Yes, yes, we’ve all heard about the Martians who live under Denver International Airport. Or was that space set aside by the New World Order as a concentration camp for human undesirables? Spirits displaced from an Indian graveyard definitely jinxed the state-of-the-art automated baggage system, which wound up eating luggage. Or was that the Martians again? And, of course, you know that the place was laid out like a swastika. Or was that male genitalia?
But at Denver International Airport, which will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its (belated) opening on February 28, truth has always been stranger than fiction. Much stranger. The story of how upstart Denver built the first new airport in the country in twenty years (and the country’s last new airport, for that matter) is almost unbelievable. But it’s true.
Make that “quasi-miraculous,” says Federico Peña, who was the mayor who got the project moving. “I think we were blessed.”
Then again, Peña’s election as mayor of Denver in 1983 was pretty miraculous, too. From a crowded pack of candidates — which included incumbent Bill McNichols, Denver District Attorney Dale Tooley, Denver Water head Monte Pascoe and a state bureaucrat named Wellington Webb — Peña emerged victorious, beating Tooley in the runoff after McNichols was done in by a May snowstorm that had voters flashing back to a late 1982 blizzard that immobilized the town for days.
By then, the 35-year-old Peña — a native of Brownsville, Texas, who’d moved to Colorado to practice law, then was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives representing west Denver — had already announced his unlikely mayoral candidacy, bolstered by a blizzard of policy plans. One of them called for expanding the very overcrowded Stapleton Airport, the nation’s sixth-busiest airport, onto the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal. “It was the conventional wisdom,” Peña recalls, and three weeks after he was elected in a runoff against Tooley, the Denver Regional Council of Governments affirmed the concept. “It was our first political victory,” Peña says.
But not one that won over officials in Adams County, who were already suing over airport noise bombarding 35,000 residents of the county and worried that expansion onto the arsenal would heighten the possibility of an airplane crash. So Tom Gougeon, Peña’s 25-year-old policy strategist, went to meet with Adams County. After a few weeks of research, he broke the bad news to Peña: The expansion onto Rocky Mountain Arsenal didn’t make sense.
With Gougeon in tow, Peña met with the Adams County Commissioners, along with the mayors of Brighton and Commerce City, at Bubba’s, a barbecue joint out by the now-defunct dog track. As the beer flowed, they determined that Adams County’s concerns were real, as were other obstacles inherent to the Stapleton expansion plan, including the cost of cleaning up the contaminated arsenal land and the fact that Denver residents in nearby Park Hill weren’t happy with the airport noise, either. And they came up with a radical solution: a brand-new airport 26 miles northeast of downtown Denver, a good twenty-minute drive past Stapleton. It would be on 54 square miles of land in Adams County that Denver would annex — after voters approved the deal, a requirement of the decade-old Poundstone Amendment that prohibited Denver from acquiring property without a vote (and, more to the point, sending busing out into the then lily-white suburbs).
“People will go crazy,” Peña remembers thinking, and they did. Businesspeople, newspaper columnists (not me, for the record), even Denver City Council members labeled the new plan “Federico’s Folly.”
But Peña and his team — “a great team,” he says, pointing to the many people, both new and experienced, who eagerly signed on — persisted, making complicated agreement after complicated agreement with Adams County; with the airlines that would use the airport; with the landowners who were selling the land for the airport; with the residents of Eastwood Estates, one of the rare neighborhoods that would be negatively affected (unlike Park Hill, which was cheering); with the labor unions that ultimately would fill 10,000 new construction jobs (although too many Wyoming license plates were on the job, as a caller pointed out to the mayor when he guested on Mike Rosen's talk show); with the feds, who agreed to do both the first environmental assessment and a required second review simultaneously, to save time and money; and with the Air Force, whose worries regarding nearby Buckley Air Force base were supposed to be so confidential that Peña’s office was swept for bugs before a meeting there...but the conversation wound up on the front page of the dailies, anyway.
For every two steps forward, there was another step back. To pay for construction (airport operations would ultimately pay their own way, just as they do today, without Denver taxpayer money...but with plenty from Denver travelers), the city planned to issue revenue bonds, which were supposed to be backed by the airlines. To get their buy-in, the city agreed to add a stop-gap E concourse to Stapleton, as well as a new east-west runway. Then, in 1987, just after Peña had beaten back a recall effort, the airlines sent a letter essentially saying, “We need to reconsider this whole thing,” Peña recalls. “I went bananas.”
He told the airlines that this was Denver’s airport, not theirs, and they could forget that east-west runway. The city went ahead and sold the revenue bonds — at a higher interest rate than planners had anticipated, but they figured that the airport was a sure thing. “There will always be people coming through,” Peña points out. With Denver smack in the center of the country, what choice did they have?
Meanwhile, Governor Roy Romer ate a lot of oatmeal as he campaigned for a new airport that would prove a boon not just for Denver, but for a region that was suffering the effects of a major downturn. The Adams County vote to allow Denver to annex the land — enough for a dozen runways — passed handily in 1988, and while Denver didn’t need to vote on the project, Peña put it before city voters the next year, when it passed two to one. (To sweeten that pot, it was agreed that the airport would not be named after Peña...though he did get a boulevard as a consolation prize.)
In 1989, land acquired and bonds sold, Denver broke ground on Denver International Airport. But there was still plenty of turbulence that wound up bouncing original architect August Perez. Local architects Curt Fentress and Jim Bradburn took over the project; with just a few weeks until deadline, they came up with the idea of a tent-like roof for the terminal. That not only saved money and an estimated nine months of construction, but created a landmark for Denver.
The airport wasn’t the only project Peña had going during that tough time. He’d initially campaigned on the slogan “Imagine a Great City” (full disclosure: my original Westword partners, Sandy Widener and Rob Simon, came up with it), but as recession held Denver in its grip, his administration had its hands full just saving the city. Focusing on both “cutting and investing,” Peña crunched the budget and took ten days off without pay, at the same time that he pushed for a new convention center (and secured the help of the Colorado Legislature), campaigned to bring Major League Baseball to Denver (the Colorado Rockies played their first game in 1993), and issued an executive order that 1 percent of the budget for all major city construction projects be earmarked for art. That included Denver International Airport, where “Mustang” (aka Blucifer, the giant horse whose creator, Luis Jiménez, was killed finishing the sculpture) remains the most loved, and loathed, piece in an impressive collection.
When Peña left office in 1991, the airport was still “on budget and on schedule,” he says. New mayor Wellington Webb inherited a depressed economy (downtown’s vacancy rate was over 30 percent, and the unemployment rate well over the national average) and the untested automated baggage system that United Airlines had demanded. After it ate luggage during tests, it was mothballed. In 1993, the year the airport was slated to open, the airlines lost $11 billion. Continental, the airport’s second major tenant, declared bankruptcy and ultimately pulled out altogether. Webb had his hands full.
Denver International Airport finally took off in February 1995. Peña attended the ceremony not as mayor, but as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation, toasting what was now considered “a national asset” that unsnarled airline traffic across the country.
Today, Denver International Airport’s economic impact is estimated at $33.5 billion a year. Those 54 square miles seem much closer to downtown Denver, with new developments popping up all the time (along with fresh lawsuits, as an Aurora project veers close to the flight path). Although it’s not quite the all-weather airport originally advertised, DIA sees far fewer air-traffic snarls than there were at Stapleton, which locked up the rest of the country.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
And speaking of Stapleton, 25 years after that facility was abandoned, the area where it stood in landlocked Denver is now home to a surprisingly successful (to cynics, at least) neighborhood with sixteen new schools, 24,000 residents, 7,000 homes, and property taxes that bring in $70 million a year.
If only the current projects at Denver International Airport would go as smoothly. While the concourse expansions continue on schedule, helping planes from across the country make quick connections, the renovation of the terminal is years behind...frustrating those who start and stop their travels in Denver. Maybe it’s the Martians, or maybe “the Spanish took advantage of the city,” Peña says, referring to Ferrovial, the company that got booted off the job in August. Last week, Denver City Council approved a contract for $195 million for Colorado firm Hensel Phelps to restart the stalled construction project that’s left an obstacle course under that iconic roof.
“I think we were blessed,” Peña repeats. “This is why no one else has built a new airport. It’s almost impossible.”