Prairie dog poisonings not the only things angering Stapleton residents

This week's feature, "The Dogs of War," reports on the ongoing campaign to manage -- and, in some cases, exterminate with poison -- prairie dog colonies in the emerging Stapleton community. Master developer Forest City and city park managers are battling to protect natural-looking (but not quite natural) open space areas from being overrun with the rodents, a keystone species of the shortgrass prairie ecosystem, while touting the development as a "return to Denver's natural heritage as a city established on the prairie."

The campaign has troubled wildlife activists and parents, particularly after poison canisters were found by students on a field trip in one battle zone. But some disgruntled residents say the prairie dog flap is just one piece of a larger issue about delays and backpedaling on various commitments to parks, open space and other public amenities at Stapleton that have yet to materialize.

Forest City officials maintain that their commitment to more than a thousand acres of open space in the 4,700-acre infill project remains firm. While some modifications in the original plan are inevitable, the former airport also features an impressive network of parks, trails and semi-natural areas through what was once barren runways and designated crash zone. But to folks who bought into certain neighborhoods expecting more of the same, that's made the delays and change-ups all the more frustrating.

One area of contention concerns several blocks of vacant land along the south side of East 26th Avenue, which signs proclaimed would soon be a 25-acre park. The signs promised the park was coming in 2007, then 2009. Now, a small portion of the area is being turned into a 1.5-acre playground (leading to prairie dog exterminations), but neighbors say they're being told the park is still years away. The street is the boundary between Aurora and Denver, and although the Denver (north) side has been built up, a complex series of obstacles, including higher Aurora tap fees, have delayed plans for the south side. One six-year resident, who recently moved out of the neighborhood because of the delayed park plans and safety concerns over mounting traffic, calls the area "a demilitarized zone between old Aurora and Stapleton."

Forest City spokesman Tom Gleason says that while most of the park area will remain in its natural state at present, the company is working on a trail that will connect to the Westerly Creek open space area. He adds that the development of the Aurora portion of Stapleton has been shaped by somewhat different economic factors than the first phases. "We don't have a timetable for building residential in Aurora," he says, "but we're trying to create amenities for residents who live across the street in Denver."

Other points of frustration include the lack to date of an anchor grocery store for a contemplated retail center in the Eastbridge section of Stapleton, where a much-anticipated performing arts center might be located, and the future of the airport control tower. Neighborhood activists say it's been tough to nail down any firm commitments from Forest City on these action items. "There's been a list of broken promises," says Chuck Montera, a seven-year Stapleton resident and block captain. "There are a lot of people who are very angry."

There are also plenty of questions about what the build-out of Stapleton's north end will look like. As discussed in my feature, the 1995 "Green Book" for the area featured a detailed development plan that included an artist's rendition of a substantial green zone at the north end, a buffer between Stapleton housing and the Rocky Mountain National Wildlife Refuge to the northeast. Here's an illustration of the projection:

But in the latest land use map, residential areas are now slated to be built right up to the boundary of the refuge. This is part of a realignment of open space in that area, Forest City spokesman Tom Gleason notes, to allow more optimal access to open space by the residents. See the map here:

Overall Land Use Map

More information about current Stapleton plans can be found on the Forest City website -- and, of course, over at Denver Infill.

More from our Environment archive: "Video: How to understand what prairie dogs are saying -- and if they think you're fat."

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