The rocky road to developing around Rocky Flats
From the top of the isolated, windy plateau along the southern border of Rocky Flats, you can see the extended mass of metro Denver and, on a clear day, the distant line of the beltway around it. In anticipation of that line one day extending into the Jefferson Parkway, earth-movers have already piled huge mounds of dirt and landowners posted "Property Available" signs.
But Charles McKay already owns a large chunk of the land that he and others plan to turn into the 2,000-acre Candelas, a development with more than 4,000 single-family homes and 7.2 million square feet of office, retail and industrial space that will be located in western Arvada, just below the former nuclear-weapons plant that's being turned into a wildlife refuge. Promotional materials for Candelas paint the project as an Eden of environmental stewardship, "a place where neighbors are as committed to our planet's future as you are." They'll be living in homes equipped with energy-efficient appliances and using recreation centers that are LEED-certified, "so they're as good for the environment as they are for your health."
But unlike urban infill developments that center density around transit hubs so that people aren't reliant on cars, Candelas is counting on the construction of the most auto-based transportation project imaginable: a highway. The latest drawing for Candelas shows a Denver Tech Center-style development of office high-rises organized along winding streets, all huddled around the hulking bend of the "Proposed/Assumed Jefferson Parkway."
The highway could be considered environmentally friendly, insists Jefferson County Commissioner Kathy Hartman, because it will be "multi-modal," with bike paths and even room for a FasTracks expansion running alongside the six-lane road (no such light-rail plans are in the works, though). She says she expects the highway to lure alternative-energy companies into the areas designated for development, primarily Candelas. "But without a transportation facility there at all, what will happen is you will absolutely have more sprawl," she says. "Because instead of developing along [the Jefferson Parkway], the alternative-energy center will develop along I-25, north toward Fort Collins, which is more sprawl. Look at a map."
So even though Candelas is going on never-been-developed land — what the planning industry considers a "greenfield" — Hartman argues that it could be considered urban infill, "because it is inside what is generally considered to be the metropolitan area of Denver."
"It's greenwashing to say we're going to build this big development out in the middle of nowhere, but it's going to be green," says Stephanie Thomas, an open-space advocate with the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "To really be environmentally friendly, those developments need to be closer to existing cities and town areas. You have the problem of people needing to drive more and more to get where they need to go. You have the problem of water and sewer lines needing to be extended further to reach these places and the problem of more schools needing to be built. It just drives more and more development."
"Candelas is really 'greenfield,'" acknowledges McKay, partner with Gregg Bradbury in Church Ranch Development. "It's way out there." McKay has been working close to thirty years to make it happen. His family owned huge portions of ranchland in present-day Westminster and Arvada, stretching all the way to the foothills. In 1950, the federal government bought about 4,000 acres — at just fifty cents an acre — to build the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant. Officials assured the family that their adjacent property would shoot up in value as companies flocked to the area.
"That never happened," says McKay. "Everybody believed the development would happen, Arvada, Jefferson County, the state. Jefferson County zoned a lot of the area industrial. It was to support the Rocky Flats plan. Then they had the 1961 fire at Rocky Flats, then a long struggle about contamination."
Any thoughts of development were tabled until the plant was decommissioned almost two decades ago. That's when developer Howard Lacy partnered with McKay and several other large landowners near Rocky Flats and worked out a deal with Jefferson County and Arvada to form a quasi-governmental taxing authority called the Jefferson Center Metropolitan District that would help fund an 18,000-acre industrial, commercial and residential complex around Highways 72 and 93 ("Hot Property," June 14, 1995).
Although the defeat of W-470 in 1989 killed a planned complex of high-rises near the southwest corner of the Rocky Flats buffer zone, Lacy continued to push the rest of his plan and started exploring a road that would be privately financed. But the Jefferson Center's prospects suffered a huge blow in 1999, when land conservation advocates secretly arranged for the City of Boulder to grab 1,100 acres of land near the entrance to Coal Creek Canyon to preserve as open space. After that, the proposed development languished for several years under different names, including Vauxmont and Cimmeron.
But with the opening of the Northwest Parkway and new hopes for the completion of the beltway came renewed interest in the large-scale development, which is why Arvada joined with Jeffco and Broomfield to build the Jefferson Parkway. "It's very frustrating to me as a person who has worked regionally for all these years," says Arvada City Councilwoman Lorraine Anderson. "I always think it's great when people can do good economic development for their city, but I have never been opposed to other cities doing that. But of course, Boulder has always done that. I don't know whether they just want it all for themselves or what."
In 2003, Arvada officially designated the Jefferson Center Metropolitan District land as "blighted" under the city's urban renewal authority and worked out a tax-increment financing deal to pay for the massive infrastructure needed to develop the area, while promising to return property taxes from the project — now dubbed Candelas — to the developers for up to 25 years. The JCMD has already spent $40 million to build several miles of sewer, gas and water lines out to Candelas. Whatever sales-tax revenue is generated on the site will go to pay off the infrastructure bond; only after that will Arvada receive any sales tax from the development.
According to a study issued by the Jefferson Economic Council, commercial development at Candelas — estimated at several billion dollars over the next ten years — hinges on the beltway being constructed. If the highway isn't built, "you might see a strip mall and some gas stations, but not the large amount of commercial we are hoping for," says McKay.
And that could mean that Arvada won't see any green from this green development for decades.
"But if you think about it, lots of the stars have lined up," McKay insists. "Rocky Flats is gone. The beltway is probably going to come. We know where it'll be if — no, not if — I think it's when it comes."
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