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Before the late-night jokes about the baggage system, before the opening-day snowstorm and the seven-hour breakdown of the train system on Black Sunday, and long before the 9/11 attacks changed the way people fly, Denver International Airport was already full of surprises — not all of them pleasant.
Curt Fentress remembers going out to the site when it was Colorado's largest and most astounding construction zone. Piles of dirt were heaped everywhere. Ziggurats of dirt, more than a hundred million cubic yards of the stuff. Enough, one flack calculated, to bury 32 city blocks a quarter-mile deep.
"There were thousands of people working there," Fentress recalls. "It was dangerous going around, because the roads changed every day. There were different paths because of the grading process, and you really had to watch out. They had EMT groups standing by, waiting to pick up anybody who might get injured. It was already getting to be a city in itself."
8500 Peña Blvd.
Denver, CO 80249
Category: Community Venues
Region: East Denver
Fentress and his then-partner, Jim Bradburn, had been brought in to design the airport's terminal late in the game, after Mayor Federico Peña had rejected a ho-hum terminal proposal from another architect. Peña wanted the Fentress-Bradburn firm to give the city something distinctive, something "memorable" — "like the Sydney Opera House," he told Fentress.
The new team gave Hizzoner more than he bargained for: a tepeed fever dream on the prairie, its sweeping, Teflon-coated fiberglass roof suggestive of the peaks beyond, the expansive interior bathed in natural light. The Jeppesen Terminal would soon become one of the most recognizable (and beloved, according to an American Institute of Architects poll) new public buildings in the country, launching Fentress on a career filled with accolades and distinguished iconic projects, including airports from Korea to Qatar.
And the airport it serves — once the source of hooting and derision among the locals, over everything from its swollen price tag (which soon doubled, from $2.5 to $5 billion) to its godforsaken location, 23 miles from downtown Denver — has emerged as one of the state's most critical assets. With an estimated $22 billion annual impact on the local economy, 30,000 on-site workers and 140,000 passengers a day, Denver International Airport is, as Fentress put it, "a city in itself" — and one that's left an indelible mark on the city next door.
Peña had run for office on the campaign slogan "Imagine a Great City." More than anything else the brash young mayor achieved, DIA managed to put flesh on those words, declaring Denver's intention to compete on a global scale — and paving the way for a new ballpark, a new stadium and other public-works projects.
"The difference between the city when that slogan came out and today is incredibly dramatic," Fentress says. "DIA gave a lot of people in the community the confidence that we can build these things."
The quest for a new airport to replace increasingly cramped Stapleton International had occupied local politicians for years, culminating in two public votes in the late 1980s that cleared the way for annexation of land and financing. After months of further delays tied to an automated baggage system that devoured bags, DIA opened on February 28, 1995. It was a shaky start, marred by technical glitches and some of the highest operational costs in the country, a result of the many concessions granted to woo United Airlines while Continental retreated. The paucity of foreign flights led one New York Times wag to sniff that "Denver's airport is international in name only."
The trains broke down. The runways cracked. And the baggage system kept disemboweling luggage, much to Jay Leno's amusement. The system was ultimately scrapped, but not before United and the city had spent ten years and close to $700 million trying to salvage it.
The airport celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this week with few reminders of that bumpy takeoff. DIA has become the fifth-busiest airport in the country and the ninth-busiest in the world. It's consistently ranked in business travelers' surveys as one of the best airports in North America, and Travel + Leisure recently declared Jeppesen Terminal among the world's most beautiful facilities.
Despite widespread turmoil in the airline industry, an implacable recession and increasing security demands, Denver's big tent continues to post impressive numbers. As United's dominance has been challenged by Frontier and Southwest, local ticket prices have dropped while revenues have soared. DIA recorded more than fifty million passengers in 2009, only a 2 percent drop from the previous record year, while other major airports were reporting traffic down 10 to 20 percent. Yet that success carries its own price tag; the airport is approaching its original design capacity sooner than anticipated, prompting a flurry of expansion plans.
Kim Day, DIA's manager of aviation, believes the airport is uniquely positioned to adapt to growing traffic, in part because of the remote location its detractors have always complained about. The airport sits on 53 square miles of sheer potential. It has room for half a dozen more runways, with few neighbors to complain about them, while other, hemmed-in airports are spending billions on protracted battles with adjacent communities over expansion issues.
"We have so many physical advantages," Day says. "JFK has limited land, LAX has limited land. Their gateways, in particular, are very constrained. They will cap out at some point in time, while we could well move up in market share."