By Michael Roberts
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"I at least thought we were going to get a couple of down votes," says Eric Rieken, one of hundreds of residents who packed a Westminster City Council meeting to protest a proposed 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter. "But they pretty much discounted everything we said."
Like many newcomers to Colorado, Rieken and his wife were drawn by the allure of openness. But in the rapidly developing northern periphery of Denver, Rieken is unsure how long that vision will last.
After Rieken, a computer programmer, landed a job at a GIS mapping software firm three years ago, he and his wife began searching for a house that was not only near open space, but close enough to Interlocken office park that the commute would be no more than 45 minutes. They settled on Broomfield. In his free time, Rieken, who has the tall, wiry frame of a long-distance runner, trains for marathons and also enjoys biking and extended day hikes -- activities that weren't as accessible in San Antonio, his former home. It was a pleasant-enough city, Rieken insists, but it didn't have the same commitment to the natural landscape that he found in the Denver area. The tenth-largest city in the nation, San Antonio has only seven cumulative miles of trails, "while the small town of Broomfield has 43 miles of trails," he says. "So you could immediately tell what people value just by something that simple."
The Riekens chose a house in a new development at 136th Avenue and Zuni Street adjacent to hundreds of acres of farmland, a welcome break from the disorienting uniformity of strip malls that had been built to the south in recent years. "Neither of us are 100 percent into suburbia," Rieken says. "But if you have to have suburbia to be close to work, then having those gaps of open farmland is great."
But what incoming residents often perceive to be a solid reminder of Colorado's rural roots, developers and property owners may regard as underutilized ground cover. Unless the land has been designated as "open space" (which, by definition, is land removed from the market and therefore closed to new growth) by some official entity, that piece of earth is just one annexation or zoning change away from being developed -- and all the plants, creatures and unobstructed views on top of it from disappearing. And in the northern metro area, one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation, empty real estate is rapidly filling up. The Colorado Department of Local Affairs estimates that growth in the three-county -- Broomfield, Adams and Weld -- area will increase by 58 percent by 2020, for an additional 100,000 people. So even as Rieken complains about new developments, he's painfully aware of his own complicity in destroying the very thing that inspired him to move here.
"I'm the first one to admit that I'm part of the problem," he says. "I came from another area, and my wife and I plopped down here in suburbia in a new development. So I can't complain when other people are making the same kinds of decisions. I understand growth. I just think that city planners should plan. There's a big disconnect."
That disconnect has been very evident over the past year, as anti-Wal-Mart citizen groups protested before city councils across the northern suburbs. When Rieken spoke in opposition to a proposed Wal-Mart at 136th Avenue and I-25, he presented a stack of petitions with 2,836 signatures that he and other volunteers had collected at a nearby Safeway. While people had varying reasons for opposing the project, Rieken smartly centered his argument on issues that he knew the Westminster council could actually take into consideration, land-use questions like noise, traffic and the project's appropriateness for the site. This new store would abut a gravel trail system that the city maintains along Big Dry Creek, where Rieken jogs. Why would the city want to ruin one of its prize attributes, he asked, when it's made such a commitment to open space in the past?
Despite Rieken's best efforts, the Wal-Mart project -- which had moved to Westminster after Thornton blocked a proposed store across the highway -- was approved unanimously by the council. Wal-Mart already has five stores in the northern Denver region, and now approved plans for two more -- which would give the north metro area a Wal-Mart roughly every five square miles. But two anti-Wal-Mart measures are going to the voters November 1, and rumors about two more possible Wal-Marts have people on edge.
If residents of the northern suburbs are truly concerned about growth in the region, however, they need to look beyond big, bad Wal-Mart. Because those stores are just a drop in the development bucket.
At the intersection of I-25 and Colorado 7, where Broomfield and Thornton meet, two huge regional retail projects are in the works. On the Thornton side is Larkridge, slated to open October 20 and set to become the largest retail development in Colorado. Billing itself as a "regional power center," Larkridge boasts a commercial area that, when finally built out, will be 240 acres, the equivalent of 180 football fields, with two million square feet of shopping space (400,000 more square feet than at Park Meadows, the state's largest indoor mall). Already open are Sears Grand, Circuit City, Home Depot, PetsMart, Office Max, Dick's Sporting Goods, Pier 1 Imports and dozens of other chain stores and restaurants.