Southmoor has one of Denver’s best NIMBY records, but they’re bracing for more change

The neighbors of Southmoor Park are a developer’s nightmare.

They’ve gone to the Colorado Supreme Court to stop high-rise development. They’ve used clever legal strategies and fearsome homeowners associations to stop multiple major plans over the years. They’ve fought to preserve the suburban lifestyle that they bought into decades ago.

And now, they’re eyeing ideas from their own city council member, Kendra Black, who thinks the Southmoor light-rail station could be part of “the next Belmar,” rather than a lonely Chili’s in a movie theater parking lot.

“This idea that we could create a little Main Street or plaza in this ‘suburban’ area — I am interested in that, but I need to hear from the community,” Black said.

Chances are, the community won’t be so sure. It’s a conflict we may see more often as Denver tries to seed urban hubs near transportation corridors: Established residential areas are facing increased redevelopment pressure.

“Some people are for density and some people are not. But it’s not a suburb. We’re inner city,” said former councilwoman Joyce Foster. “That can be very exciting. But people are afraid of change, because they don’t trust developers.”

Southmoor Station, Jan. 24, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
The sub-I-25 tunnel to Southmoor Station, Jan. 24, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Southmoor Station is an unusual spot.

Stepping off an E-line train, riders come face-to-face with a blank wall on one side — and 11 lanes of Interstate 25 on the other.

The station would only be a short walk from the front door of Thomas Jefferson High School, except that there’s a wall in the way. Because of the barrier, the only way out is through a cavernous pedestrian tunnel beneath Interstate 25 to the east. Anyone trying to head west has to take a winding route up to busy Hampden Avenue.

This was intentional. Neighbors near the rail station fought fiercely to stop easy pedestrian access near their homes, according to Foster.

“I was almost killed that night by the neighbors on the west side of the I-25,” the former councilwoman said, thinking back to a rail planning meeting in the early 2000s. “They challenged RTD, CDOT, the city … They absolutely refused. I could not override them. I said, ‘I’m going to feel very sorry for you.'”

The rail resistance near Southmoor was “extreme, but it was par for the course,” Foster recalled. “It was wild. Nobody wanted (transit) until everybody wanted it.”

Some 15 years later, Southmoor has seen less development than some of its neighbors on the line. The commercial area next to the station is a low-key strip mall with acres of parking, a grocery store, a movie theater and a Chili’s.

Now, the city is once again asking how this valuable piece of land might change. Councilwoman Black has made it a focus of her mission to revamp southeast Denver, with a “visioning” meeting coming up on Feb. 20. And, to add a little intrigue, the seven-acre movie theater site sold in 2014 for $15 million.

The new owners did not return a request for comment, but neighbors sense change in the air.

“You look at all those developments along the rail line … We’re kind of pinned right in between,” said Stephen Rohs, a Southmoor Park East Homeowners Association board member. “It’s not if, but when.”

Southmoor residents have been fighting developers and density since the 1980s.

The Southmoor area’s neighborhood groups have been very effective in controlling development in their area — a thorn in the side of the powers that be.

“You had a lot of naysayers out there. They all complained that the end of the world is going to come,” said Bill McMullen, a former RTD director in southern Denver. “If you want to get a bunch of negative people together, have a community meeting — especially about transit.”

The neighbors, of course, see it differently: They’re just trying to preserve their lifestyle.

“It was one of the more upscale neighborhoods in the south part of town — it had more of a suburban look to it and design and feel for it,” said Casey Funk, president of the Southmoor Park East Homeowners Association.

They’re not opposed to all development, Funk said. He’s a rail rider himself, and he questions the westside homeowners’ choice to block pedestrian access to the station.

“If something is proposed that is attractive to us, attractive to our neighborhood, we’re open to it,” Funk said.

A home seen across I-25 near the southmoor RTD station, Feb. 7, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

But he doesn’t like the intensity of development that he’s seeing at other stations — and his organization has a lot of influence to shape what happens in Southmoor.

“We’re very uneasy about the high density — ugly, really ugly type — I don’t even know what to call the box-like structures that are being put up around the light rail stations,” said Funk.

The neighbors have claimed a lot of victories over the years.

Some Denver residents complain that they have little ability to stop the major projects reshaping the city. That’s not the case in Southmoor Park.

A brief history:

The Regal cinema near the Southmoor RTD station, Feb. 7, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The locals even have a secret weapon: In 1997, eastern Southmoor residents convinced a landowner to give them a high level of control over 12 acres near the station. “They were very fair with us. They wanted to make sure that we were OK,” Funk said.

So, if anyone  wants to build larger than 150,000 square feet on that site — about the size of the nearby Target — they’ll need the permission of the neighborhood association, according to the document.

What options does that leave?

Those limits mean that Southmoor won’t be seeing anything like the high-rises planned for 38th and Blake — not without the residents’ permission, anyway. Since 1997, new construction has included a Marriott hotel, a Chili’s, a dentist’s office and The District apartments.

But experts convened by the nonprofit ULI argued that the status quo wasn’t an option. “Since auto-oriented communities have been going out of fashion over the last few decades, status quo Southmoor will fall behind market trends and fail to meet market demands,” a report on the area states.

“… Economic and physical decline will ultimately have safety implications for the neighborhood and its current residents.” (We detailed that retail decline at the end of last week’s story.)

Still, locals say there’s room for compromise.

“We need to be involved with what development is going to happen down here, or it’s going to be crammed down our throat,” Rohs said.

Residents want to see a coffee shop, a craft brewery, perhaps some new trails, according to the ULI report. They’re amenable to “high-quality residential and office,” the report states — but “they did not want low-income housing or high-density development.”

In interviews with ULI, neighbors expressed some very typical concerns about density: Would more people mean more crime? More cars?

These are the kinds of questions that have shot down countless development projects in suburbia. They’re a large part of the reason that we’ve seen nearly no new development in the “suburban interior” of the largest American cities.

“We don’t want increased traffic. That’s number one,” Funk said.

For context, we checked in with Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor at Georgia Tech who has studied transit-oriented development intensively. She pointed to Belmar, the Lakewood project that replaced a shopping mall with an urban-ish district.

“Belmar tripled density on the site — yet didn’t need to widen area roads or add any new traffic lights precisely because it captured so many internal trips,” she wrote in an email to Denverite.

In other words, people theoretically won’t use the roads as much if a surge of development can put more stuff they need in one spot. That kind of mixed-use philosophy is gaining traction elsewhere in south Denver, but Funk counts himself a skeptic.

“People come to live in Colorado because they want to go to the mountains — so, they will always have a car,” he said. “More people. It always comes down to that.”

Black said she’ll listen to those concerns. “The only way to unlock (Southmoor Station) is to find out what the community wants,” she said.

Of course, Southmoor’s lack of development isn’t just on its neighbors.

Like many of the southern stations, it was built with drivers rather than pedestrians and development in mind.

“Part of it, indeed, is that a lot of these stations were set up to be commuter stations. The focus was on getting cars in and out, and providing plenty of parking,” said Chris Nevitt, transit-oriented development manager for Denver.

The other part, he said, is that they were built where space was available along Interstate 25 — a huge honking barrier.

“Two things will happen when we make those better connections, when we make it easier to access the station. The obvious one is that more people will take transit, which is a good thing,” Nevitt said.

“And, also, the more accessible the station, the bigger the value impact of the station on the surrounding area. There’s a value dividend from proximity to transit, contrary to what the neighbors around Southmoor think.”

And McMullen, the former RTD director, thinks it’s only a matter of time before that starts paying dividends. “You’ve got to wait for someone to come with a sack of cash and a vision to do something,” he said. “Right now, it’s on hold.”

Southmoor Station, Jan. 24, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
This isn’t the only transit station with development and connectivity issues, even a decade after the new lines opened in south Denver.

Colorado Station:

The city is struggling with the “nightmare” that pedestrians face in trying to cross Evans Avenue. “Evans is horrible, it’s just truly horrible,” Nevitt said. Denver is working with RTD and a developer to install a crossing signal for pedestrians at Ash Street, he added.

Still, development here is coming along, including plans for 350 apartments in a “luxury” complex at Colorado and Evans.

Yale Station:

“Yale Station is in exactly the same situation. It’s a death-defying feat to get across it from the South, and to the east is I-25,” Nevitt said.

The Yale RTD station, Feb. 7, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Belleview Station:

This southerly station is “going like a house on fire,” Nevitt said. Standing not far from Denver Tech Center, its surroundings are being developed by a company under a master plan. It could end up with about 2.2 million square feet of intelligent office space, 300,000 square feet of retail space, 1,800 residential units, one or two full- service hotels, and more than five acres of plazas and open space.

County Line Station:

Planners originally wanted to build a rail station at the Park Meadows Mall, but the mall’s ownership refused to allow access, according to Foster — leaving RTD to build the station at the edge of a huge parking lot and connect it with a $4.5 million pedestrian bridge.