Self-storage business could displace longtime residents

As the Denver area expands, old-timers can face hard choices. From the Littleton Independent.

George and Donna Franz's home on South Santa Fe Drive is likely to be torn down if a rezoning request is approved. George and Donna, who did not want their picture taken, said they don't know where they'll go after 55 years renting the little house.

When George and Donna Franz moved into the home they rent on South Santa Fe Drive in 1962, their rent was $85 a month, and they passed the time riding horses along the railroad or counting the handful of cars rolling along the two-lane highway.

If a plan making its way through the City of Littleton's rezoning process is approved, before long the little, white wood-frame bungalow they call home will be bulldozed and replaced with 800 self-storage units.

George and Donna, both 78, don't know where they'll go, but with them will go a link to Littleton's agricultural past.

“It was great here until everything built up around us,” said George, a retired truck driver, wringing his hands at the kitchen table. “It used to be so quiet here. We sure miss all our old friends. We wish we knew where we're going to go.”

Their home at 6505 S. Santa Fe Drive is owned by Gary Sutton, whose family ran Valley Feed and Supply, the feed store on Main Street that closed in 2015 after 78 years in business.

George and Donna's house is one of two on a large lot along the South Platte River. Two large barns on the property were used to store hay and straw for the feed store. The other house on the lot, a handsome brick ranch-style, was home to Sutton's mother until her death in 2002. After a brief stint as a rental, it now sits abandoned.

Santa Fe Drive, once a country highway that was home to more cows than people, has become a densely populated stretch, and the handful of old homes like George and Donna's are becoming scarce.

With the feed store now a vacant lot on a Main Street that seldom sees a farmer, and Sutton and his wife Roberta living in Sedalia, Sutton felt it was time to sell. If the rezoning goes through, the buyer — with whom Sutton is still working out terms — would be Cornerstone Storage, which would like to build 800 self-storage units on the property, including “garage condo” units often used to store cars.

For that to happen, the city would have to rezone the property from its current residentialstatus to PD-I, or Planned Development — Industrial. Cornerstone and Arapahoe Mental Health Center, which operates Bridge House, a residential treatment facility for mentally ill adults next door to the property, have jointly applied to have the property rezoned. Bridge House would get more parking out of the deal. Other details, including the possible sales price, were not yet available.

The rezoning application was recently approved by Littleton's Planning Commission, and was passed unanimously on first reading at the July 18 city council meeting. The final step, a public hearing, is scheduled for the Aug. 15 city council meeting.

Looking back

The property, cut down from 18 acres to four after years of piecemeal sales, is sandwiched between the sprawling Denver Seminary campus and Bridge House. Waist-high prairie grasses dance in the breeze on the long hill sloping toward the cottonwoods shading the South Platte River. Behind George and Donna's house, Siberian elms shroud the old Sutton home, where years-old phone books lie piled on the stoop.

Sitting at the table of their home on a hot July afternoon, George and Donna looked back on 55 years on the country road turned city.

“We raised our son here,” Donna said, her smiling eyes scanning the walls, hung with old black-and-white photos. “I raised chickens, rabbits — I grazed 13 cows where the seminary is now.”

The Suttons charged George and Donna $85 a month in rent when they moved in. Today they pay $450 — about a third of the average Littleton rent.

The opportunity to buy the house never came up, Donna said.

“Paul Sutton, that's Gary's dad, he never would've sold to us,” Donna said. “That was the frontage of his property. And, well, after all those years, this was just home. Gary's 10 years younger than us — we just assumed he'd hold onto the property.”

Looking ahead

The Suttons are working to make sure the Franzes won't wind up with nowhere to go, said Roberta Sutton, Gary's wife.

“We're all trying to help them out,” Roberta said. “They're trying to find housing in about the worst market we've ever seen in Denver.”

George said they've been working with real estate agents, but their options aren't great.

“I got a call from the real estate guy the other day — he said he'd found us a house, but to bring my work belt because it needs lots of repairs,” George said. “Oh, and absolutely no low bids, cash only. They want $400,000 for it. Can you imagine?”

Donna said their health issues have slowed them down some.

“I just had a knee replacement and George had a triple bypass,” Donna said. “This is no time in our lives to have to make these kind of decisions, but you do what you have to do, I guess.”

Roberta said she and Gary offered to knock the Franzes' rent down to $50 a month for the remainder of their tenancy.

“But George called us and said, 'I won't have it. The rent's $450 a month, and that's what we'll pay you.' ”

Roberta said though Gary's mom has been gone for years, selling the property will still sting.

“So many Christmases and Thanksgivings in that old house,” Roberta said. “And all those years, George and Donna looked after Gary's mom. These are people we owe something to. They're good people and I will not put them out on the street.”

Cornerstone Storage's rezoning application calls George and Donna's home “not representative of the highest and best use for the property.” Cornerstone says its “garage condo” storage units are ideal for “collector cars, art, jet skis, snowmobiles and luxury RVs,” an amenity they say is “particularly attractive to business leaders, executives and professionals.”

If all goes according to plan, the houses and barns will be gone before long.

“Like all things, it's time to let go,” Roberta said.

Cornerstone Storage promises that its storage units will be cognizant of the lot's past: according to their rezoning application, their proposed buildings “have been designed to evoke a rural theme reminiscent of a more agricultural society of the past.”