the site’s history as a health sciences center and (2) welcomes the burgeoning ethnic diversity of urban cores. The first of these considerations prescribes—drawing on “healthy city” and “heart of the city” metaphors—an identity-establishing signature building, the adaptive reuse of a few more significant existing structures, full enclosure of the central Quadrangle to create a more intimate and pedestrian-friendly public space, better (and safer) pedestrian and bicycle connections between the site and the playing fields of Congress Park, and a Denver B-cycle station. The “street gyms” used in Santiago, Chile to prompt physical activity and enliven public space would also be nice amenities, especially for kids and moms.  The second consideration prescribes—drawing on intercultural city ideals—at least a few value shopping alternatives, a critical mass of “hard” public space (including parking lots) where “informal economies” can be encouraged and supported, and housing to accommodate not only multi-generational “Next Gen” families but also a broader swath of cultural and economic diversity.  At the CBHD meeting Council President Susman noted that she wants to see more “pocketbooks” on the site, referring to prospective residents. I trust she understands that not all pocketbooks are of the same size, quality, and color.

Twenty twelve began with preliminary discussion of 9th and Colorado design guidelines and citizen concerns about what the development will “feel” like.  The year ends with the same guidelines in place but everything else in flux.  Thankfully, there are lots of ideas and examples percolating through the urban blogs and scholarly literature that can serve as useful fodder for imagining a great, context-sensitive place.  Here’s hoping that 2013 will bring broader, better-informed, and more creative thinking about placemaking at 9th and Colorado and how the enterprise might serve the entire city.

 

4 Comments

  1. Justin December 14, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    Sir,
    Your article is thoughtful and you bring up many good points. You correctly point out that there is certainly a double standard for all of these proposed tenants. You also imply that the below ground parking proposed for the Walmart was more in line with the communities sentiment against huge visible parking lots.

    Similar claims were made during the “fight” against Walmart. The tag line basically being, “If you look at all of the statistics, a Walmart is no better or worse than a Target, Cosco, Sam’s club etc etc.” While this may be technically correct, I disagree with that line of thinking.

    The fact is, perception is reality. This is especially true given the current state of affairs regarding American culture. The reason Trader Joe’s gets a pass on the parking is because people are genuinely excited at the prospect of hosting this retailer in our community. TJ’s is a novelty and most residents seem to be concluding that the potential parking concerns are outweighed by the potentially positive influence this retailer could have on our community. The same is true when you look at parking plans for Walmart vs King Sooper. Most residents concluded that the benefit of underground parking at Walmart was not enough to make up for potential negative impacts on the surrounding property value.

    Criticizing the community for displaying double standards really isn’t valid, in my opinion. Citizens should have a right to voice their opinion regarding potential retailers in their community, even if their opinion is based solely on perception. The fact is, Walmart elicits a perception of “cheap, mass market serving less desirable communities”. Right or wrong, it’s there in many peoples minds. Trader Joe’s vs King Soopers elicits a similar response from many people.

    I am not thrilled about a King Sooper, but I do believe it’s a much better option than a Walmart. Why? Property value. Simple perception can make or break a community, whether technically valid or not.

    -Justin

     
  2. Dean Saitta December 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Justin—Thanks for writing. Citizens certainly have a right to voice their opinions, whether based on “perception,” personal experience, anecdotes, hearsay, misrepresentations, flawed comparisons, or actual facts. Others have the right to point out double standardism and hypocrisy where they see it, and to suggest that the city might be better served by a conversation that’s grounded in reality rather than in perception or “faith.” Walmart, like many other American retailers, sells cheap, foreign-made goods. That’s a fact. It’s not a fact that Walmart is patronized by undesirables from top to bottom. Given other facts of American urbanism it seems to me that Walmart’s desire to break into an urban market—in a form that would have been very different from the suburban super stores that are typically associated with the name—could have been leveraged to create a development having the potential to serve a diverse resident population (the neighbors claim that they value diversity) AND increase local property values AND possibly have other positive influences. But we’ll never know. I think that’s because neighbors and city leaders didn’t show the open-mindedness, patience, fact-gathering discipline, and imagination that’s required to explore the possibilities. Hopefully that will change as new plans move forward.

     
    • JRH December 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm

      Dean,
      The neighborhood sentiment is not as trivial as you imply. “Perception” exists for a reason, and many times perception can be a valid indicator of reality. During the Walmart lobbying I found countless studies which concluded that the opening of a Walmart store drove property value down, when looking at a region with similar demographics to Mayfair. And I understand Walmart is testing the new “urban market” model, but personally I don’t want my neighborhood to be a testing ground for a new, unproven model.

      The opposition to Walmart was largely based on perception, but much of that perception is grounded in facts, statistics and studies. More appropriate, the opposition was rallying against “big box” models, more so than simply Walmart.

      If you look at some of the most desirable communities in the United States there is a re-occurring theme; selective zoning with very strict standards. Many of the most exclusive and desirable communities around New York City, Washington, DC and parts of Marin County don’t allow most chain stores or franchises. Without making a value judgment on whether this practice is ethically defensible, it’s a clear indicator that many of these “big box” chains do devalue property and hurt the “brand equity” of certain communities.

      The overarching point here is that the citizens of Mayfair did not simply and arbitrarily shun Walmart. Many based their opinions on “perception”, but that perception is generally quite valid, backed up by studies and “best practices” of other desirable communities.

       
  3. Dean Saitta December 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Justin— I’m not suggesting that the neighborhood sentiment is trivial. I agree with you that there are studies—and counter-studies—that are relevant and that would have been good to debate. I don’t think Mayfair residents can make any more claim on the 9th and Colorado property as being in their neighborhood than can the residents of Congress Park, or Hilltop, or even Hale— which arguably has the best claim on it. What’s significant about the property, for me, is that it’s at the nexus of multiple neighborhoods, and thus can reasonably be characterized as being in, and of, and as belonging to, central Denver. All parties seem to agree—based on the experience with the original developer Shea Properties—that it’s very hard to make a viable place at 9th and Colorado (given all the infrastructural issues) without TIF. Hence the need for a “Big Box” generator. I don’t like ‘em any more than you do, but there’s no reason why big boxes can’t be made to work in a way that respects place. It’s all about design. And as I noted in a previous post a long time ago, big boxes can also be conveniently re-purposed into a library or some other cultural institution if/when the retail function peters out. And that certainly would bode well for property values.

     

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