Denver's Old Airport Offers Urban Planning Opportunity

Article excerpt

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. …