One of the West’s most sprawling, traffic-choked cities becomes a champion of mass transit — and a cleaner, greener future


Standing amid yucca and scrub oak on the foothills south of Denver, Keith Simon can see most of the metropolitan area that 2.6 million people now call home. To the northeast, the white spires of Denver International Airport rise from the Plains like pup tents at a Boy Scout outing. To the northwest juts 14,255-foot Longs Peak, with the cities of Boulder and Longmont at its feet. In the middle, poking out of the brown cloud on this autumn day like whiskery chin stubble, stand the skyscrapers of downtown Denver.

Snaking from downtown toward the bluffs where Simon stands is Interstate 25, broadband at up to 12 lanes with no room to expand. The anomalous piece of undeveloped pasture that lies below Simon’s feet, surrounded by cookie-cutter suburban homes, sits within Lone Tree, one of Denver’s new southern suburbs. But it remains little changed since it was homesteaded 130 years ago. Even now, a herd of Angus cattle is grazing its way to market.

Like the cattle, however, this pastoral landscape won’t survive much longer. And Simon is the one who will administer the coup de grâce, although he plans to do so as humanely as possible. Dressed in a bright pink shirt and tan loafers, the soft-spoken vice president of the Coventry Development Corp. describes the city his company is building here on 3,500 acres. RidgeGate, Simon says, will look and function far differently than the surrounding suburbia. It will be compact, even dense, in an inner-city sort of way, with three, five, even 10 times as many homes per acre as a traditional suburb, punctuated by clusters of taller buildings with apartments above and shops below.

Automobiles will not be banished, but neither will they dominate. The 60,000 people who will eventually live here will be able to walk to offices, stores and schools. Hopping on a light-rail train, they will glide rapidly to Broncos games near downtown Denver, to jobs in the nearby Tech Center, and to other commercial and social hubs in the region.

"We aren’t quite Manhattan, and never will be," says Simon. "Everyone will need at least one car in a family if they live at RidgeGate, but they won’t have to be joined at the hip with their cars."

Simon is not some dreamy futurist. He was a landscape architect in San Diego, Albuquerque and Santa Fe before landing in Denver in the late 1990s. And, talking about his new project, he sounds as stolid and unsentimental as an economics textbook.

"The cost to develop at lower densities is really immense, both to home-buyers and to the public, because you have miles of roads and more miles of pipes and more of everything," Simon says. "To create a more sustainable metro area, one that isn’t wall-to-wall low-density homes, we need to find ways to create communities that use less land."

Simon and his company are not alone in rethinking traditional development in the Mile High City. During the past decade, a small but growing army of progressive developers, planners and politicians — particularly Denver’s mayor, John Hickenlooper — have put their money where their mouths are. They’ve turned one defunct airport into a vibrant community, and are doing the same with a second. They’ve demolished 1960s-era shopping malls, such as Villa Italia and Cinderella City, and replaced them with apartments and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. They’ve transformed aging warehouses into a trendy residential and commercial hotspot. And they’ve constructed a modest light-rail network.

Call it SimCity, the New Urbanism edition.

And the fun has only begun. Last November, voters in metro Denver passed a sales tax increase to fund a program called FasTracks. In the next year, FasTracks will build 35 miles of new electric-powered light rail. During the next decade, the $4.7 billion program will yield another 119 new miles of new light rail, diesel-fueled commuter rail, and bus rapid transit. The potential for this new transportation infrastructure to transform Denver — and to enrich the transformers — has most of the 32 mayors in the metro area, as well as business and environmental leaders, almost giddy with excitement. Already, conference rooms and computers are humming with plans to redevelop abandoned factories, stagnant or decaying first-ring suburbs, and even a few undeveloped sites on the periphery, such as the future city of RidgeGate, into compact pods of mixed uses.

Denver’s vaulting light-rail ambitions have put it in the national spotlight. "There are no other regions of the country taking on anything like this," says Shelley Poticha, director of the Oakland, Calif., Center for Transit-Oriented Development.

Denver’s plans have also sparked some hope that the cities and towns in the West are not doomed to spill chaotically and endlessly over the region’s open spaces. If Denver — one of the West’s largest, most sprawling, smog-filled, traffic-choked cities — can be remade into something more compact and livable, the rest of the region might just be inspired to get on board, too.

Hitting the wall

To those who have watched it grow during the past several decades, Denver is an unlikely poster child for mass transit. A place with sports teams named the Rockies, the Nuggets, and the Avalanche, it has long seemed the prototypical undisciplined Western city, populated by people enamored of low-density suburbs sprawling across mountain and prairie, and so attached to their cars that nothing could pry their fingers from the steering wheels (HCN, 6/13/05: How dense can we be?).

Even as early as the 1980s, however, Denver highway engineers such as Guillermo "Bill" Vidal were beginning to realize that low-density living came with serious drawbacks. In those days, Vidal was working with neighborhood groups, so he heard plenty about the problems of traffic, noise and air pollution. But although new technology kept the air pollution from getting worse, traffic congestion continued to intensify. In the 1990s, as chief executive of the Colorado Department of Transportation, Vidal realized that highway expansion would always lag behind growth in traffic. And the price tag was daunting: Expanding highways to meet rush-hour demands often required buying adjacent homes and businesses, which sent costs soaring to stratospheric levels.

"It’s not a matter of whether we accommodate the car," Vidal says. "It’s a matter of that we have no room."

Population growth is the inexorable force driving all these changes. Since 1980, metro Denver has gained 1 million residents, bringing the total population to 2.6 million. Demographers predict an even larger human tide in the next quarter of a century, with the city projected to hit 3.9 million people by 2030.

Plotting this larger city of the future, Vidal and other regional leaders began looking to a transportation mode of the past: the rail. Like most cities and even the smaller towns of the West, Denver once had an array of streetcars. Begun in 1872, drawn first by horses, the streetcars were soon electrified and extended into the countryside, creating their own suburbs. Those streetcar suburbs today constitute Denver’s oldest and densest neighborhoods. Similar "interurban" lines radiated to nearby farming towns, and to Boulder, 25 miles away. Even smallish farming towns, like Fort Collins, Colo., had trolleys and streetcars soon after the 20th century dawned.

A century later, as traffic overwhelmed metro highways, Denver was ready to get back on the tracks. In 1994, the seven-county Regional Transportation District unveiled a 5.3-mile light rail line in the central business district, financing it without state or federal aid. It was received well enough, encouraging faithful rail supporters to push for more. In 1997, they put a $6 billion expansion proposal on the ballot. But the high price tag, combined with vague routes and political infighting, sent the "Guide the Ride" measure down to defeat.

Nonetheless, in July 2000, the Regional Transportation District bounced back with an 8.7-mile extension of light rail from downtown to the southwest suburbs. Delivered on time and within budget, the rail line immediately attracted throngs of riders, serving 18,000 daily within two years — more than even the most optimistic projections. Light rail had hit a home run in Denver.

Work had already begun on a 19.1-mile extension of light rail, paralleling the clogged I-25 toward Lone Tree, where Keith Simon and his cohorts envision their New Urbanist city of RidgeGate. And now that the public had eagerly embraced light rail, proponents began plotting something more ambitious yet.

On the fast track

The 2004 FasTracks campaign not only united environmentalists with businesspeople, it also revealed a strengthening alliance between city and suburbs. All 31 mayors in the metro area at that time pledged their support, but Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper was at the campaign’s forefront.

Tall and lanky, Hickenlooper caught the fancy of Denverites two years earlier when, as a political novice, he campaigned for mayor with television advertisements depicting himself as a geeky do-gooder plugging coins into the city’s unpopular parking meters. In television ads this fall, Hickenlooper stifled his innate fear of heights to sky-dive while explaining to voters why they should modify Colorado’s throat-choking budget limitations. For the well-funded FasTracks television campaign last year, he presented a completely different face: an urbane, relaxed, thoughtful Hickenlooper boarding the train, reading a newspaper. Light rail, the TV spot seemed to say, was convenient and sophisticated.

The various personalities are not facades. Hickenlooper has his head, and his heart, in many places. Behind his desk in City Hall hangs a famous painting of Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross by 19th century landscape artist Thomas Moran. As a geology student, Hickenlooper spent two summers in the Absaroka Mountains north of Yellowstone National Park, doing research for his master’s thesis. When Denver’s energy boom of the early 1980s tanked, the oil geologist re-created himself as a restaurateur. In 1988, Hickenlooper opened Colorado’s first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewery, located across from Union Station, Denver’s old railway headquarters. In doing so, he led the charge of gentrification into what had been a shabby warehouse district. In 1992, he moved to the neighborhood himself, buying a loft above his brewery.

For the next decade, Hickenlooper got around chiefly by walking, even as he got ever more involved in community nonprofit causes and expanded his restaurant holdings. "I would go 10 days without getting in a car," he recalls. "It really was a transforming time. I felt not as tense; I felt more in control of my life."

In the dozens of speeches he gave on behalf of FasTracks, he outlined his vision of a new way of living. The new rail lines will have 57 new stations, 50 of them with potential for the kind of business and residential mix that Hickenlooper had found so sanely walkable in LoDo, his lower-downtown neighborhood. Instead of an inner-city business core surrounded by an ocean of housing and far-flung shopping malls, he envisioned metropolitan Denver becoming a series of smallish villages, places of six-, eight-, or even 10-story buildings, clustered around the rail stations. Instead of getting in a car to drive to a friend’s house, people would board the train to go to another urban village.

"The idea is that when you fly over Denver 20 or 30 years from now, hopefully you will be able to see these dots of urban villages, and make out the skeleton of our transit system," he said.

Light rail, said Hickenlooper, would provide an economic future that is "socially just and environmentally friendly." The exclusive use of cars, he said, is an inefficient drag on the economy. Even cheap cars are expensive to operate, so light rail provides greater mobility for the poor. As for the environment, Hickenlooper reasoned that denser, more livable cities discourage the feverish sprawl that chews up the hinterlands and consumes other resources at a needlessly rapid rate.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, then a rising star in the Republican Party, and his transportation boss, Tom Norton, pooh-poohed FasTracks, arguing that it was too costly for the relatively few riders it could accommodate. On the surface, it would seem that they had a point: Over a 24-hour period, the light-rail network was projected to carry only 2 percent of the city’s travelers.

But other officials, including longtime highwayman Bill Vidal, shot their case down. "What the argument does not acknowledge is that most of our transportation problems are defined during rush hour traffic, which is what light rail and other mass transit accommodates best," said Vidal. In the end, voters endorsed FasTracks by a 57-to-43 margin. The increased sales tax will cost the median family household about $90 per year.

The FasTracks-induced changes, says Hickenlooper, will "redefine how the rest of the country and the rest of the world thinks of Denver." It will also, he adds, redefine how Denver thinks of itself.

"I talk to mayors around the country. Nobody can believe what we did," he says. "In a seven-county area the size of Connecticut, we got all 31 mayors, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, to combine to support the most ambitious transit issue in U.S. history."

The promise and peril of density

If Hickenlooper’s superlative claim for FasTracks is debatable, the energy it has added to revitalization efforts is undeniable.

Scheduled to come on line from 2014 to 2016, the rails will radiate west to the foothills, east to Denver International Airport, and north to Longmont. In Boulder, planners hope to use the commuter rail to spawn a 40-acre development, designed to dent the city’s chronic affordable-housing problem (HCN, 9/5/94: Boulder's ingenuity has a few drawbacks). Boulder’s hub will be second in size only to downtown Denver’s Union Station, which will be reborn as a complex of 1.4 million square feet of residential units, offices and retail businesses amid a spaghetti bowl of rails for Amtrak, commuter and light-rail lines. The Union Station project has attracted attention from potential investors around the country, including New York developer Donald Trump.

Developers are also lining up investors to redevelop former industrial sites. The most prominent such site is the former Gates Rubber Co. factory, which at one time employed 5,000 people making fan belts and other rubber products. Located in the crotch of two light-rail lines, the 50-acre site near downtown is a daunting stew of hazardous materials and other problems that will take years to deal with. The development leader, Cherokee Investment Partners, ultimately envisions $1.5 billion worth of new housing, offices, and retail.

Suburbs are also scrambling to be ready for the trains when they pull in 10 years from now. In Arvada, 10 miles from downtown Denver, town officials have approved the razing of horse-pasture homes to make room for 50 condominiums per acre. They hope the high density will work in tandem with the FasTracks line to revitalize the antique-store-filled downtown, an area once served by the old commuter trains, or interurbans.

Creating such densities is not just a matter of squeezing houses tightly together. Slicing-and-dicing the raw landscape in the traditional sprawling-suburb manner — three or four houses to the acre — is a formula well understood by major construction companies, as well as by government officials and bankers. The process is relatively simple, and the turnaround on investment is rapid. In three to five years, investors begin making a profit.

Mixed-use, transit-oriented developments require both greater skill and greater patience, especially from the investors. At Lone Tree’s RidgeGate, the land has been held since the 1970s by the publicity-shy Colony Investments Inc., owned by a reclusive shipping family from Greece, according to Denver newspaper accounts. Now in the second generation, the family members are in no hurry to turn the land over. Indeed, it was not until 1999 — after an electric utility said it needed to build a substation on the land — that the family summoned planners, including Keith Simon, to create a new vision for the property.

Six years later, the project still hemorrhages money, and it’s likely to do so for many more years, says Simon. "But that’s not an issue for them, because they know the long-term return on investment will be very good, and they can wait for the long term," he explains. That return will continue even after the current generation is gone — along with himself, as Simon adds wryly: Buildout is envisioned for 2060.

Marilee Utter, a one-time math teacher turned banker who now consults for transit-oriented developments across the West, says such projects always cost more than traditional suburban development, because more planning is required, construction costs are higher, and there’s no guarantee that the retail space will immediately fill with tenants. This sluggish initial payoff ultimately leads to a bigger upside, she says, because mixed-use projects provide a more diverse — and hence steadier — income stream. Nonetheless, American banks, accustomed to quick payback, are often reluctant to invest in New Urban projects.

Cost is not the only potential stumbling block, says Utter. A lack of regional coordination can doom some of the development surrounding light-rail stops. "Not (every urban village) is going to have entertainment. Not everyone can be a town center. They need to have different characteristics," she says. "If they (developers and city officials) don’t talk, they will really shoot themselves in the foot."

A similar warning comes from Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. Because towns and cities in Colorado live — and die — by sales taxes, they have competed against one another to attract the auto-based big-box retailers, leaving some rich and others poor, while often creating chaotic land-use use patterns. He hopes Colorado legislators will revise the state’s tax structure to ensure that sales tax receipts along the new transportation grid are shared.

From Portland, Ore., which has 44 miles of light rail and three miles of streetcar, Metro Councilor Robert Liberty reminds Denver that transit is a means, not an end. "It’s not the technology, it’s the place, and your transportation investments should serve that broader vision of that place," he says.

Liberty also warns transit advocates to closely evaluate the effectiveness of mass transit projects. "It’s better to pretend you have very little money, because then you’re more careful," Liberty adds. "When Portland voters narrowly rejected funding for a new light rail line, our transit agency developed a much better project that cost less and actually did much more to promote community reinvestment."

Some fear that poorly designed light rail could actually encourage further sprawl, giving commuters easy transit to the fringe — and then a longer car ride beyond it. Rail boosters concede some truth to the charge, but maintain that, without rail, the sprawl would undoubtedly be much worse. Addressing these problems will require a strong regional voice, and many look to Hickenlooper. "I accept that challenge, and I think we will (succeed)," he says. Hickenlooper likes to point out that in one of his city’s few budget expansions, his office has hired four new planners devoted solely to transit-oriented development.

But at the same time, light-rail and transit-oriented development are not the panacea for the 21st century’s problems. Working rail into a car-centered city can be challenging, as Denver discovered in 2000 when park-and-ride lots next to new rail stations immediately overflowed. Light rail does not automatically provide affordable housing, boost sales tax revenues, and cause bluebirds to sing.

Indeed, few seem to think that the changes now under way in Western cities are as substantial as those that occurred soon after World War II, when the auto triumphed. "I’m not sure we’re there yet," says Shelley Poticha of Oakland’s Center for Transit-Oriented Development. Across the West, she sees too little mass transit and dense development. And there are other factors: Although the housing mortgage tax credit fueled lateral expansion of cities after World War II, no comparable incentive encourages density today.

But Gwen Anderson, an attorney who spent a decade working on the reconfiguration of Denver’s Union Station, says that the new wave of rail lines and compact, urban development, offers something that the auto age promised, but never fully delivered: independence.

"I have heard for years and years that transit would never work because people in the West were too independent-minded, that they needed the freedom of the car, that they didn’t believe in social engineering," she says. "But it seemed to me that argument was counter-intuitive, because to me, to be independent you must have choice. To be completely tied to the automobile took away that choice."

Waiting for the trains

At the city’s edge in Lone Tree, city officials, eager to leave their traffic problems behind, can’t wait for light rail to arrive. The adjoining interstate was Colorado’s largest parking lot until the state began adding more lanes. But Jack O’Boyle, Lone Tree’s mayor, knows those upgrades are only a temporary answer. Wider highways allow commuters to drive faster, which in turn draws more drivers, which in turn provokes another highway expansion.

"It’s a never-ending process," he says. "I don’t think anyone thinks you can build your way out of that cycle."

A former Navy man, O’Boyle doesn’t talk about environmental values or the advantages of a more vibrant society when he explains why compact, transit-oriented development makes sense for Lone Tree. Instead, like RidgeGate developer Simon, he talks about money.

"We all see the same problems caused by urban sprawl," he says of metro mayors. "We see that it costs more to provide the municipal services when those services are spread out, and that requires a higher tax load to provide that increased amount of service."

At RidgeGate, meanwhile, Simon waits patiently for the trains, which aren’t due to arrive for a decade. The clusters of higher-rise homes and businesses around the rail stops exist only on paper. But there are some tangible signs of the changes ahead. A grand pile of stones announces entry to the project, and behind it stands an already-completed hospital and recreation center. A cluster of 250 homes is under construction. It’s a start, and listening to Simon describe his New Urbanist vision for this pasture, it’s easy to believe that Denver’s future is on track toward a new, more environmentally friendly way of living.

Allen Best, a frequent mass-transit rider, lives in Denver, Colorado.