Today, the Belmar neighborhood of Lakewood, Colorado, is a busy mixed-use downtown district, covering 22 blocks in this suburb of 142,000 just west of Denver. Shoppers stroll the streets. Residents dine at sidewalk cafés. Kids play in the plazas. Standing here, you’re ten minutes from downtown Denver, ten minutes from the foothills, and half an hour from the 14,000-foot peaks of the Rockies.
You’d never know that this bustling, pleasant place was—until just a decade or so ago—a typical suburban mall that had outlived its life cycle.
That mall, Villa Italia, opened in 1966 to great fanfare. It was constructed on the site of what was once the grand Belmar estate, where Denver Post heiress May Bonfils recreated Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon château. When Villa Italia opened, it was one of the biggest enclosed malls in the nation—the pride of Lakewood, and a big part of putting the community on the map in the rapidly developing metropolitan Denver area.
But by the ’90s, Villa Italia, like so many malls of its generation, had fallen into a decline. The model of department store anchors and a sea of parking out front was outdated, and people just weren’t coming anymore.
Lakewood didn’t want the downhill slide of the centerpiece mall to take the whole city with it. And so its leaders and residents started thinking seriously about what they wanted for the future of this 104-acre site at the heart of town. Working with real estate developers Continuum Partners, who eventually bought the site, the city undertook a yearlong process to imagine what would take Villa Italia’s place.
“One significant thing that happened was that early in the process they put together a community advisory board,” says George Valuck, executive director of the Alameda Gateway Community Association, which covers an area encompassing the Belmar development. Continuum showed the people of Lakewood pictures from places all over the world to spark a discussion about what they wanted this place to look like.
“They asked, what makes a livable community?” says Valuck. “It turns out it’s sidewalks, it’s uniqueness of buildings.”
And so, when rebuilding began, the emphasis was on turning completely away from the big-box mall and instead creating a walkable district that looked like it had evolved organically, rather than being fabricated from scratch. A local brickmaker even painstakingly created different types of brick for different buildings to prevent a uniformity of façades.
“They don’t look like they were all built at the same time,” says Valuck, who was actually the marketing and leasing manager of Villa Italia during the years it was winding down. “I come from the mall business. Malls can be nice. But malls look like malls, but this looks like a place.”
Valuck says that since the Belmar development opened up, starting in 2004, there has been a tremendous positive impact on the entire city. “I call it the Belmar effect,” says Valuck. “It’s working as we speak, and it’s affecting what’s going on across the street. The neighborhoods around Belmar have been strengthened.”
Valuck says that the local schools, which had been facing declining enrollment and achievement, have turned around. The high school has gone from a 57 percent graduation rate in 2004 to a 90 percent graduation rate in 2012. Colorado Christian College decided to expand within the city’s borders. And Lakewood was named an All-America City by the National Civic League in 2011, an honor earned by only ten cities each year.
Lakewood’s Belmar has become an archetype of new suburban development, the same way that Villa Italia was an archetype of the old model. “It’s bringing the urban lifestyle into a suburban community,” says Valuck.
And that is attracting people. In its 22 blocks, Belmar has more than 80 stores and nearly 250,000 square feet of fully leased office space. Lots of people want to live here, too. The complex includes nearly 1,700 residences that draw residents of all ages.
“The residential lifestyle is unique,” says Valuck. “We’ve got everyone from seniors in wheelchairs to young, cutting-edge kids, and everyone in between. It’s all about diversity. What really makes a community is the diversity of people who live and work there.”
Watch The History of Belmar documentary to find out more about the dramatic transformation from mall to community.