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The Blacktop Jungle

Are the series of superhighways inching their way around Denver a "beltway"--or a noose?

Where others see a dusty expanse of nothingness on the eastern plains near DIA, Julie Bender knows a boomtown is quickly coming into being. She's seen the future, and it's behind a tollbooth.

The president of the Aurora Economic Development Council and the DIA Business Partnership, Bender talks almost daily to developers interested in the E-470 corridor. "They see the economic center of the metro area is shifting east," she says. "They're really planning for the future, and they see that's where economic development is going."

Bender ticks off the names of a dozen hotels either open or under construction near the highway. Most of the tollway won't even be done until the summer of 1999, but already plans are in the works for several new industrial and office parks near DIA.

"It's really on the scale of a new town or city," Bender says. "You can compare it to the impact of the Dulles Airport toll road in Washington, D.C., or the highways leading to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. In terms of development, you'll see all types--residential, retail, office and industrial."

Steve Hogan, the executive director of the E-470 Public Highway Authority and an Aurora city councilman, has also seen the interest from developers along the route. He believes the highway has already spurred new residential construction in southern Aurora and will stimulate new commercial development near DIA. But he insists that visions of multiple Highlands Ranches spilling out onto the prairie are off the mark.

"The difference is the geography over here and the things already there that won't allow that kind of sprawl," says Hogan. Obstacles to endless subdivisions along the E-470 path include Centennial Airport, the Lowry landfill, the designated open space at Aurora's Plains Conservation Center and Buckley Air National Guard Base. Hogan says the highway will draw more new housing to southern Aurora and office and industrial projects to DIA, but not the sprawling mess forecast by critics.

"I was out in Los Angeles ten days ago, and it goes on forever and ever," he says. "I think people in Colorado have a history of learning from the mistakes of others and doing better."

However, CU-Denver's James says Denver is well on its way down the same path taken by Los Angeles. He notes that on maps of Southern California, concentric freeways spread out from Los Angeles like the layers of an onion. "Denver is already on the Los Angeles model, except we're smaller," says James. "The area has chosen a Los Angeles model of decentralized, automobile-dependent patterns of living."

The stakes for the city of Denver couldn't be higher, according to James. A massive beltway will make it easy for suburbanites to live, work and play on the edge of the metro area, never venturing into central Denver. He says that's bad news for downtown and the city in general.

"Denver has been struggling for years to revive retail downtown and inner-city housing," he says. "Park Meadows has drawn retail traffic from Cherry Creek. You can foresee as people move out that shopping centers will develop at both ends of the metro area. This is bad news for Denver, because sales tax is the biggest source of revenue."

James foresees Denver following a well-established pattern: As development dollars and new residents flow to the suburbs, the central city loses its tax base, services from police to parks decline, and even more residents decide to flee to faceless subdivisions.

Burgeoning Highlands Ranch is a perfect example of the power of a beltway, says James. "C-470 greatly increased the pace and pattern of development," he says. "Highlands Ranch may have happened anyway, but it would be happening much more slowly and on a smaller scale."

James says moving the airport to the edge of the metro area was also a mistake for Denver. "I think centrally located airports are important assets to the inner city," he adds. "They generate a lot of blue-collar jobs."

Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton shares James's concerns about the effects of the beltway on the city. "They tend to suck development out of the center city," she says. "E-470 just spreads the sprawl at a huge price. It's taken us forty years to start to see what happens with this."

Unlike James, Moulton doesn't believe Denver is in immediate danger of losing its blue-collar jobs. She says the owners of most of the industrial facilities strung out along I-70 still feel they have good access to the airport and want to be on the interstate and close to the Union Pacific rail line as well. But she believes a beltway encircling most of the city is bad news for central Denver.

"I've never known a beltway to help the inner city," she says. "You do everything you can to show how downtown is different, knowing it will always be a fight. It's an American dream to have your little ranchette."

Moulton adds that Denver will have to emphasize its advantages, including walkable neighborhoods, a lively downtown, access to transit and a dependable water supply.

A few metropolitan areas around the country have been trying to find alternatives to the sprawl of the American cityscape. The best known is Portland, Oregon, which has drawn a growth boundary around the area beyond which development is not allowed. A belt highway was proposed around the western suburbs of Portland in 1988, the same year voters here approved E-470. But in Oregon, a strong citizens' lobby challenged the whole idea of a new highway and eventually forged an agreement that called for new light-rail lines to the western suburbs and more compact development around the light-rail stations.

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