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THERE GO THE NEIGHBORHOODS

DENVER'S PLANNING DEPARTMENT IS ACCUSED OF PLANNING OBSOLESCENCE.

If she feels at all beleaguered, Jennifer Moulton isn't showing it. Standing behind a podium in the auditorium of Carson Elementary School, Moulton looks decidedly calm despite the anger and the heat. It is after 8 p.m., and more than 200 east Denver homeowners are in the audience, peppering the city's director of planning and community development with questions about plans to bring homeless shelters and low-income housing to Lowry Air Force Base when it closes in September. The room is sweltering, in part because someone has turned on a set of wall-mounted Klieg lights for the benefit of two television newsmen recording the proceedings with a video camera and a boom mike.

Many members of the audience hate what the government plans to do out at Lowry, and they're in a nasty mood. A federal law called the McKinney Act requires that portions of surplus federal property--including closed military bases--be set aside for providers of services for the homeless. Lowry residents have been assured in the past that any shelters at the base will be "good neighbors," but many don't buy it. One nonprofit group wants to put in a home for the mentally ill. Another would open a residential care facility for homeless people with AIDS. Yet another has applied to give counseling and other services to women who have had "involvement in the criminal justice system."

Moulton has come to assuage fears. The latest rumor buzzing through the crowd is that Lowry has been designated an "empowerment zone" under a new $3.5 billion urban renewal program initiated by President Bill Clinton. The residents envision a host of new welfare programs sprouting up at the base, along with a requisite increase in crime, graffiti and drug use. They fear a sharp decline in the value of their homes. "It's one big tax-exempt social experiment," Lowry resident Anne Callison says of the empowerment-zone program. "It's points taken from the Great Society and the War on Poverty and enterprise zones. [They'll] roll it all together and have one-stop shopping for every welfare offering made in America."

Moulton informs the crowd that Lowry has not, in fact, been designated an empowerment zone. The city, however, has applied to the federal government for empowerment-zone status, which would cover not only Lowry but fifteen other census tracts in the Denver area as well. If selected, the city stands to get $100 million in federal funds over ten years.

The planning boss makes no apologies: At Lowry, she says, empowerment-zone money would be used to fund infrastructure improvements, not welfare programs. That in turn should speed private development of the site, which is what the Lowry neighborhoods want. "It is an opportunity for the city," she tells the homeowners. "It's a lot of money that this city cannot afford not to go get." When she sits down, after an hour of interrogation, Moulton even receives a polite round of applause.

Afterward, however, it's clear she hasn't converted everyone to her point of view. Callison, co-chair of a group called the United Neighborhoods Organization, remains convinced that Lowry is destined to become "a homeless magnet for the West" under the empowerment-zone program. "I thought she did a great spin job," Callison says of Moulton's speech. "I didn't buy half of what she said."

People who join homeowners' associations are a notoriously cranky lot. Forget Bosnia, health care and welfare reform: If you want a really contentious dispute, go to a planning board meeting and listen to citizens wrangle about roadway medians, easements, speed bumps and floor-area ratios. "Most people in neighborhoods really enjoy the status quo," admits Larry Life, zoning chairman for the Sloan Lake Citizens Group. "They won't agree to anything, no matter what, come hell or high water."

But among Denver neighborhood groups right now there seems to be more than just the obligatory amount of sniping at City Hall. Lowry's neighbors are up in arms. Cherry Creek North merchants are angry that the city has washed its hands of an agreement written to control redevelopment of the nearby shopping center. People in Congress Park feel forgotten because the city fumbled its work on their neighborhood plan. In Capitol Hill and Globeville, they're fuming about the city's recent attempt to revise a carefully crafted group-home ordinance, hashed out over more than two years, to regulate the placement of homeless shelters and community corrections facilities.

Many critics in the neighborhoods compare the administration of Mayor Wellington Webb to that of Federico Pena, and don't like what they see. Pena, they say, was a near-zealot when it came to neighborhood planning. He fervently believed in including neighborhood groups in the decision-making process. He poured money into neighborhood improvement projects. Webb, they say, either doesn't care as much, or, buffeted by the political turbulence surrounding Denver International Airport, simply doesn't have the time to worry about neighborhood matters.

"Clearly there's a difference in philosophy," says councilwoman Debbie Ortega. "The previous administration had a very strong commitment to neighborhoods. That commitment is not the same as it was."

"I definitely feel like this administration has been too distracted by big-ticket projects like [DIA] to be concerned about neighborhood issues," agrees Jan Belle, executive director of the SouthWest Improvement Council, a group representing Westwood. "We've been put on the back burner while they try to get that stupid airport to fly."

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