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Denver's old airport offers urban planning opportunity.

DENVER (AP) -- It's a developer's dream: A parcel of land one-third the size of Manhattan is suddenly open for construction in the heart of one of the nation's fastest-growing regions.

The 4,700-acre former Stapleton International Airport site just minutes from downtown is being transformed into a mix of neighborhoods, offices and retail, with plenty of parks, bicycle paths and open space.

It is the largest urban development in the country and one that promises to be the "poster child for smart growth," according to the key developer of the project.

The Stapleton project also is just the latest in a string of efforts at redrawing the face of Denver.

Over the past two decades, the city has taken eyesores and turned them into urban gems, transformed military surplus into new neighborhoods and changed a dilapidated downtown into a land of lofts and nightclubs.

Denver has become a national model for the new urbanist movement, which discourages sprawling suburbs and promotes preservation of historic architecture.

"Stapleton is going to have a huge impact nationally on how you take a large piece of land near downtown and build in a way that's sustainable," said John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute.

"What we get as a result of that is going to be a wonderful test of whether we know what we're talking about today."

The city has been successful in part because of a long history of businesses interested in staying downtown and city leaders who supported them.

"It's been kind of a spirit of the business community to say, `We've got to stand up for downtown's business interests and recognize that we have competition,'" said Anne Warhover, president of the Downtown Denver Partnership.

Denver was founded in 1858 by gold prospectors and grew from about 5,000 in 1870 to 106,000 people in 1890 as it became an agricultural and mining center. Today Denver has 554,000 people.

The city's growth slowed in the early 1900s and then boomed again as oil and gas companies began tapping resources in the Rockies.

During the 1970s boom, Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment that severely curtailed Denver's growth, making it more difficult for the city to annex surrounding land. Proponents said it would keep the city from overwhelming surrounding communities, although the unspoken intent was to stop school busing to the suburbs.

The Poundstone Amendment halted the city's growth in its tracks as many newcomers moved to adjacent suburbs.

Few things, it turns out, could have been better for Denver.

The Poundstone Amendment forced planners to expand within city limits and focus on new revenue after stores that generated sales taxes followed people to the suburbs.

"What no one recognized was the amendment was going to force people like me to make Denver even more vibrant because we knew we were not going to be able to compete for sales tax dollars," said Federico Pena, mayor from 1983-91 and a Clinton Cabinet official.

An economic boom after World War II saw the replacement of many historic downtown buildings with skyscrapers and parking lots.

But in the late 1960s, leaders took a greater interest in preserving old buildings. The result was an emphasis on getting businesses to reoccupy older structures rather than building new ones.

In the aftermath of the 1980s oil bust, property values plummeted. City officials began trying to salvage the economy in part by redevelopment.

Planners placed all three professional sports venues in the city's heart, within walking distance of each other, finishing with Major League Baseball's Coors Field, which opened in 1995.

The development helped turn an amalgam of empty brick warehouses into lofts that can sell for more than $350,000 for a one-bedroom unit. Restaurants, night clubs and shops spawned a new night life.

"We have a lot to show for that success," said Andrew Hudson, spokesman, for Mayor Wellington Webb.

But now, housing costs have priced some people out of the market.

"Denver is becoming unaffordable for people like me. We fall between the cracks," said Regina Wilson, a 36-year-old mother of one who is a data entry clerk. "It's sad that people who were born here can't afford to live here anymore."

The median cost of a home in Colorado is now $168,896, the sixth-highest in the country, surpassing New York state at $150,673.

Since 1990, Colorado's population grew 31 percent to 4.3 million last year and was the third-fastest growing state, according to the 2000 census.

Amid this explosive growth, Denver had good luck and good timing. Lowry Air Force Base closed in 1991, and Denver helped redevelop it just when it needed more space.

Planners shaped a closed-in neighborhood on 1,866 acres, offering a mixed-income residential community with 4,000 homes and apartments ranging from just over $100,000 to $1 million. Builders are developing more affordable apartments and transitional housing for once homeless families.

There are schools, along with plans for a consortium of colleges emphasizing technology.

Now, city officials are focused on the former airport site, a 12,000-home project that has attracted the interest of cities from Dallas to Moscow to Beijing. Stapleton was replaced by Denver International Airport, about 40 miles from downtown, in 1995.

The Stapleton development will open gradually as zones of homes and commercial real estate are developed. Planners envision a place where residents will walk to work in five business centers and stroll down tree-covered, quiet streets lined with boutiques and coffee shops. It will feature several different architectural styles but planners want it to blend in with many other neighborhoods, with garages accessible only by rear alleys and houses offering front porches that face grassy areas.

Nearly 30 percent of the development will be parks and open space, increasing the size of the city's park system by 25 percent. Outdoor lighting will be designed so residents can see the stars after dark.

"This is supposed to be the poster child for smart growth, where people can live within walking distance of their jobs," said Tom Gleason, spokesman for the master developer of the site, Forest City Development Corp.

If all goes according to plan, people will start moving into homes later this year, but the entire project will take about 25 years.

Political support has been a crucial component in Denver, where city government has worked closely with downtown businesses.

"For the central cities, the queen city, the capital city, you had to have this vibrant core," Pena said.
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Author:Wadhams, Nick
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U8CO
Date:May 6, 2002
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