Westminster Center isn't much to look at now — a few buildings and lamp posts from bygone parking lots dot fields of gravel and weeds.
But give it some time, and the site of a once-popular mall will look like a new downtown, with apartments, shops and a grid of streets. It's one of a handful of projects following the trail blazed by Belmar, the successful redevelopment of a dead Lakewood shopping mall.
It's also the sort of development that could drive the metro area to become one of the country's most walkable metropolitan areas, according to a new study.
Redevelopment projects, such as the Westminster Mall overhaul, paired with transit investments will help propel the metro area into the nation's 10 most walkable cities, the study says. It's expected to jump from No. 14 now to No. 9 in the next 10 to 15 years.
Washington, New York and Boston top the current list. Denver sits behind Philadelphia and ahead of Houston.
The top cities have shifted planning strategy to urban-style development from sprawling growth, said George Washington University researcher Chris Leinberger, the study's lead author. By the end of the decade, he thinks most Denver-area cities will have done the same.
"We're seeing sprawl end," Leinberger said.
The study found that 18 percent of metro Denver's retail and office space is in walkable urban areas.
Researchers expect that number to hit 28 percent by the end of the next real estate cycle — after the market drops, rises back and begins to fall again.
That growth will come along planned light-rail corridors and around old shopping malls that are slated to be redeveloped, Leinberger said.
Virtually all of the area's malls will be rebuilt to be more urban, mirroring the Belmar development that replaced the Villa Italia mall a decade ago, he said.
Companies in metro Denver pay a 44 percent premium for real estate in walkable areas, up from 24 percent in 2007, which suggests a pent-up demand for that sort of space, Leinberger said.
"There's a market for it, and the reason is that we've been doing a far poorer job of it over the past 50 years," said Wesley Marshall, a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado Denver.
Westminster city manager Brent McFall said the rise of new-urban developments won't change entire suburban cities, but it will give them unique identities and their residents new options.
But perfecting new-urban developments is tricky, said Marshall, who last week released a study about planning issues in Denver's young Stapleton neighborhood, which replaced the old Denver airport.
Marshall said developers and cities need to do more than just look the part. They need to give residents alternatives to driving and loosen regulations built around car culture.
Build them right, though, and such projects could bring social, economic, environmental and health benefits, Leinberger said. The less residents spend on transportation, for example — money that leaves the area — the more they spend locally.
"You are so far in front of everybody right now in the mountain states," he said. "You made the right investments, and they're just about to pay off."
Thad Moore: 303-954-1902, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/thadmoore