Plans for Westminster Mall add to growing list of development projects

WESTMINSTER — The site of this city’s one-time mall has languished for more than three years as a dead zone, and it was in steady decline for some time before that.
Next month, Westminster’s elected leaders are set to decide whether to green light a mixed-use project at the southwest corner of U.S. 36 and Sheridan Boulevard that would establish the latest transit-oriented development in a corridor quickly filling up with them.
Plans from California developer Oliver McMillan call for a multiphase community on the 105-acre site, with the first two stages boasting more than 800 residences, 100,000 square feet of office space and 250,000 square feet of retail.
It would be a downtown core for Westminster and its 110,000 residents, adjacent to a bikeway connecting Boulder and Denver and providing ready access to the new bus rapid transit line set to open on U.S. 36 in 2016.
“We have a very clear mandate from our citizens: ‘Get this up and running,’ ” Westminster Mayor Herb Atchison said last week during an open house on the future of the mall site.
But the project’s success isn’t guaranteed. The U.S. 36 corridor has seen an increasing number of transit-oriented developments, or TODs — dense, mixed-use communities built in close proximity to transit stations — coming online of late.
Apartments have been sprouting up near Flatiron Crossing mall and its nearby park-n-Ride for the last few years; Arista continues to fill out next to a major Broomfield transit stop; and the 1,400-home Superior Town Center has broken ground on a 157-acre plot at U.S. 36 and McCaslin Boulevard.
Andrew Freeman, managing broker for Boulder-based Freeman Myre, said all the competition on the corridor poses a potential challenge to downtown Westminster.
“I’d be a little concerned about where the demand (for housing and office space) is coming from,” he said.
And such developments are not just happening along U.S. 36. In other metro-area municipalities, similar projects are under construction or in the planning stages as more of the Regional Transportation District’s 122 miles of FasTracks light and commuter rail are readied for service.
In Centennial, the city is eyeing a 42-acre parcel on the west side of Interstate 25 near the Arapahoe Station light-rail stop for a mixed-use project. Greenwood Village has similar plans at the same station, while Lone Tree awaits an extension of the southeast rail line to put its TOD blueprints to the test.
Work is progressing in Arvada on putting in place high-density units near the future Olde Town Gold Line rail station. Denver has a number of mixed-use projects in various stages of completion that focus on their proximity to rail stops, as does Lakewood.
“Is the market getting overbuilt?” Freeman Myre asked. “Are there too many TODs going up right now?”
Westminster’s economic development director, Susan Grafton, said the city is equidistant from Denver and Boulder and, as such, can uniquely provide jobs and homes for both markets.
“What you’re going to have are businesses looking for access to that labor force,” Grafton said.
With 18 acres of open space, a regional bikeway running down the site’s east side and high-end apartments and townhouses, downtown Westminster will be more than just another collection of buildings at a highway interchange, she said. An underpass to connect the site to the RTD park-n-Ride on the east side of Sheridan Boulevard — critical to making the new neighborhood truly transit-focused — is on the city’s wish list.
Westminster owns almost all of the site where the 34-year-old mall was demolished in 2011, and is in an exclusive agreement with Oliver McMillan to redevelop it.
“We’re building a sense of place,” Grafton said.
Economic and demographic data from the corridor is encouraging. The office vacancy rate has fallen 3 percentage points from a couple of years ago to just over 11 percent now, according to Freeman Myre.
And metro planners anticipate healthy population and job growth for the corridor over the next 20 years.
“There’s a lot of positive momentum going on in the office sector,” said Blake Harris, associate with real estate advisory firm CBRE Inc., who noted that the east end of U.S. 36 doesn’t have the kind of top-tier development that exists at the Boulder end.
“There hasn’t been a real draw for tenants to locate there, and the Westminster site would be a step above anything else.”
John Aguilar: 303-954-1695, jaguilar@denverpost.com or twitter.com/abuvthefold
Projected growth in U.S. 36 corridor
Year … Population … Employment
2015 … 240,188 … 180,753
2020 … 252,640 … 196,768
2025 … 264,669 … 209,549
2035 … 286,921 … 235,536
Source: DRCOG