Change of Plans

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Minorities accounted for roughly 25 percent of Northglenn's total population in 2000. But throughout the '90s, they were moving to the town at twice the rate of whites, with the largest increase coming from those identifying themselves as Hispanic.

Many of these inner-ring suburbs aren't as well equipped for the influx. "A lot of these communities are relatively small, which means that they might not have the federal pass-through dollars that Denver has because they are so small," Lado explains. "You have to be a certain size to have your own allocation versus going through a state. So they may not have the funds to bring to bear. They may not have the policies in place because they've never dealt with this. And then there may be a lag in accepting that this is happening."

Researchers only recently began to examine the connection between sprawl and the decline of inner-ring suburbs, as metro areas grow from not just the central city and first suburbs, but stretch out into outer suburbs, subcenters and ultra-low density exurbs. Many municipal leaders are looking for answers from the Urban Land Institute, which has published numerous studies on the first circle of suburbs. The Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities has even established the First Tier Suburbs Council, an advocacy organization specifically focused on inner-ring issues.

In metro Denver, where a cold war existed between the city and suburbs throughout the '60s and '70s, municipal governments are now much more eager to connect to the core city. "These inner-ring suburbs have changed. They are now more similar to the central city and more urban in many regards," says Bill Johnston, a senior planner with the Denver Regional Council of Governments. "In addition to the housing becoming old, the streets, the curbs and gutters, the water lines and sewer lines of these older suburbs are reaching that fifty-year mark. So it's not just that homeowners have to address the problems of renovating their houses, it's that the whole community is faced with having to replace aging infrastructure."

Earlier this year, the regional planning agency released a series of reports on a subject that many first-tier suburbs see as their last, best hope: infill development. Lakewood and Englewood found that they could create new revenue streams by tearing up old malls to create new downtowns and moving their cities to the higher-density, mixed-use model of urban cores. CityCenter Englewood is anchored by a light-rail station, and with the 119 miles of new commuter and light rail being planned as part of RTD's FasTracks, many suburbs are looking toward mass-transit stops as potential areas for redevelopment.

"One of the reasons that central cities have gotten a renewed interest in the last fifteen years is that people figured out that traffic is actually worse out on the perimeter than it is close in," says Johnston. Inner-ring suburbs also have this advantage, he notes, "and that's strategic, because that's still where a huge number of jobs are, and it's an opportunity for people to live in proximity to where they work and ride transit, and reduce the need for people to use automobiles."

As the president of the Metro Mayors Caucus, Novak has offered presentations on Northglenn's housing redevelopment program to other city leaders. But many of the standard tools, such as tax-increment financing, and eminent domain have been challenged by citizens and the courts. Earlier this year, when Northglenn tried to create an urban-renewal authority for an area that was to surround a proposed light-rail stop, residents and property owners protested and got the measure reversed. Now the proposed location for that light-rail stop is in Thornton.

From above, cities like Thornton, Westminster, Broomfield and Commerce City are starting to resemble misshapen bananas as they continue their narrow push farther onto the prairie. But annexation just postpones the inevitable problem as old neighborhoods clash with new.

"Cities that are growing rapidly have the same issues that we do, but often they're distracted and aren't dealing with them," Novak notes. "Things aren't bad in Northglenn, by any means, and it's good we're not waiting until it gets that way to start taking action. We have that perception as kind of being a working-class, blue-collar suburb. But it's not the reality. And even if it is, those people should be allowed to have the lifestyle they want. And by encouraging them to go to Dacono and Firestone, how is that good for the region?"

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Jared Jacang Maher