From transit to sushi to arts funding, Denver reinvents itself

Hop on the sleek light-rail line in suburban Englewood these days, and it whisks you up to Denver's bustling 16th Street pedestrian mall.

A few streets away, the striking angular titanium of Daniel Libeskind's new wing for the Denver Art Museum was just unveiled.

In November, Colorado voters OK'd the country's biggest public-transit expansion, a $4.7 billion project that will eventually mean 120 miles of new rail lines and could play a major role in shaping Denver's growth.

Coloradans have always had an independent streak, but lately, some of their decisions seem more representative of Portland, Ore., than the Rockies. And Denver, in particular, is combining an old pragmatism with an intensifying progressive bent.

Some longtime residents are worried the large flock of newcomers are reshaping Denver to resemble the coastal cities they left behind, while others celebrate the new push toward public transit and a vibrant downtown.

"On one level, Denver has always been the brightest of the Western towns, a step ahead of the rest. But newcomers are also changing it," says Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado pollster. "Denver is still, at least in terms of its flavor and its sentiments, a Western city.

It's still a very big fan of rodeo and Western food. But it has become increasingly a town where you can get great sushi."

Mr. Ciruli cautions against reading too much into some of the recent election results - such as giving both houses of the legislature and a US Senate seat to the Democrats, and approving a ballot initiative mandating more energy from solar and wind power. It's not so much that the Denver area's politics have shifted markedly to the left, he says, as that voters are becoming even more independent - and willing to pay extra taxes for certain issues, like schools and the environment, that they believe in.

"I don't think we've become the California of the Rocky Mountains," he says, noting that new residents seem to have more of a pragmatic streak, and are less invested in any party's ideology. "But I think [politics] will be much more competitive here, and it's becoming slightly more progressive.... We've just come out of the [Gov. Bill] Owens era and are entering the [Mayor John] Hickenlooper era."

Indeed, Denver's mayor, a surprise winner in a crowded 2003 election, seems to personify the town's singular mix of environmental liberalism, libertarian social values, fiscal responsibility, and entrepreneurial spirit. A transplant himself (he came to Colorado in the 1980s from Philadelphia to work as a geologist), he eschews party identification. Before entering politics, he was an entrepreneur, cofounding the Rockies' first brew pub and helping revitalize LoDo, Denver's now flourishing downtown. Instead of an SUV, he drives a Toyota Prius. He's affable, self-deprecating, and his approval ratings are soaring.

"Everyone" - even in the suburbs - "sees him as their mayor," says Tom Clark, vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (EDC). "He represents what most of us are." One of his most impressive feats, in fact, is the political cooperation he's fostered with Denver's normally antagonistic suburbs, on everything from transportation to water rights.

Hickenlooper is an ardent proponent of the city's changing face, from the condos springing up in LoDo to the 12-year "FasTracks" transit system that will eventually connect the airport, city, and suburbs. "It's a city that's reinventing itself," he says, in an office decorated with historic images of Denver. "FasTracks is showing there's a shift in the core values. There's an appreciation of the big city and the benefits in quality of life of having a vibrant downtown." He points to the futuristic architecture of Mr. Libeskind, which will double the size of the art museum. "That's not the traditional way a Western city expresses itself."

In November, Denver-area residents reauthorized an unusual 0.1 percent sales tax that guarantees steady, unrestricted funding for the arts - by a significantly wider margin than the first time around. And the city recently was chosen to receive the collection of the American artist Clyfford Still, for which it will build a new museum.

But nowhere, perhaps, is the change more evident than in mass transit. In a voter survey conducted by the Metro Denver EDC last year, voters' likelihood of approving the FasTracks project was tied to how long they'd lived in the state. Among those who had been here less than 15 years, about two-thirds called the project a high priority, compared to about half of those who've lived here 30 years or more. In the end, the project - which failed miserably when put to voters seven years ago - passed by nearly 60 percent. One big factor: the Southwest light-rail line, which has proved far more popular than even the most optimistic predictions.

"For many years, locals were skeptical of whether public transit could make much of a contribution to a western city like Denver," says William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. "The answer has emerged as a resounding yes."

Mr. Millar says it's difficult to exaggerate the scope or impact of the project, the most comprehensive he's seen in a city Denver's size, and one that could shape all future growth. "A lot of communities in the South and West are looking at Denver, and saying if Denver can improve ridership and get public transit, then maybe we can too."

Not everyone, of course, agrees with the changes. Colorado, a place where everyone seems to come from somewhere else, has a wary relationship with its many newcomers, welcoming the economic growth they bring while bemoaning the congestion, sprawl, and coastal values. In the '90s, popular bumper stickers warned newcomers "Don't Californicate Colorado."

"The character of the state and city ... continues to evolve, but Colorado has always been a destination for those who are attracted to rugged individualism," says Jon Caldara, president of the Independent Institute, a conservative think tank and ardent opponent of FasTracks and other tax hikes. "There does seem to be the difference in attitude on a lot of big-government things from people who move into Colorado from big-government places."

Mr. Caldara doesn't buy the new urbanist arguments about Denver's future: "The fact of the matter is the importance of downtown in any Western city is waning."

Not all residents agree. David LaPolt, a scruffy audio engineering student who moved here from Montana in 1989, rides the light rail to school every day. ""Public transportation is something we need to do," he says. "In Europe, you don't have to own a car. Here, we don't have a choice."

Still, Mr. LaPolt's politics, like those of so many here, are markedly independent. He's concerned for the environment, and sees the dwindling of natural resources firsthand in his gas-station job. He voted for President Bush because he didn't like Sen. John Kerry's international views.

Some longtime residents are philosophical about the raging growth and attendant problems. "We're going to grow no matter what, so we have to figure out how to make it a more livable city," says Louesa Maricle, flipping through Vancouver guides in the Tattered Cover bookstore. Originally from Kansas, she was a FasTracks supporter and likes the new downtown. "A lot of the people who like to complain the most are people who haven't been here long," she says.

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