The Belmar Project was a redevelopment scheme that began almost 10 years ago in Lakewood, Colorado. The vision of the developers was to renew a former suburban commercial stronghold and bring new urbanism to the city of Lakewood. Belmar district is a densely populated area (with a population of 1.5 million) located to the west of the city of Denver. Belmar was an attractive investment opportunity for property developers because although the majority of its residents brought in a moderate household income, the high density of population meant the profits from the project would be high. Today, the Belmar Project stands tall as Lakewood’s own downtown mixed-use urban center.
The Belmar project rose from the ashes of the run-down shopping mall known as Villa Italia Mall. Villa Italia Mall opened to the public in 1966, at the time it was the largest indoor shopping mall between California and Chicago. It stood on a 103-acre piece of land and 1.4 million square feet of that land was used as retail space surrounded by outside parking space.
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By the 1990s the shopping Centre had become almost completely disused. At that time the most of the Denver metropolitan area was growing economically, leading to the development of newer urban areas. However, these newer urban areas provided stiffer competition for older cities like Lakewood, which, coupled with a decline in the economy and lack of investment by the mall owners, led to the mall’s eventual fall. The mall lost both occupancy and sales.
The failure of this commercial venture led to increased unemployment rates in the region, transportation problems, detriment to the environment, and an ultimate economic decline of surrounding areas (Jones 2008).
The city of Lakewood, therefore, decided to redevelop the site for commercial and residential purposes as well as for the production of renewable energy. The only way of preventing a recurrence of the past was to completely reshape the old suburban landscape and the policies. The aim was to create a sustainable project that was targeted at the high-density population in downtown Lakewood, creating a project that was mixed-use (commercial, residential, entertainment) and targeted low-moderate income households. This project was more of an evolution; instead of complete demolition of obsolete site a restructuring and redevelopment approach was taken.
The Smart Growth Approach
The main philosophy behind the Belmar redevelopment project was sustainability (on both economic and social fronts). The development of the new town Centre had to be balanced with conservation. The smart growth approach was thus adapted in the designing of the Belmar project. This approach aims at creating a compact urban center where commercial centers, residential centers, and social centers are within a walkable or transit-accessible radius of each other.
After the closure of Villa Italia Mall in 2001, Mayor Burkholder approached other city officials with the idea to redevelop a new downtown urban Centre for Lakewood City. The responsibility of creating a new redevelopment vision for the new town center was tasked to an officially appointed Citizen Advisory Committee.
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The city approached Continuum Partners, a development company whose chief development officer at the time was Tom Gougeon. The Continuum developers began by purchasing the site, a task that delayed the beginning of redevelopment. The purchasing task was complicated by the fact that the site was owned by two different rival companies, and equitable life insurance company owned the buildings and the ground lease, while the ground on which the mall stood was owned by Stanton Foundation (Lang, 2007).
By 2002 Continuum Partners had successfully purchased the site and the construction of the Belmar Project officially began. The redevelopment scheme was to encompass 22 city blocks including 1 million square feet of retail centers, 1300 residential units, 900,000 square feet of office space, a hotel, roughly 6000 parking spaces, as well as spaces for social purposes like parks, an exhibition museum, and a movie theatre.
The project was estimated to cost $800 million and was to run over seven years. The financing was a tricky aspect but the city took a public-private partnership approach. Therefore, it was decided that a metropolitan district would be created around the urban development allowing for bonds issued by the Lakewood district to finance $120 million, sales tax revenues would finance the building of parking spaces, $40 million were to be contributed directly by Continuum Developers and a federal loan of $1.9 million was used to remediate some of the environmental damage caused by an automotive business and two dry cleaning businesses.
Mind on Green
The whole restructuring of Belmar needed to be ‘green’ right from the beginning. The city thus adapted some sustainability initiatives that would be environmentally sound. First, Belmar is a district that is walkable with wide pedestrian alleys and narrow roads to cut down on the number of cars in the district and carbon emissions. Second, atop 3 public parking garages sits an 8300 solar panel array that produces 2.3 million kWh of electrical energy per year. Third, an urban wind farm also exists to provide lighting in parking spaces. Lastly, all homes built in the Belmar area are built using energy conserving, sustainable materials (MacCleery, 2012).
A success story
In May 2014 the residents and developers came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Belmar redevelopment project. Today, this downtown urban center has provided almost 2500 employment opportunities, 3000 residential spaces, contributes around 3% of Lakewood’s overall sales tax revenue, and has led to an increase in property value.
Currently run by the Lakewood Redevelopments Authority, Belmar is a spring of civic, social, and cultural heritage, whose aim is to provide every resident with a better quality of life.