Just south of Lincoln Avenue on I-25, the cityscape ends, and the old Colorado -- the one that preceded the shopping malls, office parks and sea of suburban roofs -- comes back into view. Prairie grasses, sage and yucca fill the land, which rises up into the striking bluffs that loom over Douglas County.
For years, Lincoln Avenue has served as the unofficial southern boundary of the metro area, the dividing line between rural and urban. But the bulldozers now cutting into the dirt along the interstate are the first sign that metro Denver is about to take a giant leap south.
Lone Tree, with a population of 5,000, has positioned itself as the region's new southern gateway. Last year, it annexed land on both sides of the highway for a huge project that will eventually bring more than 20 million square feet of commercial development -- the equivalent of all the office space in downtown Denver -- as well as 60,000 new residents. The blueprint proposes a civic center for Lone Tree that could one day include a city hall, recreation complex and performing-arts center.
On 3,500 acres, Lone Tree is busy planning a new city that officials hope will become a downtown for the south suburbs. The city's leaders want places such as Highlands Ranch and Parker to become their bedroom communities, and they say Lone Tree is embarking on a daring effort to change traditional development patterns in the suburbs.
The plan's biggest uncertainty lies below the arid prairie. While the land on the west side of the interstate will tap surface water supplies from the Southgate Water District, the land on the east side -- scheduled for the heaviest development -- must draw water from a shrinking underground aquifer. Most of the new development in Douglas County depends on aquifer water, and water levels have started to plummet alarmingly in parts of the county. The further down water has to be tapped, the more expensive it becomes to pump to the surface. Water experts believe the entire county could face a huge crisis in coming years as the aquifer declines ("Dry County," February 7, 1996).
Still, Lone Tree's administration remains optimistic about its vision of a new kind of suburb.
"We want to handle growth in a fundamentally different way," says John Johnson, Lone Tree director of community development. "It's not sustainable to have people living out by the airport and driving to work every day at the Tech Center. We want to have a city center and a walkable city. We could have people working here and living a quarter of a mile away."
Yet even after a hard-fought election last summer in which voters approved the annexation by an 824-to-606 margin, skeptics remain.
"It isn't going to work," predicts Robert Day, who led the opposition. "People won't live next door to where they're employed. That's the developer's concoction. It's just a sales job."
Day and other opponents of the plan wanted Lone Tree to come up with a more traditional development scheme, with office parks and subdivisions that resemble what's already in the area. They say the high-density development now planned for Lone Tree will bring urban-style headaches to the suburbs. "The densities will far exceed Highlands Ranch, and I think that has too much density," says Day.
The city's ambitious plans have also shaken up traditional political alliances. Environmentalists praised the project's pedestrian orientation and high density while condemning planned development on the bluffs. Wealthy developers supported the plan, but conservative homeowners opposed it. Many Lone Tree residents feel that cities can no longer be built around automobiles, but they're still not sure if the plan they approved is a viable alternative.
The future of Lone Tree isn't just a matter of local concern. The city's plans are an almost textbook example of how planners are trying to change development patterns after decades of encouraging sprawling, far-flung suburbs. As the Colorado Legislature goes into special session this month to debate new laws regarding growth in the state, the experiment under way in Lone Tree is shaping up as a momentous one. Those who are behind the Lone Tree plan say that if Coloradans are serious about stopping sprawl, they'll have to accept denser communities in which people live closer together and long commutes are discouraged.
Lone Tree officials envision a radical break with traditional suburban development, turning back the automobile-centered style of construction that has dominated since World War II. They claim the unapologetically urban plan they have embraced is the best way to preserve open space in Douglas County and prevent an uninterrupted mass of subdivisions from Parker to Castle Rock.
To prove their point, Lone Tree's city planners use computer-generated graphics and pictures from other cities to show the kind of development they're aiming for: a traditional city square that could be in Boston or London, with a fountain in the middle and four- or five-story residential buildings on every side. The sidewalks are full of people, and automobiles seem to be an afterthought. The streetscape looks more like lower downtown Denver than Douglas County, and that is exactly the point.
Instead of rows of tract homes with three-car garages, development director Johnson hopes Lone Tree will be more like Cherry Creek North, with homes and condos in walking distance of shopping. He wants Lone Tree to look past its neighbors for inspiration and back to the traditional neighborhoods of central Denver, which grew up a century ago along an extensive network of streetcar lines. Lone Tree is already talking to the Regional Transportation District about extending the planned southeast corridor rail line into its new city center.
Johnson is a former assistant planning director for Douglas County who worked on the county's master plan and became disheartened with the way the south suburbs are being developed. He wants Lone Tree to embrace something new.
Ironically, much of Lone Tree's future is being planned in Johnson's south Denver home, where he often works. He lives in a traditional Denver neighborhood where homes are closer together than those in most suburbs and the maple-lined streets are built on a grid. Though Johnson is normally soft-spoken, with the mild manners of a bureaucrat who has sat through countless planning meetings, his voice rises in excitement as he describes the future of Lone Tree.
"This area is going to grow. The question is how can we accommodate growth in a sensitive manner. I feel comfortable with what the city of Lone Tree is doing for the whole south metro area."
Johnson points to a map of the annexation. "The county had already zoned this whole area for auto use. Most of it was zoned for office and commercial development. It would have been developed anyway. These developers wanted to do something different."
The full buildout will take several decades, and Johnson paints a picture of the future Lone Tree as a place where people take light rail to work, children ride their bicycles to school, and someone who lives in a fourth-story loft can go hiking on a trail that runs up to the bluffs. This sort of pedestrian-oriented development is often described as "new urbanism," even though it's based on traditional planning ideals that go back more than a century. A delegation of city officials from Lone Tree even visited Reston, Virginia -- one of the country's most famous planned cities -- to garner ideas.
Office space in Lone Tree will be clustered along I-25, and Johnson says the buildings will be closer together than those in the Denver Tech Center, where a typical office worker often has to drive just to get lunch.
A Health One hospital is under construction on the west side of the interstate and is set to open in 2003; a new recreation center will also be built on that side. Row houses and small single-family homes will predominate, however, and time-honored styles of architecture will be encouraged. Johnson adds that the city is trying to arrange for employees of the new hospital to buy homes nearby, preferably within walking distance. "We want to have starter homes for teachers and firefighters," he says.
Keith Simon, community development manager for Coventry Development Corporation, the project's developer, says the land on the west side of the interstate will be fully built out before the company breaks ground on the east side. "There's infrastructure going in on the west side. All of the development is focused there," he says.
The company recently sold $25 million in bonds to fund infrastructure and expects to have roads and utilities finished by the end of next year.
The new town center will be on the east side, where buildings as high as twenty stories tall will create a new southern high-rise district. Lone Tree officials hope their city will be the southernmost point in the metro area; they note that Highlands Ranch open space, Daniels Park and the Cherokee Ranch now form a block of open space west of I-25 that could be expanded into a buffer zone just south of Lone Tree.
"If growth is going to happen, how can we do this in the best possible manner?" asks Johnson. "This is a city trying to do the right thing."
Lone Tree is probably the last place in Colorado you would expect an experiment in urban planning to unfold.
The city was incorporated in 1995 and today is really just a collection of subdivisions on the west side of the Park Meadows mall. Most of the neighborhoods were laid out in the early 1980s, and the town is still dominated by a lush golf course that was intended to be the centerpiece of a private country club that went bankrupt in that decade's real estate rout.
Early residents often compared the somewhat helter-skelter development of their area to the behemoth next door, Highlands Ranch. They admired the landscaping and master plan put in place at Highlands Ranch, as well as amenities such as community recreation centers. As the area around Park Meadows emerged as an important retail center, some farsighted residents realized there was a potential bonanza of sales-tax revenue available to any city lucky enough to annex the new stores ("Heaven Is a Suburb," May 23, 1996).
Although the owners of the Park Meadows shopping center refused to become part of the new city, many of the stores being built on the mall's west side were willing to join Lone Tree. With a 1.5 percent sales tax in place, the city now collects $4 million a year, almost all of it paid by people who don't live there. That money has allowed Lone Tree to fund new landscaping and trails and to plan for a new recreation center. (The city's good fortune grew last week when residents of the Heritage Hills subdivision voted to join it, bringing with them a Best Buy and Nordstrom Rack store that should boost Lone Tree's sales-tax revenue by another $2.8 million per year.)
Highlands Ranch -- which has grown to 70,000 residents -- may incorporate as a city in the next few years. The specter of its neighbor gobbling up the coveted land along I-25 prompted Lone Tree to begin planning last year's annexation.
"When Highlands Ranch published its intended map of annexation, it included part of this property," says Lone Tree mayor Jack O'Boyle. "We contacted the owners and asked them if they'd be interested in annexing into Lone Tree instead."
The land, now known as RidgeGate, is owned by Colony Investments, part of a London-based conglomerate involved in shipping and real estate all over the world. Colony contracted with the New York-based Coventry to develop the property.
Douglas County had already zoned the land for office parks and subdivisions; it seemed destined for the fate of the area north of Lincoln Avenue, home to Meridian International Business Center.
"Colony had a planned development go through the county in 1985 for the same piece of land," says Coventry's Simon. "It was a plan typical of the 1980s, with uses separated from each other."
However, RidgeGate's growth was postponed when Denver's real estate market crashed. Over the course of the next decade, thinking about how cities should be developed started to change, and by the late 1990s, Coventry hired Denver-based Design Workshop Inc. to create a new plan for the property. That group proposed the urban-style edge city that would combine greater densities, with links to public transportation and mixed uses that would put housing next to offices. Three years ago they began talking with Lone Tree officials, formally requesting annexation to the city last year.
For Coventry, of course, building more densely will allow it to make more money off the property. But O'Boyle says the city council had decided it wanted to encourage compact, walkable development even before it entered into discussions with the developer.
"From the outset, there was a commonality of interests," he says. "We did not want to continue suburban sprawl."
All of this might have sounded too good to be true to Lone Tree's residents but for one thing: the terrible traffic that is making the south suburbs a less desirable place to live. The longstanding traffic mess on I-25 has now spilled over into arterial streets such as Arapahoe Road, and even Park Meadows, a relatively new area, already has serious traffic problems. Northbound traffic on I-25 frequently backs up to Lincoln Avenue, and traffic congestion has become the number-one complaint of residents.
"If you're sitting on the highway and not moving, you know something is wrong," says Johnson.
The fate of the bluffs that now form the southern boundary of Lone Tree was an emotional issue in last summer's election. Douglas County had hoped to one day acquire all of the bluffs for open space, but Lone Tree plans to allow at least some development on the land.
Johnson insists that views of the bluffs will be protected with "view corridors," and he says easy access to open space at the top of the bluffs will allow future residents to connect with nature. Most of the bluffs will be preserved as open space, he says, and the city will only allow construction that will be invisible to people below.
"The ridges of all the bluffs will be protected as open space," says Johnson. "Negotiating with the developer, we got them to eliminate development from the most prominent bluff. The development that does occur will have to be set back. They will be low-profile buildings with minimum glass, done in earth tones, with no solid fences. They'll blend into the bluffs."
Nevertheless, Lone Tree's plan to permit any construction on the bluffs has garnered more criticism of the project than any other element. The Colorado Public Interest Research Group even put the project on its annual "Sprawl of Shame" list last year, citing development on the bluffs. On Tuesday the group released its 2001 list, which highlighted the proposed Northwest Beltway in Jefferson County, as well as Berthoud's planned development along I-25 ("Boom Town Blues," August 9).
"We were opposed to building homes on top of the bluffs, which are of geographic and aesthetic importance," says CoPIRG'S Ann Livingston. "Douglas County has made an attempt to purchase the bluffs for open space. There was clear opposition from the citizens of Douglas County to building on the bluffs."
One of the reasons county residents are skeptical of promises that development on the bluffs will be invisible is because of similar promises made -- and broken -- by developers in Castle Rock.
"Castle Rock had all these developers come in and give them a dog-and-pony show about limited ridgeline development," says former Castle Rock mayor Steve Boand. "The ridgeline was then vastly developed. It was a huge public embarrassment."
Even though CoPIRG put the proposal on its list of shameful development, Livingston says the group endorses other parts of the plan, including the high density and plans for a light-rail line to serve the new town center. "We did support those aspects of the project," says Livingston.
O'Boyle is still angry over Lone Tree's inclusion on the 2000 sprawl list, since he believes his town is about to make the most daring break with sprawl that any suburb in Denver has yet attempted. "The sprawl list was hastily put together," he says. "They keyed in on less than 5 percent of the whole development. This will be a bright spot in the state's effort to combat sprawl. It isn't shameful; it's something to be proud of."
The riskiest parts of Lone Tree's plans involve Douglas County's biggest headaches: water and traffic.
Coventry is reportedly trying to buy water rights from adjacent landowners. O'Boyle says Lone Tree will work with the developer to secure new water supplies. "We plan on creating a service district to buy water," says the mayor. "We'll try to buy renewable water rights. As the time to develop comes nearer, this will become a greater priority."
Some feel that the situation demands more immediate action. For years, Boand, a professional hydrologist, has watched in disbelief as Douglas County became the fastest-growing county in the United States -- with no long-term water supply in place. Boand has played the role of county Cassandra, warning everyone who will listen that disaster is coming but being ignored in the midst of the real estate bonanza that is making many people in Douglas County rich. He says that Lone Tree's plans are completely irresponsible without a renewable water supply and that the town will find itself in a long line of communities looking for water.
"Parker, Castle Rock, Castle Pines -- they all want surface water," says Boand. "Lone Tree will be in competition with all those existing districts."
"The aquifer levels will continue to drop from year to year," adds Boand. "It's time somebody says, 'You ought to wait until you have a commitment for renewable water before you do any building.'"
When asked about the water shortage, Lone Tree officials become evasive. "There is some water available," says Jack Hidahl, Lone Tree city manager. "There are other possibilities for water. [The supply] could be a combination of things."
Day agrees that water is the project's Achilles' heel. "They gave the city no plan for water and sanitation," he says. "This is one of the most significant things that will affect Douglas County. It's completely unsustainable."
Boand also questions Lone Tree's claim that its dense town center will help stem the flow of development down I-25. "I don't see how what Lone Tree is proposing will stop sprawl," says Boand. "It will just bring growth to the bluffs, and then it will leap over the bluffs to Castle Rock."
The only way to prevent that, adds Boand, is to acquire land to separate the two cities. "Has anyone come up with a vision to create an open-space buffer south of Lone Tree?" he asks. "The answer is no."
Day knew that the land south of Lincoln Avenue would be developed someday, but he was unprepared for the scale of what Lone Tree intends to do. He lives in a large home on a half-acre lot and would prefer new residential neighborhoods that look more like his own. Day dismisses the plan's pedestrian orientation as a sham and predicts it will simply cause even more traffic problems.
"People will walk to work? Come on," he scoffs. "It isn't going to work. I don't think these people really believe that. They can fool a lot of people, but they can't fool me."
O'Boyle acknowledges that the project will inevitably increase congestion on I-25, but he says that would happen even if the land were developed with lower densities.
"If you build a community where there are four-car garages on each residence, what is the impact of that versus a development geared to transit?" he asks. "We estimate there will be 15 percent fewer cars on the road than if the same thing was done without the transit feature. If you add 20,000 autos to an area, certainly it will impact it. The question is what can you do to mitigate that."
When asked what he would like the area to look like, Day points to the lushly landscaped office parks on the north side of Lincoln Avenue. "I would like a campus environment, not with the densities they're talking about," he says. "This will not be consistent with the surrounding area."
He lays part of the blame for Lone Tree's development plans at the feet of an agency that tends to keep a low profile: the Denver Regional Council of Governments. "This is DRCOG's idea of having high densities in urban areas," Day says. "This is their dream."
When the state legislature convenes in special session on September 20 to debate new laws regulating growth, one of the topics of discussion is expected to be regional planning in metro Denver and the idea of drawing growth boundaries around the state's urban areas. Most people don't realize that such a boundary has already been created around Denver.
DRCOG is the closest thing to a regional government that metro Denver has. All of the cities and counties in the area are represented, and the federal government has given DRCOG a role in distributing federal transportation dollars. Since the state legislature has thus far refused to authorize any regional planning for Denver, DRCOG has depended on the voluntary collaboration of its members to try to guide future growth.
The biggest part of that effort has been what's known as the Metro Vision 2020 project, in which all of the local governments agreed to work together to draw boundaries showing where they planned to direct new population. Since almost a million new residents are expected to flock to the area in the next twenty years, the idea was to create a map showing where they would go and to encourage neighboring cities to work together on planning. The result was an unofficial growth boundary around metro Denver. Today the metro area sprawls over 537 square miles; under the Metro Vision plan, in twenty years it will grow to 735 square miles. That may sound like a lot, but if all of the current comprehensive plans from Denver's suburbs were built out, the metro area would spread over more than 1,000 square miles, an urban blob that would give Denver the dubious distinction of being as sprawling as Houston or Atlanta.
Last summer, the 2020 plan was given more legal heft when most of the local governments signed an agreement known as the Mile High Compact, which binds them to follow the plan. However, Adams County, Jefferson County and Arapahoe County refused to sign, saying they didn't want to be legally bound to the growth plan.
While other states have mandated regional planning, Denver has been one of the leaders in creating a voluntary plan. "We don't have any real authority over anyone," says Guillermo "Bill" Vidal, executive director of DRCOG. "The 2020 plan isn't mandated on anyone; it's a voluntary agreement."
While critics such as Day may view DRCOG as a manipulative overseer of local government, Vidal says the agency actually has very little power and depends on the bully pulpit for its effectiveness. Other states -- including Oregon, Washington and Minnesota -- have required regional planning for their big cities, but so far Colorado hasn't done so.
"This has been the major way the metro area has tried to regulate sprawl," says Allan Wallis, professor of public policy at the University of Colorado at Denver. "What we've seen is the governments of the region coming together and agreeing to do these things voluntarily. It's a noble experiment in taking this route to growth management."
Under federal law, DRCOG is given authority to coordinate regional transportation planning. As part of the 2020 plan, the agency has encouraged local governments to funnel high-density development into areas along present or future mass-transit lines, in the hopes of getting people out of their cars and onto public transportation. Lone Tree's plans are within the growth boundary, and DRCOG officials say the city is planning exactly the sort of projects they want to encourage.
"Lone Tree is really looking at becoming a denser, mixed-use area," says Vidal. "They've taken a playbook out of Metro Vision 2020."
When Lone Tree voters approved the annexation of those 3,500 acres to the south, they weren't really thinking about the future of metro Denver. They wanted to control what was happening in their own back yard.
Voters liked the idea of Lone Tree being able to decide the future of the area along I-25, instead of having that decision made by Douglas County or the possible City of Highlands Ranch. And when Lone Tree officials told voters they wanted to find a way to get future residents out of their cars, that argument struck a nerve.
"The objections to growth are primarily objections to traffic," says city manager Hidahl.
Even so, he believes that most Lone Tree residents, including the ones who voted for the plan, didn't really grasp the radical nature of the proposal.
"I don't think there was a lot of understanding from the residents about smart-growth concepts," says Hidahl. "I've been doing this for twenty years, but a lot of this is new to me. To try to explain this to people who don't work with this every day is difficult. Frankly, I don't think many people in town understand it."
However, voters did understand the idea of local control.
"The main argument we had was that that property was going to be developed one way or another," says Greg Kolomitz of CRL Associates, which was hired by Coventry to run the pro-annexation campaign. "Our message was that since this will be developed anyway, why not have it inside Lone Tree so it can be developed the way we want it to be?"
Kolomitz, who has worked on dozens of local election campaigns, says the Lone Tree election was one of the most emotional he's seen. "You're dealing with a small community where everybody knows each other, so it was neighbor versus neighbor. We probably spoke to three-quarters of the population."
Lone Tree's elected officials all backed the proposal, and Kolomitz says that helped convince voters to okay it. "The mayor and city council were very strong proponents of this, and that helped generate volunteers," he says.
However, Day sees the annexation campaign as the simple triumph of cash over common sense. He says he and his small group of volunteers were simply outgunned by a sophisticated public-relations outfit.
"The two main groups behind this were the developers and the real estate people," he says. "They put money and effort into this and got their constituencies out. I wish we'd had more money and the ability to hire somebody, like the developer did. Then we would have won, hands down."
Now Day is fighting the annexation in Douglas County District Court. He sued the City of Lone Tree last summer, alleging that the city council violated the town charter by approving emergency measures to annex the land before the election. Lone Tree officials say the ordinance they passed specified that the annexation was temporary pending voter approval, and they dismiss the lawsuit as nothing but sour grapes.
Bitterness over the election remains. Day openly accuses Lone Tree officials of running a crooked election. "I was a poll-watcher in 1964 in Chicago, and this approached that," he says. "In Chicago, I saw one person vote five times. In Lone Tree, I saw faces I've never seen before in my life, and I've been to almost every home in Lone Tree. There was a lot of fraud."
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Lone Tree officials say the allegation of fraud is so preposterous it doesn't even merit a response. In public, those same officials say that the election is behind them and that they want to unite the community, but off the record, they still seethe over what they describe as Day's dirty campaign. They claim he even resorted to racist stereotyping to frighten voters.
"He said we wanted to build housing projects and bring in a 'bad element,'" says one official. "He told outright lies."
With the election over, Lone Tree's experiment is set to unfold along I-25. The entire buildout could take as long as thirty or forty years, and Coloradans will one day be able to pass judgment on whether or not the city's promise of a different kind of suburb came to fruition.
"I think Lone Tree is doing something on a scale unmatched in the state," says O'Boyle. "This may be the largest development in Colorado zoned for multi-use and designed for transit. People are ready to try something new."