Another Greyfield Gone
By Jason Miller
One of the most successful greyfield transformations in the nation, Belmar is a mixed-use renovation and redevelopment of the failed Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood, Colorado's fourth-largest city. Even though it is still a work in progress, Belmar already has become a bustling, vibrant downtown district for Lakewood, which had no such district before the renovation effort began. It represents the cumulative will of the city of Lakewood and its residents, who clamored for a downtown, an identity for the city. The site, which covers 23 city blocks (104 acres), is already influencing development at its borders -- and drawing impressive numbers of residential buyers and renters in a soft market.
The recipient of a 2005 CNU Charter Award, Belmar's formative years brought challenges common to greyfield redevelopment, says Tom Gougeon, chief development officer with Continuum Partners LLC, the developer of Belmar.
"Initially, the property was developed on a grant lease, which had an underlying owner plus 140 subtenants. We had to figure out how to consolidate all those subinterests -- each with veto power -- into one. It was a huge undertaking that took several years and overlapped the actual development process. It was certainly different from buying 100 acres of cornfield."
Continuum had the advantage of a good site with good visibility and high-density neighborhoods nearby. "The Villa Italia Mall had a history of being a successful regional mall with hundreds of millions of dollars of sales," says Gougeon. "But it was dying; it had lost its luster. People were unsure about the site and the market. So reestablishing its viability, and bringing back the retailers and restaurants -- those were real challenges."
Securing financing was rather problematic, too, says Gougeon -- a problem that never goes away. "We wanted a good mix of national and local tenants, but typically the local tenants have little value attached to them; you need retailers with solid credit, ones who can pay larger rents. I think we've managed to create a good mix that allowed us to get the project off the ground while keeping it interesting and giving the locals time to succeed."
A third challenge at Belmar is the issue of incremental development, says Gougeon. "It would be wonderful if we could have just dropped in, demolished everything, and started from scratch -- had it all done at once. It doesn't work that way; it comes in increments. It's more evolutionary. That's good, but it's a challenge. What differentiates Belmar is its market and urban experience, but you don't have all the fabric the day you open, and it will be this way for a long time. You have to manage this constantly evolving site, as well as residents' expectations. It's going to be a few years before it comes into its own."
Fortunately for Continuum, great political and citizen will exists to help drive the project forward, says Will Fleissig, former director for planning and design with Continuum.
"Early on, the community had a very clear vision about what they wanted," says Fleissig. "And now their vision has national implications. We took a 1.4-million-square-foot mall and worked with the city to downsize the retail and make the site more dense without creating a burden on the existing street (existing transit lines allowed this)."
In order to get out of the ground, however, Belmar needed more than political and community will. "To create a downtown, you need to build some kind of structured parking, and that can be difficult to afford," says Fleissig. "The city worked with us on investment that allowed for the new sales tax revenues from the project to be garnered for the roads, the trees, the parking. It was a perfect financing solution -- and it worked."
The Place to Be
Roughly 50 percent completed, Belmar is already a destination point for residents of Lakewood and beyond. Composed mostly of mixed-use buildings, it offers -- even at this stage -- more lifestyle amenities than most conventional malls.
Retail square footage runs between 550,000 and 650,000 presently, with Whole Foods and other retail coming online later this year. About 75 shops and restaurants have opened their doors, including a variety of national and local restaurants, Dick's Sporting Goods, and a Century Theaters outlet (wrapped by mixed-use buildings). Home furnishings, local boutique shops, shoe and electronics stores, a bookstore, a wine merchant, and a Sharper Image call Belmar home, as well as "a handful of banks that are in-line with the streets, not freestanding; only one has a drive-through," says Gougeon.
An events center anchors Belmar in the heart of the district. A 90,000-square-foot, mixed-use building, the center offers shops facing the street on one side and restaurants facing a plaza on the other side. The upper floor houses the event and meeting facility with a 9,000-square-foot ballroom, conference rooms, and a covered outdoor terrace overlooking the plaza. A bowling alley and a restaurant reside in the basement.
Office space checks in at 185,000 square feet in Belmar's first phase and is already more than 90 percent occupied in Lakewood's soft market. "That means there's another 600+ employees on-site every day -- eating lunch, catching dinner, seeing movies." says Gougeon.
Medical offices, additional restaurants, an ad agency, a local coffee merchant, a pizza joint -- the list of tenants is nearly exhaustive.
As for housing, Belmar offers rental units, condominiums and townhomes for residents, whom Gougeon expects will number around 700 by the end of 2006.
"The housing has been very well received," says Gougeon. "It's an urban choice -- no clubhouse, no pool. The amenity is you get to live in this 'downtown' setting. It's a soft market, so we've made concessions (one or two months rent-free) to accommodate that. But now we're getting to the point where there's no need for concessions."
A local green builder, McStain Neighborhoods, is constructing three- and four-story urban rowhomes, of which the first 70 have sold -- for prices that range from $360,000 to $370,000. A mixed-use building on the plaza is under construction and will offer 61 condos over a retail base. A higher-end building is also under way, geared toward older residents who are selling their houses and want a more urban lifestyle. Price points in this building are nearing $300,000 at press time; Gougeon predicts some units will reach the $900,000 mark. "The market pushed the prices up quickly," he says.
At the other end of the spectrum is a mixed-use building with smaller units over retail. Units here will start at around $100,000; about six have sold so far.
Starting to sense a pattern, here? Practically every mixed-use building in Belmar has a "units offered = units sold" story to tell. In all, there are 10 housing choices in the community -- a significant departure from the status quo in the area. "In many cases, people walk in and know they want to live here -- and they don't even know what form their housing will take," says Gougeon.
"While we're trying not to overload the market with any one choice, the fact remains that each one of these choices had no precedent in Lakewood. There was no certainty in what we're doing -- people might have turned it down -- but there's been a whole lot of interest."
At a Glance
Location: Lakewood, Colo.
Size: 23 city blocks, 104 acres
Developer: Continuum Partners LLC
Designer: Elkus-Manfredi, Civitas
Percent complete: Retail: 60%; Office: 25%; Residential: 15%
Population: +/- 500 residents
Apt. rental: $1.35/square foot (20% higher than market)
Rowhomes: $360,000 to $370,000
Condominiums: +/- $250,000
From Denver, take Colfax Avenue, Hwy 6 or Alameda Avenue west to Wadsworth Boulevard and drive south on Wadsworth. Belmar is on the east side of Wadsworth.
For more information, call the Belmar Information Center at 303.742.1520 or visit the website at www.belmarcolorado.com.
Jason Miller is a new urbanist freelance writer, editor, and plan book consultant based in Auburn, Wash. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.