The Blacktop Jungle

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

In 1975, Colorado's brash young governor said no to the highway lobby.
Newly elected on an environmental platform, Dick Lamm vowed to "drive a silver spike" through plans for a southwest suburban beltway linking I-70 and I-25. Lamm said the highway would foster suburban sprawl and gridlock and that the money would be better spent on mass transit.

He soon received a lesson in the power of real estate interests. "I learned political jujitsu," Lamm recalls. "The way they did it was to get some people who were close to me to come and say, 'Lamm, you could get impeached. This is impeding progress.' They brought all the mayors in from around the metro area, and we ended up yelling at each other. Then they came at me through the various Democratic county chairmen. I had one developer say, 'We're not going to let you make a bunch of empty space out there as a monument to your one term.'"

Years of court battles and political infighting followed. Lamm succeeded in delaying that highway--now known as C-470--for several years. Supporters of the beltway claimed it would mark the southern boundary of the metro area. But after it was finished in 1990, growth soon spilled over the highway as booming developments such as Highlands Ranch marched up the hillsides and bluffs of Douglas County.

More than two decades after Lamm vowed to crush a Denver beltway, the development lobby has largely got its way. A 34-mile toll highway known as E-470 is now under construction on the plains east of the metro area. Within two years, that $1 billion project will allow motorists to drive all the way from I-25 in Douglas County to 120th Avenue northwest of Denver International Airport. And in Jefferson County, development interests are pushing for construction of the final segment of the beltway, a 32-mile highway known as the Northwest Parkway that would take motorists all the way from Golden to I-25 in Adams County. If that highway is ever built, metro Denver would be encircled by a loop of continuous highway extending more than 100 miles.

There will be winners and losers in Denver's new beltway phenomenon. Land speculators and developers stand to hit the jackpot. Metro residents who want to live without massive urban sprawl and air pollution won't be as lucky.

One day earlier this month, the reality of the metro beltway plays out in different ways on both sides of Denver. Near DIA, bulldozers scrape through green pasture land, leaving a ribbon of red dirt that extends for miles. Along nearby Tower Road, signs offer land for sale--"zoned for immediate construction!"--and the high-rises of downtown Denver are so far away they look like they're made of a child's building blocks. New hotels rise from the prairie, and a parade of "coming soon" billboards advertise office parks and subdivisions.

On the other side of town in Lakewood, Jefferson County Commissioner Michelle Lawrence faces an angry group of north Jeffco residents who oppose the proposed beltway. Those homeowners insist there is no need for the new highway and that it is being pushed by landowners who would benefit from spin-off development. Many of the residents live near Highway 93, the charming two-lane road that has long linked Golden and Boulder and that would be replaced by the four-lane beltway.

One Coal Creek Canyon man asks Lawrence if the Northwest Parkway, which Lawrence supports, would benefit wealthy special interests. "We're all special interests," she replies tartly. "I went to the hairdresser last night, and she had a special interest."

However, hairdressers don't benefit much from beltways--developers do. The construction of E-470 has set off a flurry of real estate speculation in the east metro area the likes of which has not been seen since the oil-boom days of the early 1980s. Already more than $1.3 billion worth of new projects have been announced along the E-470 corridor, including more than 8,000 new homes, eleven new hotels, three golf courses, and an assortment of industrial and office buildings.

Beltway critics say that will be just the start, as more and more development is funneled to the eastern fringe of the metro area. The big loser may be central Denver, which could lose thousands of jobs and millions in new investment to the fringe city quickly sprouting on the high plains.

"I have no doubt E-470 and Denver International Airport will be a powerful force drawing economic activity to the edge of the metro area," says Franklin James, who teaches urban economics at the University of Colorado at Denver. James has studied the effects of beltways on cities around the country, and he says central Denver will pay the price for the wave of new development coming along E-470.

Because airports are meccas for manufacturing businesses, James believes Denver could be at risk of losing up to 40 percent of its blue-collar jobs as industrial firms relocate to sites closer to DIA along E-470. He says the effect will be to further isolate the residents of Denver's poorest neighborhoods, many of whom work in factories along the I-70 corridor.

"Some of the lower-income blacks and Hispanics in Denver will be the big losers," James predicts. "A cynic could view DIA as a multi-million-dollar investment in Arapahoe County by Denver."

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.

"It was found that with an investment in light rail, you could handle the same amount of development with less vehicle travel, pollution and traffic congestion," says Lauren Martens of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. Martens says the full impact of E-470 still isn't clear and that much will depend on the type of development local officials allow. "The big question is, will E-470 be an uncontrolled sprawl monster or will we be able to control the kinds of development generated by it?" he says.

Hogan insists that development along E-470 need not harm Denver. "If you take the portion of the beltway open to date, you've seen new residential, Park Meadows and growth in Meridian [office park]," he notes. "But at the same time, you've seen Coors Field, the redevelopment of lower downtown and the proposed Pepsi Center. I think that shows you can have compatibility."

Whatever the final impact of E-470 on the Denver landscape, no one disputes that the new highway will affect the region's air. New roads and development generate more driving, and the beltway will add more pollution to Denver's skies. However, it's still not clear how much the brown cloud will grow because of the new highway.

When selling $654 million in construction bonds in 1995, E-470 planners estimated drivers would rack up about 840,125 miles per day on the highway by 2001. By contrast, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), which under federal law is charged with making sure new road projects don't harm air quality, estimated in 1996 that only 473,000 daily miles would be traveled in 2001. The discrepancy in figures is no accident, say opponents of the beltway.

"E-470 has an interest in saying there will be a lot of cars on the road and DRCOG has an interest in saying there won't be," says Robert Wiygul, an attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. E-470 needed high estimates to sell the bonds, says Wiygul, while DRCOG wanted low travel estimates to avoid the possibility of federal sanctions.

Federal highway law now precludes funding roadways that will boost regional air-pollution levels. E-470 is not receiving federal funding, but if Denver's brown cloud starts getting worse because of the beltway, the feds may refuse to fund everything from new off-ramps on I-25 to reconstructed viaducts on South Santa Fe Drive.

"Theoretically, there are checks in place for air-pollution impacts," says Wiygul. "DRCOG is supposed to look at those things and figure out how they can be ameliorated."

If E-470 had been a federally funded highway, it would have undergone an extensive environmental analysis to determine its effect on air pollution. But since the tollway is being funded mostly by the private investors who bought E-470 bonds, such a review was not required.

Hogan says the E-470 authority has set aside several million dollars to lessen the impacts on air quality. The authority has already agreed to pay for street sweeping in local cities (sand on streets that gets kicked up by traffic is a big part of the brown cloud) and will also use chemical de-icers on E-470. "It's all in an effort to do the right thing," says Hogan.

And concerns about air quality haven't stopped the real estate bonanza now unfolding along the new beltway. Many of the landowners along the tollway route have been enthusiastic boosters of E-470, and with good reason. Since ground was broken for the segment of E-470 between Parker Road and 120th Avenue in 1995, land values have skyrocketed. The official groundbreaking for the E-470 extension was held on a Friday the 13th, but there's no bad luck in sight for real estate speculators. Well-known Denver names like Fulenwider, Van Schaack, Fuller & Company and U.S. Home have all been involved in planning major projects along the road.

Landowners have been intimately involved with promoting the tollway since the early 1980s. Englewood developer Burt Heimlich served as chairman of the E-470 board in 1984, when the highway's initial alignment was laid out. He owned property near two interchanges included in that early plan, which was later altered. Current Commerce City planning manager Neil Goodenough worked as a consultant to Heimlich to help get Heimlich's land rezoned near a proposed interchange. After the E-470 board was criticized for being under the thumb of people with personal interests in the route, private landowners were dropped from the board, which is now composed of public officials from Adams and Arapahoe counties and some of the cities along the way. (Heimlich says he sold his property near the highway several years ago and no longer owns land in the vicinity of E-470.)

Other developers like Harvey Alpert and L.C. "Cal" Fulenwider III contributed money to pro-beltway politicians, including Arapahoe County Commissioner Polly Page, who defeated former commissioner Jeannie Jolly in 1994. Jolly and fellow commissioner John Nicholl had infuriated real estate interests by suing the E-470 board over a controversial decision to reroute the tollway west of Gun Club Road, closer to existing subdivisions that presumably would generate more traffic and more tolls. The Colorado Realtors political action committee and the Metro Housing Coalition also made major donations to Page's successful campaign. After Page's election, the commission dropped its opposition to the realignment, angering many residents of the Gun Club Road subdivisions.

That E-470 even survived the legal and financial roadblocks put in its path is testimony to the powerful interests behind it. Besides the opposition from the Arapahoe County commissioners, E-470 had to go to court to prove it had complied with a state constitutional amendment limiting tax increases. Beltway opponents argued that the E-470 authority violated the TABOR amendment by remarketing bonds for the project; the Colorado Supreme Court said that debt was authorized before voters passed the amendment and could not be challenged.

Work was also delayed in 1994 when the tollway's main contractor, construction goliath Morrison Knudsen, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The financial problems were finally ironed out when Southern California contractor Fluor-Daniel entered into a partnership to build the tollway with Morrison Knudsen.

Along the way, Morrison Knudsen has taken other steps to protect the financial interest it has in getting the project built. In 1992 the giant Boise, Idaho, firm hired the politically powerful Denver law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland. Former U.S. Senate candidate and self-proclaimed environmentalist Tom Strickland was the key player in the firm's defense of E-470. Strickland lobbied in the state legislature, worked to unseat the hostile Arapahoe County commissioners, and helped to arrange a $20 million loan to E-470 from the state transportation commission. There's a good reason Strickland's pitch to the commission didn't fall on deaf ears--he served on the commission between 1985 and 1989, the last two years as its chairman. The Brownstein firm also played a part in the multi-million-dollar sale of bonds to fund the tollway, earning $420,000 in fees.

The tollway still faces several obstacles before it reaches I-25 in Adams County. Hogan says there isn't enough potential traffic yet to justify completing the highway from 120th Avenue to I-25. Work on the northernmost link, which would help funnel northside auto traffic to DIA, probably won't begin until after the turn of the century.

E-470 wouldn't be happening if not for Denver's new airport. The eastern beltway was touted as a necessity to help suburban residents reach DIA, and the same high-powered political coalition that pushed for DIA supported the road. Frightened by the regional recession of the mid-1980s, voters abandoned their skepticism of high-powered development schemes and rallied behind a pro-growth business agenda that included a new airport, reconstructed streets and highways, and the novel eastside highway that would break with local tradition by charging a toll.

"During the 1980s there was a powerhouse political coalition for growth at any cost," says James. "That's the coalition that pushed E-470."

Officials in Arapahoe and Adams counties, as well as in Aurora, Parker, Commerce City and Thornton, lobbied for the new highway. The state legislature authorized the creation of the E-470 Public Highway Authority in 1987, and the next year voters in Adams and Arapahoe counties were asked to approve a $10-per-year motor-vehicle registration fee to help pay for the new road. They okayed the fee by a vote of 126,116 to 91,305, setting in motion the financial juggernaut that finally sent bulldozers rumbling across the plains.

Promoters were willing to pay whatever price was necessary to push E-470 through. Today a silent witness to their tenacity remains on the prairie near Sixth Avenue. Jude, a 39-year-old mule belonging to the elderly owner of a key piece of property in the highway's path, represented a possible threat to the road. He had grazed on the land for decades, and his owner was very concerned about him. To reassure her, the E-470 authority agreed to build Jude a new home. "We created a new pasture for him as part of the project," says Hogan. "We agreed to take care of the mule until the day it dies."

Colorado 93 is a narrow, windswept road that gives drivers a taste of the Old West. Linking Golden and Boulder, the two-lane highway runs over rickety wooden bridges and past gravel turnoffs into ranches that still have homemade signs welcoming visitors. The bucolic scene becomes more ominous as the road heads north past the Rocky Flats plant, which still houses fourteen tons of deadly plutonium.

This may seem an improbable spot for dreams of super highways, regional shopping centers, vast office parks and upscale housing. But officials in Arvada and Jefferson County think that one day this stretch of rural asphalt will rival Park Meadows as a suburban beehive.

To make that happen, a new freeway replacing Colorado 93 would be a necessity. And since voters in the area turned down a plan to build a four-lane highway known as W-470 in 1989 by a four-to-one margin, proponents of a new road--which they've redubbed the Northwest Parkway--have their work cut out for them. But just as E-470 survived multiple crises, boosters are determined to see their vision of a spanking new highway linking Golden with Arvada, Broomfield and Adams County come to pass.

"It's ludicrous to have a beltway three-quarters of the way around the city," says Jeffco commissioner Michelle Lawrence. "The one piece missing is out of my district."

A former state representative from Arvada, Lawrence has emerged as a leading proponent of the Northwest Parkway. She's now trying to secure funding for a $500,000 feasibility study that would assess the potential for a new highway through the northern part of the county. She says beltway opponents--including residents along Colorado 93 and the cities of Golden and Wheat Ridge--are fighting the inevitable and that growth in the area will one day require an expanded highway.

"I honestly believe it will be built someday," insists Lawrence. "The question is, are we going to plan ahead or wait for it when we're desperate?"

The Northwest Parkway proposal is tangled up with Arvada's plans for a vast expansion into the grasslands and mountains west of the city. Arvada has an agreement with developer Howard Lacy to work together on Lacy's proposed 18,000-acre Jefferson Center, a sprawling complex of offices, industrial parks, retail and housing that would extend from Indiana Street all the way into Coal Creek Canyon. Arvada has been annexing much of this land and has been involved in an ongoing fight with residents of the area who hate the whole idea of massive development along the foothills.

"Out here, we're hanging on to a little crumb of what used to be a beautiful expanse of the Front Range," says Doris DePenning, a Coal Creek Canyon resident who opposes the proposed beltway.

Arvada is so gung-ho about encouraging new growth to the west of the city that the town has resisted plans by the Jefferson County Open Space department to buy up land in the foothills along Colorado 93. The city has long been envious of neighboring Westminster's enormous regional mall, and talk of one day building a huge shopping center at the intersection of highways 93 and 72 is a tantalizing dream for the suburb.

Regional malls and office parks require easy access, though, and currently there is none in that part of Jefferson County. If Golden and Wheat Ridge have their way, there never will be. The two cities are vehemently opposed to the whole idea of the beltway, and their opposition may prevent it from ever happening.

"If a major freeway comes through Golden, it will destroy the community," says Golden city manager Mike Bestor. "There really isn't any good reason to build a highway through here. We're saying you're not going to destroy one of the oldest communities in the metro area to help build new development. It would put another 100,000 cars a day through here."

Bestor says Goldenites are already weary of the traffic from Sixth Avenue and Highway 58 that streams through the city, and there is almost unanimous opposition to a new beltway.

In nearby Wheat Ridge, the city fears the project will divert funds needed to maintain existing roads. "There are a lot of other options that would be more beneficial to citizens than this freeway," says former Wheat Ridge city councilman Vance Edwards. "Citizens have made it clear they have no interest in it. It's a boondoggle to benefit one developer. It will encourage sprawl and destroy a lovely part of the county."

Edwards represents Wheat Ridge on a county committee charged with making long-term transportation plans. During a meeting last month he got into an angry exchange with Lawrence over the proposed beltway. "You can call it W-470, the Northwest Parkway or Fluffy the Cat, but it just doesn't seem to die," he told her. "Just when you think it's finally dead, it pops up again."

"Well, Fluffy has nine lives," retorted Lawrence.
The beltway is primarily an economic development vehicle for Arvada, insists Edwards. "Arvada is out of control in dealing with growth," he says. "They never met a developer they didn't like. If I have anything to say about it, Fluffy will get neutered."

But Lawrence says the area will be developed with or without the beltway and that the longer the county waits, the more it will cost to build the highway. "That growth is coming," she adds. "They're going to have to get their heads out of the sand in Golden. I'm disappointed that they've chosen to pooh-pooh the whole idea."

The conflict between cities in Jefferson County is very different from the solid support suburbs in Adams and Arapahoe counties offered E-470, and it makes the construction of the Northwest Parkway unlikely anytime soon. But the development lobby never stops pushing for new roads, and the idea won't just go away.

Dick Lamm knows firsthand the kinds of pressure public officials can come under to fund new highways. Looking back, he says he thinks he mishandled the dispute over C-470 as a result of youthful arrogance. But the former governor still believes beltways are a bad idea.

"I think history will say beltways are not a solution but a problem," he says. "Beltways are consumptive of taxpayer money, water and clean air. What's next, I-4701, I-4702 and I-4703? This is how they built Los Angeles. Tell me what we're doing differently than Los Angeles did.

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