Forbidden Fruit

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Because of the way Colorado's tax system is structured, towns like Arvada are dependent on retail development that generates sales tax revenue, as well as office and industrial development that produce higher property-tax revenue. That's why almost every city in Colorado is eager to encourage the construction of retail centers and office complexes. Arvada has had the additional frustration of watching its residents head to the Westminster Mall to do much of their shopping, and with the opening of the FlatIron Crossing mall this week in Broomfield, even more money will float away.

For years Arvada pegged its hopes for a westside renaissance on a wildly ambitious plan to redevelop 18,000 acres all the way into the foothills. Known as the Jefferson Center, that proposal called for massive development around the intersection of highways 72 and 93, including a shopping center, office parks and subdivisions.

In the late 1980s, Arvada, Jefferson County and developer Howard Lacy signed an intergovernmental agreement that regulated all development from Standley Lake into the foothills. The agreement covered all the property in the area, including land that wasn't owned by Lacy or his business partners, and created a Jefferson Center Metropolitan District with extraordinary power over land use. Many of the smaller landowners in the area were outraged that their property had been included in the district, which they believed was a violation of their right to have land-use decisions be made by their elected officials. Nearly sixty property owners asked Jefferson County to allow them to opt out of the district.

In early 1999, Jefferson County declared the agreement null and void, and last August the Arvada City Council voted to dump the plan. The decision may have been prompted by the City of Boulder's purchase of 1,100 acres for open space at the entrance to Coal Creek Canyon, effectively killing any plans for major commercial development on the west side of highway 93. (Boulder spent $5.75 million for the land, even though it is well outside its city limits, saying it wanted to prevent new development that would block mountain views along the Boulder-Golden corridor.)

The Vauxmont proposal is the only part of the Jefferson Center plan still alive, and it may now be Arvada's best hope for a splashy commercial development. To improve the chances of Vauxmont's completion, Arvada has been pushing for the construction of a western segment of the 470 beltway, an idea that has so far failed to get off the ground. Local voters rejected the idea by a four-to-one margin in 1989, and Golden is adamantly opposed to it, fearing the beltway would overwhelm its neighborhoods with traffic. Vauxmont developer Bruce Nickerson, who was also involved in the Jefferson Center, didn't return telephone calls seeking comment.

Fellman bristles at the suggestion that Arvada is doing anything improper by encouraging Vauxmont. He notes that both Broomfield and Westminster have encouraged new office parks and shopping malls along highway 36. Broomfield has eagerly pushed the Interlocken office park, which has brought thousands of new jobs to the city, while simultaneously restricting the number of new housing permits. "If you're putting in new jobs and limiting housing, you're encouraging sprawl," says Fellman. "We're trying to find a balance. Communities that want to stop sprawl need to provide jobs for their citizens so they don't have long commutes."

However, many of Arvada's neighbors think the city's interest in Vauxmont is more a matter of the bottom line than high-minded urban planning. "They probably see Vauxmont as their last chance to expand their tax base," says Westminster City Manager Bill Christopher. "Vauxmont represents one of the last opportunities for them, especially if they can't do anything with Rocky Flats."

Doris Depenning and Tom Hoffman and their group, Friends of the Foothills, led the struggle to stop the Jefferson Center, and they've spent years arguing that the land west of the highway should be preserved as open space for the entire metro area. Against great odds, they've been largely successful.

Their battle began in 1989 when Arvada started annexing land in Coal Creek Canyon. For a long time, the foothills west of Rocky Flats had been a sleepy and isolated backwater. The area attracted people who wanted to live away from the city, people who built homes in scattered rural developments served by wells and septic tanks. Many of the residents worked at Rocky Flats or in the western suburbs, but they felt like the problems of the big city were left behind as they drove up highway 72 into the mountains.

In the early 1990s, though, Arvada's boundaries shot past highway 93 and now extend several miles up the canyon. As part of the Jefferson Center plan, Arvada made it clear it wanted the intersection of highways 93 and 72 to become a major commercial district, with offices, hotels, and maybe even a regional mall.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers