Let's See What Develops

City visionaries offer their top moments in Denver design history.

In Denver, the best intentions often go astray -- so you can only imagine how wrong the worst intentions go. Actually, you don't need to imagine anything: You can just look at the Denver of today, created through a series of efforts to push the city toward the bolder and better -- or to squelch the city in favor of supporting the suburbs. So even as Peter Park starts building for the future, we thought it was high time to ask other prominent past and present officials this question: "In the development of metro Denver, what was the most critical project or event -- good or bad -- over the last fifty years?"

Wellington Webb: "Denver's precious park system, which serves as a back yard for those who don't have one of their own." Webb points out that from 1991 to 2003 (his tenure as mayor, by the way), the city's park open space increased from 2,409 acres to 4,759 acres. During that time, Denver also saw the completion of Commons Park in the South Platte River corridor, "an important part of the redevelopment of lower downtown." Webb chalked up numerous other public projects in the boom years of the '90s, including the $4 billion (depending on who's counting) Denver International Airport, which opened in 1995 and ranks high for its economic benefits to the city and state -- "from the $3 billion a year generated at Stapleton to the more than $8 billion generated at DIA."

Dana Crawford:Usually the words "developer" and "preservationist" don't exist in the same sentence unless they're separated by the word "battle." But for more than forty years, Dana Crawford has been rehabbing Denver's historic buildings that otherwise would have fallen to Mr. Wrecking Ball. In Crawford's view, the 1988 designation of lower downtown as a historical district was one of the most significant events in the city's development. The protected status of the 26-block area helped preserve the architectural character of the warehouse quarter, even as its inhabitants changed from skid-row bums to urban loft-dwellers. Crawford also credits the work done by Jennifer Moulton, the city's planning director from 1992 to 2003, who steered the redevelopment of Stapleton and Lowry.

Tom Clark:Now the executive vice president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Tom Clark remembers reading this newspaper headline a decade ago: "Eighteen Months and a Federal Bailout, Says Airport Expert." The opening of Denver International Airport was a "seminal event of the latter twentieth century," writes Clark, "full of intrigue, clashes of political titans, charges of real-estate skullduggery and rife with historical revisionism." Although few believed it could be built in an era of environmental regulation or would ever pay for itself, today the airport is a "$16 billion economic engine" for the region, Clark says. "DIA not only provided a much-needed jolt to the local economy, but more so restored our faith in this community and ourselves. This carried over into new stadiums, new parks and the voters' willingness to construct -- in a single project -- the largest transit system in the history of the nation."

John Parr:John Parr worked on the Downtown Plan for then-mayor Federico Peña; he's now a consultant on growth-management issues. In the early '70s, Parr fought alongside future governor Dick Lamm to stop the '76 Winter Olympics from coming to Colorado. For the most significant event, though, Parr points to the 1974 passage of the Poundstone Amendment, which limited Denver's ability to annex land from outlying suburbs, effectively boxing the city in when it went looking for new areas of growth. Another development that greatly affected the city was the group of decisions that placed the Broncos stadium, Coors Field and the Pepsi Center all in the Central Platte Valley. "Because of where they're located," he says, "it's been a tremendous argument for building out the light-rail system, because you have to get all the people out from the suburbs into the city for the games." As opposed to, say, Kansas City, where all the stadiums are located in the outer rings of the suburbs, this concentration "helped keep the core of the Denver region vital, where in other cities the core needs all the help it can get."

Susan Barnes-Gelt:"The eight-county approval of FasTracks recognizes that the conversation about our most pressing issues transcends artificial political boundaries," writes the former city councilwoman, adding that FasTracks challenges us to confront the struggle between the individual and the community and redefine urbanism in a Western context. "It's an acknowledgement that our natural setting is fragile, that individual property rights may not be sacrosanct, that each political jurisdiction is not an independent kingdom," she says. It also gives us the opportunity to embrace -- not eschew -- our cities and to integrate quality of design and thoughtful planning in our schools, civic buildings, retail centers and mixed-use projects; urban and suburban infill can give us places worth caring about. Consider the alternative if FasTracks hadn't passed in November, she says: "more highways, leading to anonymous, resource-eating subdivisions that will doom our fragile Western landscape."

John Hickenlooper:Regionally, DIA has had the biggest impact, says Denver's current mayor. But for the City and County of Denver itself, the tipping point was the implementation of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District originally approved by voters in 1988 and endorsed again this past election. According to Hickenlooper, "It said, 'All right, we're not just a cowtown. We've had enough of these oil booms and busts. We're not going to be defined by one industry. We're a city that is defined by our art museum and Museum of Nature & Science and our zoo -- by our commitment to culture.'" The 0.1 percent retail sales tax collected in seven metro counties now distributes over $30 million to local cultural organizations every year.

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