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Ousting Auto Businesses Could Be Core of Longmont Main Street Corridor Plan

January 5, 2019
Traffic lines Main Street near First Avenue on Dec. 19. City staff has begun forming the Main Street Corridor Plan, a new initiative, envision fostering redevelopment and new uses of much of the real estate along Main. See more photos at timescall.com.

Longmont officials, through a new initiative, envision fostering redevelopment and new uses of much of the real estate along Main Street’s entirety, and some residents would like those efforts focused on properties with automotive businesses.

But how forcibly and expeditiously city leaders should implement their desires is up for debate.

City staff has just begun forming the Main Street Corridor Plan, but so far its stated goals are similar to another city planning effort started in the mid-2000s that sputtered in its influence over the current and future layout of Longmont’s central north-south thoroughfare.

The Main Street Corridor Plan will begin to take a more definitive shape over the next several months, with the city soliciting feedback from business owners, property owners, residents and other stakeholders. The goal is to confirm the plan’s recommendations by April and develop an implementation strategy from May to August.

Ambitions like past plan

That process might feel a bit like déjà vu to city leaders and residents who paid attention to a similar effort, called the Midtown Redevelopment Plan, adopted in 2005. That plan aimed to bring more investment in new retail space, office space and housing to Main, Kimbark, Terry and Coffman streets from Longs Peak to 17th avenues.

That plan, though, was hampered in part by the 2008 recession that put the kibosh on development citywide, Longmont Principal Planner Erin Fosdick said.

But while the amount of housing, especially multi-family units, has boomed throughout the city since the end of the recession, more diverse businesses along much of Main Street have not been as quick to follow suit.

The city in 2018 issued 346 building permits for single-family homes . versus 973 for other types of residential space for 1.8 million and 1.5 million square feet, respectively, according to city reports.

By comparison, non-residential building permits issued by the city over the past three years amount to 1.6 million square feet of new space; 2.9 million square feet in the last 10 years.

Residents in early Main Street Corridor meetings have requested less automotive-based property uses, such as used car dealerships and repair shops, partly echoing the stated ambitions of city leaders behind the Midtown plan more than 10 years ago.

Such businesses consistently dot properties on either side of Longmont’s downtown area from 11th Avenue to the St. Vrain River, which officials have called Character Area 3 in the Main Street Corridor Plan.

Officials have divided Main and a several-block swath on either side of it into four character areas to be assessed for redevelopment and new land use opportunities as part of their vision for the corridor, with Character Area 1 running from Colo. 66 to 17th Avenue; Character Area 2 from 17th to 11th avenues; and Character Area 4 from the St. Vrain River to Plateau Road.

“We are very focused on ensuring this current plan doesn’t sit on the shelf. We will be preparing detailed implementation strategies and are involving our partners as well as stakeholders in the community,” Fosdick said, noting the inclusion of the Longmont Area Chamber of Commerce, Longmont Economic Development Partnership and Longmont Downtown Development Authority in the planning process.

Waiting on property value increases

So far, officials seem inclined to take a similar hands-off approach to the objective of replacing car-based property uses along Main Street as they did with the 2005 Midtown plan.

“As redevelopment begins to take hold and land prices begin to rise, physical limitations which currently restrict the scale of redevelopment opportunities will lessen as low ‘floor area ratio’ uses, such as automotive sales, succumb to market forces and land owners begin to seek the highest and best use for an increasingly valuable asset,” the Midtown plan’s summary states.

Planning and Zoning Commission members in November unanimously approved automotive sales as new conditional uses of adjacent properties at 1330 and 1402 Main St. for the expanding Victory Motors used car dealership.

That came just minutes after the commission was briefed at length by city staff on the Main Street Corridor Plan and the early requests for less density of car-based businesses.

The approval also came despite opposition from former City Councilwoman and current alternate Planning and Zoning Commission member Sarah Levison, who did not cast a vote but argued in public comment that voting against the properties’ new land use would show a commitment to bringing the Main Street Corridor Plan to fruition more successfully than the old Midtown plan.

Levison pointed out there was a planning commission hearing for the same property to use it as a car wash shortly after the Midtown plan’s adoption, and the commission turned down the proposed use despite city staff’s recommendation for approval. The Pacific Auction House ended up using the property for several years until moving elsewhere in the city in late 2016 .

“How would change happen if you have another use which is just following along with the same auto-dependent uses?” Levison said.

She cited an economic analysis of the parcel done years ago by the city as part of the Midtown plan that she argued proved the “best use” for the land is not a car-based business, and that the per-square-footage value has only increased over time.

“The capacity for this property is enormous. ... Here is the future that was seen in 2005, and the vision was (for change) by 2015, and frankly we still have that vision today. ... This is why people have less hope in this process,” Levison said.

But for the Planning and Zoning Commission, turning down proposed land uses to hold out and see what other applications might be made, or to force a property owner to consider redeveloping or selling to afford or get out from under the property tax on a Main Street parcel, seemed too similar to Boulder’s approach.

“Ms. Levison brings up the question of the highest and best use for the property, and the town to the southwest of us tends to disapprove of projects until they get what they want and what they think they want,” Planning and Zoning Chairman Michael Shernick said. “I struggle with that, because to me that’s an abridgement of someone’s property rights. Just because it isn’t the highest and best use you see over the next 20 or 30 years doesn’t mean it isn’t an appropriate use now or for the next five years maybe.”

Car dealers still successful

He suggested change throughout the Main Street corridor should occur at the pace by which property values and the corresponding property taxes rise enough to drive out uses that can’t foot the bill.

“Eventually the owner of this property will not be able to pay his property tax simply by selling cars. He will have to develop upward, and then it will change. I don’t know how long that’s going to take, but that’s how it will change,” Shernick said.

Fosdick noted city staff hasn’t specifically objectified lessening auto-oriented uses, but Longmont residents at a public meeting held in November to introduce the Main Street Corridor Plan’s scope suggested pushing to spark such a trend, as have some business owners on Main.

Fosdick also said properties with car businesses tend to have features that make them prime for inexpensive and uncomplicated redevelopment.

“I don’t think we’ve determined that there will be a specific initiative to lessen auto-oriented uses within the corridor, however, this is something that can be looked at during the planning process,” Fosdick said, noting properties with car-based businesses tend to have fewer structures of considerable value, making redeveloping them easier than properties that have experienced extensive construction.

Right now, though, a Main Street lot remains conducive to business, according to Angel Compian, manager of Vista Auto Sales near 15th Avenue. He hopes the city’s promotion of redevelopment and new land uses along Main doesn’t spur change too quickly and make selling to someone with other plans for the property too sweet a deal for his landlord to pass up.

“Business is pretty good here on Main. That would be a bummer if they for some reason or somehow were able to get us to leave or move, because where would they send us to? Most likely out in an industrial area where we don’t have the high visibility and traffic. It could affect us, even though a lot of business is done on the internet now,” Compian said.

The focus, though, shouldn’t be on moving existing businesses, but rather turning down new future automotive-based land-use applications within the Main Street corridor, and hoping such businesses slowly relocate outside the city center, said Steve Smith, owner of repair shop Carworks of Longmont.

“The city of Boulder has been doing this for a long time. They didn’t want auto repair downtown. They wanted it to be on the outskirts of town so they could do something else in town. I think the end result is working for Boulder and it could work for us. But it’s happening over the course of time,” Smith said.

Other suggestions

Increasing the height limit of buildings within the corridor, which are limited to four stories, was advocated by Mayor Pro Tem Polly Christensen as a redevelopment incentive. She even would like to see 10-story buildings, she said, and the addition of public bathrooms along Main Street.

City staff also mentioned they have fielded requests for slower speeds on Main Street in the southernmost Character Area 4, as well as signs marking where Longmont begins, and especially where the downtown area begins.

Improving safety for pedestrians crossing Main in the northernmost character area, where some residents have referred to its long stretches without crosswalks as “superblocks” that encourage jaywalking, also has been requested.

Capturing traffic headed to Rocky Mountain National Park on Colo. 66 and diverting vehicles down Main Street into Character Areas 1 and 2 to bring more customers to businesses also was labeled as a goal of the project.

“Our existing conditions assessment noted a limited office and employment presence in Character Area 1. This might be an opportunity for this specific area,” Fosdick said.

Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, slounsberry@prairiemountainmedia.com and twitter.com/samlounz .

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