Plots and Subplots

On a brilliant October afternoon at the future site of the Parade of Homes at the former Lowry Air Force Base, the only new structure standing is a tent set up for a press conference. Construction workers from the site take a break to join the small crowd waiting for Mayor Wellington Webb to arrive. Scuffing their workboots on the freshly laid asphalt, the workers eye a five-sectioned cake that spells out "Lowry."

The first person to shake the mayor's hand as he steps out of his Lincoln is the Lowry Redevelopment Authority's executive director, Jim Meadows.

A private developer for 25 years, Meadows has been paid $128,000 annually by the cities of Denver and Aurora to convert the 1,866-acre defunct base into a residential and commercial nirvana. Now he's about to leave Denver to move up to a more prestigious project: redevelopment of the Presidio in San Francisco. He's leaving behind some bad blood.

The LRA's public mantra is "Live, Learn, Work and Play," and the quasi-public agency has laid out a dream for Lowry. Plans include an Auraria-type community-college campus, more than 3,000 homes ranging from entry-level to $600,000 custom jobs, a business center boasting bioscience and financial firms, and almost 800 acres of parks and recreational facilities. Little of it has happened, although projects such as the Big Bear Ice Arena and the Bonfils Blood Center are up and running. Promoters pump up the fact that Lowry, which stretches roughly from Monaco Parkway to Havana Street and from Alameda Avenue to 11th Avenue, is close to downtown Denver. The press conference is designed to promote development at the ex-base.

"This is an historic moment for Denver," Webb says to the crowd. "Our city has a long tradition of strong, well-designed neighborhoods, and Lowry is a welcome addition."

Some neighbors would disagree. In truth, Lowry's attempted transformation so far has been turbulent. The 39 neighborhoods encircling the base mobilized from the very moment the base's closing was announced in 1991, each of them scrapping and clawing over details of redevelopment that could adversely affect them. Packed public meetings have been filled with arguments about everything from housing for the homeless to the kind of building mate-rials that will be used. One neighborhood activist, Debbie James, began by looking at Lowry's redevelopment through rose-colored glasses and wound up being called an incendiary bigot. Others, like Anne Callison, yelled and screamed from the beginning of the process and generally got what they wanted.

But political bickering at Lowry runs deeper than just the LRA versus the neighbors. Some say that where certain areas of the huge plot of land are concerned, the LRA is more interested in maintaining rental properties to fill its own coffers than it is in developing owner-occupied homes.

The LRA trumpets the rental properties as a shining example of housing the homeless. But some people say that the subsidized housing has opened the doors for some troublesome tenants.

"The LRA wants everyone to believe that they're creating a Shangri-La out there," says a Denver cop who regularly patrols the 38-acre Sunset Village. "Well, it's not."

And as is the case with many ex-military bases, Lowry is contaminated by more than just politics: Literally underlying the base are three pools of cancer-causing pollution.

Before developers can begin construction, they have to wait for the Air Force to clean up the sluggish underground streams of TCE (a degreaser believed to cause cancer) found under much of the base. Air Force officials say they won't hand over title to any of Lowry's 41 separate parcels of land until they believe the parcel is clean. Today's event is being held on three and a half parcels in the southwest corner of Lowry, the only tracts that the Air Force has approved for transfer so far (no TCE was found in them).

According to Air Force contractors overseeing the base's environmental cleanup, which has barely started, construction on some parts of the base is many years away.

Snags such as these have become a major irritant to Meadows, who penned a letter last month to Air Force honchos in Washington, D.C., imploring them to expedite the cleanup. Although Meadows has stated publicly that Lowry is a prototype of base-redevelopment projects because some development has actually occurred, the October 22 letter to the assistant secretary of the Air Force paints a different picture. In the letter, Meadows writes that "Lowry is rapidly changing from the positive 'Poster Child' for base redevelopment to a problem child of the base redevelopment process" because of the lack of "creativity for unique solutions" to environmental problems.

But at today's press conference, it's all smiles and optimism. After the mayor's statement the crowd shifts over to the refreshment table, and LRA staffers start cutting up the cake, knifing through the "Y," the "R" and part of the "W."

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Tony Perez-Giese