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Is eminent domain the best way for Thornton to clean up a crumbling, contaminated shopping center?

THORNTON — After nearly 20 years of code violations, health orders, lawsuits and neighbor complaints, a dilapidated and forlorn shopping center that once gleamed with American mid-century suburban promise just took a critical step toward a long-awaited makeover.

But it took the strong arm of the government — through an eminent domain action filed in court on Aug. 1 — to finally move the long-stalled transformation of the Thornton Shopping Center along. A judge could authorize the city to take possession of the strip mall, built in 1955 and beset with contamination issues that will cost millions to remedy, as soon as October.

Chad Howell, redevelopment administrator for Thornton, said the city did everything it could over the years to “sweeten the pot” with various developers to prod them to take over the site, which could cost upwards of $10 million to fully clean up.

“No matter how they sliced this project, they couldn’t put together a project pro forma that they could make money on,” Howell said.

The city and the shopping center’s long-time owner, Jay Brown, couldn’t agree on a price for the property, Howell said. Eminent domain — a forced sale by court order against the owner’s wishes — was Thornton’s last resort, he said.

Brown declined to comment, citing the legal action taken against him by the city.

“There’s no one else that has the resources to tackle this right now,” Howell said. “What are we supposed to do — just leave it?”

Leaving it has resulted in what sits at the northeast corner of Washington Street and East 88th Avenue today: a 15-acre parcel of aging buildings filled with a scattering of still operating businesses — a nail salon, a motorcycle school, a church, a post office — alongside vacant storefronts.

Two Doors Down Bar & Grill: closed. Trini’s barber shop: gone. Mr. K’s Sports Bar: kaput. Same goes for a half dozen other businesses that once offered food, drinks and services to this southern stretch of Thornton, Colorado’s sixth-largest city.

Judy DeHaas, Denver Post file

An abandoned Albertson’s at the corner of 88th Avenue and Washington Street in Thornton is pictured in 2010.

“There is a complete sense of neglect,” said Seamus Blaney, who has lived in the neighborhood for a dozen years and has frequently addressed the city council in favor of revamping the site. “The immediate area has a bit to offer but it has been neglected.”

Blaney said he drives past the Thornton Shopping Center — which he calls an “economic black spot” in the city of nearly 150,000 — several times a day and winces at its condition. And that’s just what’s on the surface.

Spilled dry-cleaning chemicals — namely perchloroethylene — have migrated over the decades into groundwater, posing potential health problems for adjacent neighborhoods. The state health department long ago ordered their cleanup. Testing was done in some nearby homes in recent years to see if fumes from the chemical plume had drifted into people’s living spaces, and the city says no trace of chemical was detected.

Meanwhile, demolition of the 1950s and 1960s-era buildings will require costly asbestos abatement first.

While Brown wouldn’t comment for this story, he wrote a letter to Gov. Jared Polis in May 2020 seeking relief and outlining his run of bad fortune since purchasing the shopping center in 2005.

First, there was the exit of an Albertson’s grocery anchor, then the Great Recession, then the unraveling of a deal to sell the center a few years ago. The pandemic and a lawsuit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment compelling remediation followed.

“Physically and emotionally, this has been a disaster to my life,” Brown wrote to Polis.

Councilwoman Kathy Henson, who has represented this oldest stretch of Thornton for the past nine months on council and has decried the shopping center’s condition for years, said the city’s move was a “long time in coming.”

“It’s a definite turning point in this whole process because this is a definitive move by the city to take ownership of this property,” she said. “I’m thrilled we’re finally moving forward.”

Howell said if the judge approves Thornton’s acquisition of the property this autumn — a price for the shopping center would be determined by a court at a later hearing — the city could start to move tenants out, demolish the buildings and clean up the contamination in about two years.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

The top section of the sign at the Thornton Shopping Center, located at the northeast corner of East 88th Avenue and Washington Street, is empty on Aug. 10, 2022.

Then the city would market the site to a developer, he said.

“Redevelopment of the Thornton Shopping Center is going to be a catalyst for the revitalization of south Thornton,” Henson said. “I see it as a real linchpin for tapping the potential of Original Thornton.”

The shopping center, which featured a Woolworth’s and Miller’s Market upon its opening in 1955, trumpeted on a promotional sign at the time that an “ultra-modern shopping center is being erected on this strategic site.” Thornton was incorporated as a city the following year, with fewer than 10,000 residents.

Courtesy of City of Thornton

This image provided by the City of Thornton shows the groundbreaking ceremony for the Thornton Shopping Center in 1955.

“It’s the home of our city,” Henson said of the Thornton Shopping Center. “But for the last couple of decades, it’s been a burden and not a benefit for the community.”

Blaney said the shopping center has held down property values in the neighborhoods around East 88th Avenue, where Thornton melts into unincorporated Adams County. Meanwhile, the northern stretches of the city, where there is plentiful available land on which to build, have been exploding with new housing and retail developments, he said.

The 330,000-square-foot Denver Premium Outlets, with 60 retailers, opened in Thornton north of East 136th Avenue four years ago. It is expected to be the city’s biggest sales tax generator. A year later, Topgolf opened in Thornton less than four miles north of the outlet mall.

“Would this be accepted at 120th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard?” Blaney asked, referring to the blighted conditions at the Thornton Shopping Center.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

An empty store at the Thornton Shopping Center, located at the northeast corner of East 88th Avenue and Washington Street, is used as storage.

Thornton, which is making the claim on the property through its urban renewal authority, still has a lot of work ahead of it before it can transform the retail site into something new.

The property owner last year injected a compound underground designed to break down the noxious dry-cleaning chemicals, but Howell said the effectiveness of that effort won’t be known for another year or so. Relocating the tenants that are still there will be the city’s first challenge, he said.

A Dollar General is under a 10-year lease at the shopping center, while the still bustling post office would need a new home. The Word Alive Church in the southeast corner of the property, Howell said, is reticent to give up its reasonably priced lease.

Several attempts to reach church officials for comment this week were unsuccessful.

“We’re going to help,” Howell said. “Unfortunately, they’re going to need to leave so we can clean up.”

Blaney can’t wait. But it’s important, he said, that the site not be turned into high-density housing, but remain a place for residents of south Thornton to shop and dine. The Plaza las Americas shopping center across East 88th Avenue from the Thornton Shopping Center, anchored by a Walmart Neighborhood Market, could serve as an example of how an infill project can give the neighborhood an economic boost.

With a cleaned and revamped site at the spot where Thornton’s first retail center sprouted 67 years ago, Blaney said the city could land the kind of high-profile business Northglenn did earlier this summer: Prost Brewing Co., which will build a new brewery and distribution hub in 72,000 square feet of former retail space in the neighboring city.

“I believe this is what eminent domain was built for,” he said. “I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”