Branching Out

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.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers