Longform

The Blacktop Jungle

In 1975, Colorado's brash young governor said no to the highway lobby.
Newly elected on an environmental platform, Dick Lamm vowed to "drive a silver spike" through plans for a southwest suburban beltway linking I-70 and I-25. Lamm said the highway would foster suburban sprawl and gridlock and that the money would be better spent on mass transit.

He soon received a lesson in the power of real estate interests. "I learned political jujitsu," Lamm recalls. "The way they did it was to get some people who were close to me to come and say, 'Lamm, you could get impeached. This is impeding progress.' They brought all the mayors in from around the metro area, and we ended up yelling at each other. Then they came at me through the various Democratic county chairmen. I had one developer say, 'We're not going to let you make a bunch of empty space out there as a monument to your one term.'"

Years of court battles and political infighting followed. Lamm succeeded in delaying that highway--now known as C-470--for several years. Supporters of the beltway claimed it would mark the southern boundary of the metro area. But after it was finished in 1990, growth soon spilled over the highway as booming developments such as Highlands Ranch marched up the hillsides and bluffs of Douglas County.

More than two decades after Lamm vowed to crush a Denver beltway, the development lobby has largely got its way. A 34-mile toll highway known as E-470 is now under construction on the plains east of the metro area. Within two years, that $1 billion project will allow motorists to drive all the way from I-25 in Douglas County to 120th Avenue northwest of Denver International Airport. And in Jefferson County, development interests are pushing for construction of the final segment of the beltway, a 32-mile highway known as the Northwest Parkway that would take motorists all the way from Golden to I-25 in Adams County. If that highway is ever built, metro Denver would be encircled by a loop of continuous highway extending more than 100 miles.

There will be winners and losers in Denver's new beltway phenomenon. Land speculators and developers stand to hit the jackpot. Metro residents who want to live without massive urban sprawl and air pollution won't be as lucky.

One day earlier this month, the reality of the metro beltway plays out in different ways on both sides of Denver. Near DIA, bulldozers scrape through green pasture land, leaving a ribbon of red dirt that extends for miles. Along nearby Tower Road, signs offer land for sale--"zoned for immediate construction!"--and the high-rises of downtown Denver are so far away they look like they're made of a child's building blocks. New hotels rise from the prairie, and a parade of "coming soon" billboards advertise office parks and subdivisions.

On the other side of town in Lakewood, Jefferson County Commissioner Michelle Lawrence faces an angry group of north Jeffco residents who oppose the proposed beltway. Those homeowners insist there is no need for the new highway and that it is being pushed by landowners who would benefit from spin-off development. Many of the residents live near Highway 93, the charming two-lane road that has long linked Golden and Boulder and that would be replaced by the four-lane beltway.

One Coal Creek Canyon man asks Lawrence if the Northwest Parkway, which Lawrence supports, would benefit wealthy special interests. "We're all special interests," she replies tartly. "I went to the hairdresser last night, and she had a special interest."

However, hairdressers don't benefit much from beltways--developers do. The construction of E-470 has set off a flurry of real estate speculation in the east metro area the likes of which has not been seen since the oil-boom days of the early 1980s. Already more than $1.3 billion worth of new projects have been announced along the E-470 corridor, including more than 8,000 new homes, eleven new hotels, three golf courses, and an assortment of industrial and office buildings.

Beltway critics say that will be just the start, as more and more development is funneled to the eastern fringe of the metro area. The big loser may be central Denver, which could lose thousands of jobs and millions in new investment to the fringe city quickly sprouting on the high plains.

"I have no doubt E-470 and Denver International Airport will be a powerful force drawing economic activity to the edge of the metro area," says Franklin James, who teaches urban economics at the University of Colorado at Denver. James has studied the effects of beltways on cities around the country, and he says central Denver will pay the price for the wave of new development coming along E-470.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers