It didn’t surprise Leah Burkett to learn that the old Sheriff’s Department building across from her house was up for redevelopment. Perched on a tree-lined ridge with a commanding view of Historic Downtown Littleton and the Platte River Valley beyond, the Sheriff’s site had been sought by builders for at least a decade.
The 160-unit project proposed for the site by Zocalo Community Development wouldn’t even be the first apartment complex in the area. Several others have been approved in recent years, all hoping to capitalize on the proximity of the Downtown Littleton Light Rail station.
What did surprise Burkett was that the project, known as The Grove Littleton, would be reviewed without any public input, according to city officials. The last time a development had been proposed for the Sheriff’s site in 2013, it had gone before the Littleton City Council, where it was ultimately rejected after a boisterous seven-and-a-half hour hearing.
The Grove project was able to bypass these steps because it was filed as a ‘use by right’ development, meaning that it conformed with all the zoning guidelines for its site. As a result, it was only reviewed internally by the Littleton city administration.
In fact, for much of the eleven months since the site plan application for The Grove was filed in November 2014, it has been perhaps Littleton’s best kept development secret.
Outside of a skeleton entry buried deep in the city’s website, the project received no official mention until a press release announced its final approval on Sept. 4. To date, no signage at The Grove’s prospective site indicates that it is one building permit away from becoming home to hundreds of new residents.
After Burkett filed a lawsuit challenging The Grove’s approval, the candidates for Littleton City Council in the upcoming November election were even told they could not discuss the project at an Oct. 8 forum, according to District 4 candidate Carol Brzeczek.
Despite the lack of communication, Littleton officials say they did their due diligence. The Grove project “was rigorously reviewed over a ten-month period by the city’s engineering, planning, zoning, and legal staff,” stated an October City of Littleton press release. “It was found to be a lawful use that meets all applicable requirements of the city code.”
According to Burkett and other local activists, though, the city’s claims do not stand up to close scrutiny. In a recently filed lawsuit seeking to put the Grove plan on hold, she cited a number of zoning violations she argues should disqualify the project from receiving an administrative approval.
Above all, said Burkett, The Grove violates the requirement that residential uses take up no more than 50 percent of a given building’s total floor area—the very condition that forced the prior proposed project in 2013, known as Broadstone at Littleton Station, to seek a rezoning ordinance from City Council.
Zocalo defined The Grove’s entire 356-space parking garage as “non-residential use,” despite the fact that around two-thirds of the spots are required by city code in order to supplement the complex’s residential units.
“Counting the parking garage is the only way that this project can meet the 50 percent commercial requirement,” said Burkett.
In response to questions via email this past week, Zocalo Principal David Zucker could not specify whether the garage would have reserved spaces for residents.
“Although we continue to work out certain project parameters, parking and all other aspects of the project will comply with the requirements of the City of Littleton,” wrote Zucker.
Littleton city officials declined to answer specific questions about the project’s alleged zoning violations, citing the ongoing litigation. However, in an interview with The Littleton Independent this past August, Littleton City Manager Michael Penny said the city code “defines [only] two types of parking garages, private and commercial.” Since The Grove’s garage would be open to the public, he said, it must therefore be commercial.
Another alleged zoning violation is the lack of any open space between the Grove complex and the adjacent city roads, West Littleton Boulevard and Bemis Street.
The city code states that half of the open space required for a given parcel be “evenly distributed along adjacent public rights of way,” which in the case of the Grove site would amount to a roughly 24-foot landscaping setback on Bemis St., according to Burkett. Instead, there are no setbacks at all, allowing the complex’s 55-foot façade to tower over the residential street.
On Sept. 10, Burkett and four neighbors appealed The Grove’s administrative approval to the Littleton Board of Adjustment, citing the aforementioned alleged zoning violations. Twelve days later, the appeal was rejected by Littleton Community Development Director Jocelyn Mills, the same official who had approved the Grove’s final site plan.
In her lawsuit before the Arapahoe County District Court, Burkett is seeking a declaratory judgment remanding The Grove’s final site plan to the Board of Adjustment (though she is the only named plaintiff, Burkett said at least fifty local residents have given donations to fund her fight).
Couched within the legal wrangling over The Grove Littleton is a deeper question about what the future of Downtown Littleton should be. Though large-scale apartment buildings can already be found in the city, they have so far avoided the downtown district, with its quaint Main Street and landmark historic buildings.
Having made its name with high-density developments in Denver neighborhoods like Cherry Creek, Jefferson Park and Union Station, Zocalo Community Development sees places like Downtown Littleton as the next logical step.
“We love walkable communities that are near arts, transit, biking, restaurants and coffee shops,” said Zucker, the Zocalo principal. “There are very few neighborhoods near Denver that have this tremendous mix of uses and amenities that downtown Littleton offers.”
Burkett appreciates the value of transit-oriented development. When she and her husband first moved to downtown Littleton in 2009, having a Light Rail station so close by was a major draw.
The issue, she insists, is not redevelopment per se, but redevelopment that makes no attempt to match its surroundings.
“When you’re living in basically a ranch-style house and something four stories comes [in] across the street less than 30 feet away with no landscaping setback…you just really lose the feel of the neighborhood,” said Burkett. “This kind of ‘new urbanism’ is happening around Denver and Cherry Creek, but is entirely out of character for Historic Downtown Littleton.”
Though it has long since been absorbed into Denver’s unbroken urban sprawl, Downtown Littleton retains a special feel. The five blocks of Main Street are lined with brick buildings and independently owned shops, and the grand turn-of-the-century Arapahoe County Courthouse still stands on the hill above, fully restored in 2000.
If built as approved, The Grove Littleton would stand directly across from the Courthouse on Littleton Boulevard. “It’s a revered building and landmark in the area and this building will completely just gobble it up,” said Burkett.
Burkett recognizes that even a favorable court ruling won’t stop the attempts to develop the former Sheriff’s site. Zocalo or another developer could easily file for another ‘use by right’ development under the local zoning codes, which allows up to 392,040 square feet of development with no set height limit.
Still, she’s hopeful that putting up a fight now will inspire future developers to work in harmony with their neighbors.
“We just want our little unique area to not have a giant dollar sign painted on it,” said Burkett.