Redevelopment moves forward despite challenge

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By Ramsey Scott

As Littleton is poised to study four areas of the city for possible redevelopment, a former Littleton mayor has issues with the city continuing to use what he calls a failed model of redevelopment that previously cost the city millions of dollars. 

At the beginning of the year, the council directed its urban renewal authority, Littleton Investing in Tomorrow or LIFT, to identify areas in the city for potential redevelopment. Since then, LIFT has focused on four areas of the city: Broadway Boulevard, Columbine Square, Littleton Boulevard and Santa Fe Drive. 

“We’re studying four different areas in Littleton to see where there are conditions, as state statute requires, of blight, and where we can go in and do some good as far as redevelopment is concerned,” said Jim Rees, LIFT’s news executive director hired in March. “The main goal (of an urban renewal authority) is to eliminate and prevent the conditions of slums and blight. While economic development isn’t the main goal, it’s one of the things that usually happens if you’ve got an area that’s not performing well and introduce new businesses in the area.”

The new study is expected to be approved by the LIFT board at its meeting on June 16. After that, Rees said the consultants would start work on developing an economic development plan for the four areas. That plan would then need to go through an approval process by the city’s Planning Board and then by City Council. 

“We’re at the 30,000-foot level right now, but I’m excited over this. The four areas that could be potentially redeveloped and expanded would put Littleton on a competitive edge with a lot of cities surrounding it, and that’s important for a community to thrive,” Rees said. 

Urban renewal authorities are mechanisms for municipalities to enter into public/private partnerships to help fund redevelopment of areas that are considered blighted. Money for the redevelopment is created through tax-increment financing, which collects property-tax revenue created above a baseline number set before an area is redeveloped to help pay for the project. The authority has the power to use eminent domain along with other tools to help spur redevelopment.

Doug Clark, who served on Littleton’s City Council from 1995 to 1999 and from 2005 to 2011 with the last four years on the council as mayor, presented his concerns on June 3 to the city council about Littleton using an urban renewal authority to spur economic growth. 

Clark said the city needs to learn from mistakes it made in the past using urban renewal authorities.

“I think what’s happening is the council … and LIFT are going off big plans to do urban renewal in multiple areas in the city without cleaning up the messes in the past or recognizing the messes in the past,” Clark said. “I think it’s important for the citizens to know what happened with urban renewal in Littleton.”

Clark’s concern stems from an urban renewal authority created by the city in 1980, then called the Littleton Riverfront Authority, that planned to redevelop a 25-acre parcel between the South Platte River and South Santa Fe Drive from Church Street to Crestline Avenue. About $8.6 million in bonds were issued by the authority to help buy land, and relocate residents and several businesses to help create the Riverfront Festival Center, a $150-million project.

That project failed, and left investors and they city short millions of dollars. Littleton is still owed $12 million from the bonds that were issued for the previous incarnation of the authority, Clark said. 

Rees, along with the city’s attorney, disputed claims made by Clark, including whether money was owed to the city. City Attorney Ken Fellman said the bond documents from 1999 that refinanced the authority’s debt included a provision that any debt still owed after 10 years would dissolve. 

Rees said that most urban renewal authority projects last about 25 years, and if debts are still owed at that time, they are dissolved since there’s no TIF left to pay the debt. 

Clark also claimed the current budget for LIFT that’s being used to help finance the new studies, about $140,000, is tax-incremental financing that’s been inappropriately spent on a new project. State law only allows TIF collected to be spent on that specific project. 

“When the same group of people are trying to do the same thing with the same property, yeah it’s a problem. The Riverfront area is one of the areas that LIFT’s consultant has found blight. They’ve said that’s one of the areas they’re looking to create urban renewal on,” Clark said. “It’s the same area that Riverfront tried to redevelop. It’s like they’re saying, ‘If you don’t succeed, try and try again with the same board.’”

Rees countered that the current budget of LIFT was not created by TIF money and instead came from administrative fees urban renewal authorities are allowed to charge. 

“I would make it clear that those monies are administrative fees,” Rees said. 

Urban renewal authorities should have a specific project in mind when they’re formed. They shouldn’t be formed to find areas of blight, Clark said.