Deal of the century or promise kept? It depends on who you ask. Here’s how it started. In 1992, Colorado Rockies baseball wasn’t a thing. Stapleton was where you went to catch a flight out of …
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Deal of the century or promise kept? It depends on who you ask.
Here’s how it started.
In 1992, Colorado Rockies baseball wasn’t a thing. Stapleton was where you went to catch a flight out of town and Roy Romer sat in the Governor’s office. It was also the year long-struggling Westland Mall, once home to iconic retailers May D&F, Fashion Bar and Sears, met its fate in the form of a wrecking ball.
Years before, in an effort to keep the mall afloat, the City of Lakewood infused it with $5 million in funding. In exchange, they became the owner of the mall’s 21-acre parking lot. But all ownership agreements are not created equal.
In an unusual series of events, Lakewood’s city council, somewhere between 1992 and 1996, entered into several agreements with the owner of the mall.
One of those agreements, also known as estoppels, gave the mall owner an open-ended option to buy the parking lot back from the city for $1 million.
According to Lakewood City Attorney Alison McKenney Brown, the buy-back estoppel was made to get the mall owner to condemn the failing property, which was subsequently rebuilt as Westland Town Center.
Council, at the time, also agreed that the only thing the city would be allowed to do with the parking lot, other than sell it back to the mall owner, was keep it a parking lot — not for just a few years, but until, not a typo, 2082.
How it’s going
The owners of Westland Town Center, Atlanta’s RCG Ventures, have decided after 29 years, they want their lot back.
The legal wrangling behind such a transfer is not clearcut however.
RCG was not the property owner that made the initial deal, having only acquired it in 2017. In fact, the company is the fourth entity to own the mall property since 1996.
Opponents of transferring the lot to RCG include several current council members and residents of surrounding neighborhoods. They say the $1 million agreement was never completed, that certain elements to make it legally binding don’t exist. Many of them would rather let the courts decide what the city’s options are.
Council member, Anita Springsteen, Ward 3, speculated the land could be worth 17 times as much as the agreed-upon transfer price today. She said it would be immoral to transfer it back for such a low price, when COVID has the city coffers running low. Council members Ramey Johnson, Charley Able and Mike Bieda also voted not to approve the transfer.
Others, like Applewood Valley Association’s David Ruchman, say it’s not just the money. He thinks the city should slow things down until RCG is willing to tip their hand as to what they plan to do with the center once they have control of the parking lot again.
“It (the transfer) will do nothing for all of northwest Lakewood because the developer either has said he has no plans, or is refusing to be candid about his plans,” Ruchman said. “Such a conveyance would also not bring the (2040) Vision Plan, currently part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, any closer to reality.”
But Robert Smith, Lakewood’s Economic Development Director, said a clause in the contract that gives the city only 45 days to complete the transfer once RCG decided to exercise their option, is what’s driving the speed of the process.
According to Lakewood Mayor, Adam Paul, because of the way the contract was structured nearly 30 years ago, the city has no leverage today.
“This was a tough one for all of us to vote on,” he said. “But we now have the opportunity to look at the 2040 plan and reimagine what can be done.”
He thinks refusing to move forward with the transfer now would ultimately lead to a costly, protracted court battle that the city wouldn’t win. He also says not honoring the contract would make it difficult for Lakewood to enter into valuable public/private partnerships in the future.
As for letting go of a piece of property everyone agrees would be worth more on the open market, Paul readily admits it was a deal the city would not be likely to enter into today, but wants residents to know that the $5 million infusion of cash in the 90s has earned the city roughly $37 million in tax revenues over the last 29 years.
He also remains optimistic the city will be able to work with RCG or another owner, if RCG decides to sell, to guide redevelopment through zoning and other means.
RCG’s plan for the property has indeed been vague. According to Paul, the company claims they would like to reinvest in the property and get new tenants, but the uncertainty around the parking lot has hindered those efforts.
A scroll through RCG’s other holdings might do little to reassure those who want to see a more sustainable high-end development take shape. Aside from a few Target stores and a Kohl’s, their properties are a mix of run-of-the-mill strip mall fare with a lot of Harbor Freight, Hobby Lobby, Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, etc. In other words, more of what the area already has.
Before the vote, council member Johnson expressed her concerns that the center would be redeveloped into high-density residential properties.
Her intuition may be on target. Several mixed-use and high-density projects have sprung up along Colfax in the past few years. Her fear is that high-density will attract more gas stations and convenience stores, but do little to entice higher-end retailers to move in. She referenced the Aspen Grove center in South Jeffco with the Apple Store, Williams Sonoma and Ted’s Montana Grill as the type of development she’d like to see take shape at the former Westland.
But in an interview with the newspaper, Paul reiterated his stance that to see anything happen, the transfer needed to happen.
“We’ve held the parking lot for a long time and it’s not attracting development,” he said. “If we hold it, it can only be parking lot. If we transfer it, it can be developed.”
In the end, council voted 7 to 4 to approve the sale/transfer of the parking lot to RCG for the million dollars agreed upon 29 years ago. Paul said that money will likely be reinvested in the area near the center.
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