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Change of Plans

Once hailed as the perfect community, Northglenn is ready to fight for its life.

The small house at 320 East 104th Place is about the closest Northglenn comes to a historic building -- and that's precisely why Bill Sullivan wants to tear it apart.

Once, in the age of Ozzie and Harriet, the single-story, 820-square foot, two-bedroom "Matchless" model was an emblem of upward mobility and consumer bliss. Now, almost fifty years later, Sullivan walks through the back yard, where construction crews recently completed the foundations for the enlarged kitchen, master suite, family room and garage that will be added to the original structure. As director of the Northglenn Neighborhood Development Corporation, Sullivan chose to renovate this residence not only because he was able to pick it up cheaply from its previous -- and illegal -- use as a multi-unit rental, but because of its symbolic location.

As the first filing built in 1959 on lot #1 of the soon-to-be-burgeoning "North Glenn," the brick abode was one of five show homes that introduced an entire generation of Denverites to clean, affordable, suburban living. For better display, the residence was positioned on the plot at a 45-degree angle.

Forty-seven years later, that presents problems for Sullivan.

"On a normal lot, we'd put a two-car garage, but we had to make sure the addition was five feet from the property line," he explains, motioning to the rectangular hole that will soon be filled with a one-and-a-half-car garage.

He steps inside through the back door, walking past heaps of linoleum scraps and construction debris to where the Custom Deluxe-model Frigidaire oven has been jacked out from the original kitchen wall. The stove now serves as a makeshift display table for the remodeling blueprints that Sullivan believes illustrate the first hope of many small hopes for struggling, first-tier suburbs around Denver.

The non-profit NNDC was established by the Northglenn City Council in 2004 with a goal of encouraging residents to enlarge their existing homes with add-ons and pop-tops. The organization has come up with a variety of options based on the seven basic floor plans that were the foundation of the North Glenn subdivision as it expanded acre by acre through the '60s and '70s; following these plans, homeowners can widen the garage, attach an extra room or two, even plop on an extra level. And for a modest fee, the NNDC will even produce the permit-stamped architectural drawings and guide clients all the way through the bidding, construction and inspection process. With materials and labor, Sullivan says, the total cost for the homeowner would run between $75,000 and $80,000.

Down in Denver, barely a week passes in popular neighborhoods like Hilltop or Washington Park without a new spat arising over a pop-top or scrape-off of an old home. But while a row of 3,500-square-foot houses going up in certain central Denver neighborhoods would have residents screaming bloody murder, a nice, neat line of McMansions along the winding streets of Northglenn might prompt city officials to throw a parade. That's because the NNDC isn't just working to make the area look nicer, it's also trying to put economic patches on a city in the early stages of decline.

Once pockets of white middle-class prosperity around the country, inner-ring suburbs have taken on characteristics often associated with the urban cores of the cities they surround. Many of the towns whose main housing stock was built in the post-WWII era now suffer from woes that traditionally afflicted downtown urban centers: falling tax bases, an aging population and sagging infrastructure. Social problems have followed as well, and nightly news stories about gangs, crime, drugs and poverty are no longer narratives exclusive to the inner city, but extend into suburbia. In the metro area, places like Lakewood, Englewood and Commerce City have racial, economic and political demographics that more closely resemble Denver than they do Highlands Ranch or Superior.

As sprawl continues to spill new housing and business parks farther onto the prairie, landlocked suburbs such as Northglenn have found themselves left out of the development boom, subject to the same vacuum of sales-tax dollars that they previously sucked out of Denver. And in the meantime, a dramatic resurgence of investment in Denver's core -- neighborhoods that haven't seen new construction in thirty years are now in the crosshairs of loft developers and fix-and-flip artists -- is driving real-estate prices up and poorer residents out. If these trends continue, the metro area could soon come to resemble East Coast cities, where the low-income neighborhoods are found not in the urban interior, but in the first ring of modest towns that surround it -- places that are not quite urban and no longer really suburban.

Northglenn isn't blighted -- not yet. But it's come a long way from "the most perfectly planned community in America," as LIFE magazine once dubbed it.

Ozzie and Harriet wouldn't recognize the place.

Bill Sullivan lives in Park Hill, one of Denver's oldest neighborhoods, and makes the 25-minute drive out to the suburbs for work. His job with the NNDC is a role reversal, too, "a flip-flop for me, because I've been doing primarily affordable housing and community development in rebuilding inner cities," he says.

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