Riding on a Rocky Mountain High

Denver booms, but can it manage the growth without sacrificing quality of life?

TEN years ago, Denver could have been called the Mile Low City. The downtown was dotted with closed department stores. Some restaurants had more cooks than customers. Half-vacant office buildings lined up in a post-mortem panorama of a city that fell after the 1970s energy boom.

But today, with the same self-determination that settled the West, Denver has rebuilt itself. On the edge of downtown, the crack of bats echoes from the new Colorado Rockies' baseball stadium. Not far away, warehouses have been renovated into chic loft apartments. A light-rail system spirits residents to and from expanding suburbs, and northeast of town is the teepee-topped airport that, for better or worse, opened this year.

In the boom-and-bust cycle that has defined this city since the days of saloons, Denver is again riding high. For the moment, it is becoming something of a rarity in urban America: a city with an expanding downtown.

But behind this latest boom lurk some enduring anxieties. Will the growth last, and is it despoiling the region's legendary quality?

Complaints are growing about traffic and the city's infamous ''brown cloud'' of pollution. There is even a phrase slipping back into the lexicon from the boom days of the early 1970s: ''managed growth.''

Growth versus quality of life

''It's a very tricky process, because you have to balance quality of life issues with the economy's sensitivity,'' says Allan Wallis, professor of public policy at the University of Colorado.

Underlying the city's latest expansion is a large infusion of public and private money and the overall economic growth of the Rocky Mountain West.

In 1989 and 1990, Denver residents approved $333 million in bonds for reinvestment in their downtown. The city has since initiated major back-to-back projects. The shelves were just restacked after a $70.5 million renovation of the Central Library.

Coors Stadium -- the Rockies' home -- is the first of three expected new sports arenas. The Broncos plan to replace their Mile High football stadium. A field goal away, Elitch Gardens, an urban amusement park, has reopened its Ferris wheel and other rides on the edge of downtown.

Spurred by the large public outlays, private investments are up, too. Pepsi Center will host the city's basketball team, the Nuggets, and the just-purchased Quebec Nordiques hockey team.

In the past five years, Denver developers have doubled the number of urban housing units. And the rejuvenation of the historic brick-and-stone Lower Downtown has spawned a flurry of restaurants.

''Its been a remarkable time to be planning director,'' says Jennifer Moulton, an appointee of Mayor Wellington Webb (D). ''Strategically locating all of these projects downtown is a commitment to our central core and to making Denver a 24-hour city.''

The Denver boomlet parallels Colorado's comeback in the early 1990s. In true Rocky Mountain fashion, the state has experienced several peaks and valleys since the rush of the early 1970s. ''The late 1980s was its all-time bottom,'' says Rick Pederson, director of research for ONCOR International, a Houston-based real estate firm.

''Compared to the rest of the country, Denver is usually the first one into a recession and the first one out.''

One of the most visible symbols of the city's current rise -- and potential downfall -- is the $4.9 billion airport. Boosters say the monolith at the edge of town will draw an influx of tourists and businesspeople and help sustain economic growth over the next 50 years. Critics say the new airport will mire the city in inescapable debt.

For now, growth is occurring so fast -- especially in the suburbs -- that some residents believe it is out of control. Most of Denver's surrounding counties are expected to double in population by the year 2015.

Faced with increased congestion, many outlying communities have instituted growth moratoriums.

''The losers in this growth period have been first-time home buyers and all of us concerned with traffic and air quality,'' says Tim Sheesley, an economist at the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

'Smart growth'

In response to concern over the current boom, Gov. Roy Romer (D) is urging statewide ''smart growth'' initiatives to channel expansion into specific areas. Proposals range from containing growth in the city center to concentrating it along the metro area's highways.

But many in the state legislature don't want to put any limits on growth. So in January Mr. Romer went to the communities directly. He convened a ''Smart Growth and Development Summit,'' bringing together officials from around the state to discuss various strategies. The summit will reassemble in the fall to track each region's progress.

''Colorado is taking more of a bottom-up approach to growth management,'' says Mr. Wallis of the University of Colorado. ''The state legislature won't touch it. In fact, they've tried to hamper local growth management initiatives.''

Adds Wilson: ''We don't want to see anything like the overregulation of business and industry like was done in California.''

Wallis explains that the successful growth initiatives in Oregon, Florida, and other states where there is strong government support, likely will not work in Colorado.

''You can't take an idea from one state and plant it in another without realizing what kind of soil you have,'' he says. ''Oregon was developed by migrants from New England farms who had a strong environmental ethic. Colorado, on the other hand, was founded by rugged individualists who ranched, extracted minerals, and had a strong sense of property-owner rights. Our tradition grows out of people who are used to fending for themselves.''

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