Shut Up and Deal

Ruth Blackmore leads a few of her south Boulder neighbors on a field trip, down a path she's taken many, many times before. The excursion begins in a vacant field a few blocks from her home, where the trail is hemmed in by knee-high weeds and skittering grasshoppers; crosses a footbridge above a meandering stream, where a small boy studies the behavior of crawdads in muddy water; skirts a narrow, sloping pasture filled with moon-eyed cattle; and arrives, finally, at a bluff overlooking U.S. 36 and a gravel-mining operation just west of the turnpike--a sprawling 308-acre parcel known variously as the Flatiron site, the Gateway property or, simply, the Pits.

"This is it," Blackmore says. "This is what all the fuss is about."
If you head north into Boulder on the turnpike, the Gateway is the last sizable stretch of greenery you see before reaching the Table Mesa exit and the city proper. Framed on two sides by city-owned open space and South Boulder Creek, the site forms what planners describe as a "distinct southern city boundary." The site is hardly pristine, though; a building housing an indoor tennis club stands at the east end of the property, and at the west end, recent mining operations have gouged deep pits around a few remaining mounds of earth supporting telephone poles.

Still, the Gateway is something of a final frontier in Boulder County, a crucial battleground in the struggle between an aggressive county-wide open-space program and equally aggressive development interests. It's practically the last undeveloped parcel of any size along the Denver-Boulder corridor that hasn't been gobbled up by the likes of Broomfield, Louisville and Superior (which annexed the land for the Rock Creek subdivision, a high-density eyesore south of the Gateway) or preserved as open space.

For more than two decades, most of the Gateway has been designated as open space in the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan. Neighbors such as Blackmore, who moved to south Boulder in 1979, have waited patiently for the day when mining would cease and the city would acquire the land as a buffer on its southern flank. But the Gateway's owners had other ideas.

In the spring of 1995, the Flatiron Companies, a consortium of the tight-knit private partnerships that own the property, applied to have the land annexed to the city of Boulder. The proposal called for 78 high-end homes to be built on the property and for twenty acres to be donated to the fledgling Women of the West Museum. At public hearings, neighbors showed up in force to protest the development, and the project quickly stalled over city planners' concerns about the project's impacts on traffic, open space, wildlife and the quality of life in south Boulder.

Blackmore, a grassroots activist who'd helped form a group called Neighbors for a Livable Boulder to oppose Flatiron's application, felt as if she'd dodged a bullet. "It seemed pretty clear at that point that the city wasn't going to allow a developer to just build a bunch of homes out there," she says.

Last April, though, officials at the University of Colorado at Boulder announced that they had reached an agreement with Flatiron to purchase the Gateway site for $11 million. Although CU was vague about its plans for the land, it was clear that the property would be used for future expansion of the university, not open space. "CU-Boulder has a history of far-sighted land purchases that have allowed the campus, many years later, to meet the state's evolving needs," declared Chancellor Roderic Park.

The announcement took city planners by surprise--and left the neighbors wondering what CU was up to. "According to their own documents, CU has enough land to take them through the year 2027," Blackmore notes. "This is not an emergency, to buy this piece of land--especially since it's mined out, it's in the floodplain, it's critical to the open-space plan of the city. Why would they want this land?"

Why, indeed? The press conference unveiling CU's proposed purchase was a tightly scripted affair, offering little hint of the intense, behind-the-scenes maneuvering by which the deal was forged. As it turns out, the university had been in secret negotiations with Flatiron over the property for a year--practically from the moment Flatiron's 78-home proposal to the city began to fall apart.

It was a marriage not only of convenience, but one of rank opportunity. For the sellers, the deal presented a chance to unload the property without having to wrangle with Boulder's cumbersome annexation conditions--at a price far in excess of what the city was paying for open space. For CU's acquisition team, the Gateway was a once-in-a-lifetime shot at real estate speculation on a grand scale: Why not pick up a piece of turnpike property that was almost as large as the main Boulder campus? But crucial issues (such as whether the purchase was truly needed or whether CU could afford to ignore local zoning and planning decisions) would be addressed belatedly, if at all.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast