For crumbling Thornton Mall, eminent domain may be the city’s best bet
THORNTON — After nearly 20 years of code violations, health orders, lawsuits and complaints from neighbors, a dilapidated and abandoned mall that once shone with the promise of mid-century American suburbia has just reached a critical milestone towards a long-awaited makeover.
But it took the strong arm of the government – through an eminent domain action filed in court on August 1 – to finally push forward the long stalled transformation of the Thornton Shopping Centre. A judge could authorize the City to take possession of the strip mall, built in 1955 and plagued by contamination problems that will cost millions to remedy, as early as October.
Chad Howell, Thornton’s redevelopment administrator, said the town had done everything it could over the years to “sweeten the pot” with various developers to get them to take over the site, which could cost upwards of $10. million dollars for a complete cleanup.
“No matter how they cut this project, they couldn’t put together a pro forma project that they could make money on,” Howell said.
The city and the mall’s longtime owner Jay Brown couldn’t agree on the price of the property, Howell said. Eminent domain — a forced sale by court order against the will of the owner — was Thornton’s last resort, he said.
Brown declined to comment, citing the lawsuit filed against him by the city.
“There’s no one else who has the resources to tackle this problem right now,” Howell said. “What are we supposed to do – just let it go?”
Leaving it resulted in what stands today at the northeast corner of Washington Street and East 88th Avenue: a 15-acre parcel of aging buildings filled with a scattering of businesses still in operation – a living room of manicure, a motorcycle school, a church, a post office – next to vacant storefronts.
Two Doors Down Bar & Grill: Closed. Trini’s Hair Salon: Gone. Mr. K’s sports bar: kaput. So are half a dozen other businesses that once provided food, drink and service to this southern part of Thornton, Colorado’s sixth-largest city.
“There’s a total sense of neglect,” said Seamus Blaney, who has lived in the neighborhood for a dozen years and has frequently addressed city council in support of the site’s revamp. “The immediate area has a bit to offer but it has been overlooked.”
Blaney said he walks past the Thornton Mall – which he calls an “economic black spot” in the city of nearly 150,000 people – several times a day and winces at his condition. And that’s just what’s on the surface.
Spilled dry-cleaning chemicals — namely perchlorethylene — have migrated over decades into groundwater, posing potential health concerns for adjacent neighborhoods. The state health department has long since ordered their cleanup. Tests have been carried out at 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 traces of the chemical were detected.
Meanwhile, the demolition of buildings from the 1950s and 1960s will first require expensive asbestos removal.
Although Brown would not comment on this story, he wrote a letter to Governor Jared Polis in May 2020 seeking relief and describing his streak of bad luck since buying the mall in 2005.
First there was the exit of a stalwart from Albertson’s grocery store, 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 followed.
“Physically and emotionally this has been a disaster for my life,” Brown wrote to Polis.
Councilor Kathy Henson, who has represented this oldest stretch of Thornton for nine months and has spoken out against the mall’s condition for years, said the town’s move is a long time coming.
“It’s a watershed moment in this whole process because it’s a definitive decision by the city to take ownership of this property,” she said. “I am delighted that we are finally moving forward.”
Howell said if the judge approves Thornton’s acquisition of the property this fall — a price for the mall would be determined by a court at a later hearing — the city could begin moving tenants, tearing down buildings and clean up the contamination in about two years.
Then the city would market the site to a developer, he said.
“The Thornton Mall redevelopment is going to be a catalyst for the revitalization of South Thornton,” Henson said. “I see him as a real pivot in unlocking the potential of Original Thornton.”
The mall, which featured a Woolworth’s and Miller’s Market when it opened in 1955, trumpeted on a promotional sign at the time that “a state-of-the-art shopping center is being erected on this strategic site”. Thornton was incorporated as a town the following year, with a population of less than 10,000.
“It’s our town’s home,” Henson said of the Thornton Mall. “But over the past two decades, that has been a burden, not a benefit to the community.”
Blaney said the mall has maintained property values in neighborhoods around East 88th Avenue, where Thornton merges into unincorporated Adams County. Meanwhile, the northern stretches of the city, where there is plenty of available land to build on, have exploded 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 biggest sales tax generator in town. A year later, Topgolf opened in Thornton, less than four miles north of the mall.
“Would this be accepted on 120th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard?” Blaney asked, referring to the deplorable conditions at the Thornton Mall.
Thornton, who claims the property through his Urban Renewal Authority, still has a lot of work ahead of him before he can turn the commercial site into something new.
Last year, the owner injected a compound underground designed to break down harmful chemicals from dry cleaning, but Howell said the effectiveness of that effort won’t be known for about a year. Relocating the tenants still there will be the city’s first challenge, he said.
A Dollar General is under a 10-year lease in the mall, while the ever-bustling post office needs a new home. Word Alive Church in the southeast corner of the property, Howell said, is reluctant 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 have to leave so we can clean up.”
Blaney can’t wait. But it’s important, he said, that the site is not turned into high-density housing, but remains a place where South Thornton residents can shop and dine. The Plaza las Americas mall across East 88th Avenue from the Thornton Mall, anchored by a Walmart neighborhood market, could serve as an example of how an infill project can provide an economic boost to the neighborhood. .
With a site cleaned up and redeveloped where Thornton’s first mall opened 67 years ago, Blaney said the town could land the kind of high profile business that Northglenn did earlier this summer: Prost Brewing Co., which will build a new brewery and distribution center in a former 72,000 square foot retail space in the nearby town.
“I believe that’s what eminent domain was built for,” he said. “I think there is light at the end of the tunnel.”