Denver community proves there's life after a base closes

It holds lessons for latest communities on closure list.

When the long and winding path of the Pentagon's base-closure process comes to an end Tuesday, as the list of bases to shutter becomes law, scores of towns across the country will take their first steps toward an uncertain future - shorn of the military jobs and identity that defined them for generations.

Yet here, not far from what was once Lowry Air Force Base's Runway 4, Amy Ford pushes her daughter on a park swing, surrounded by new homes and fresh-cut lawns. Now, 11 years after the base closed, Lowry is one of Denver's trendiest neighborhoods - and living proof that there is life after Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).

Although Lowry has had the good fortune of being near one of America's fastest-growing cities, it has matched those advantages with foresight, strong cooperation, and determination to plow through a process often fraught with bureaucratic frustrations. Now, as more towns face the prospect of life without their bases, Lowry serves as a road map of what these communities must do if they are not only to survive, but flourish.

"At first they were shocked and they fought it, but now they've come full circle and it's been such a boon for them," says Kenneth Beeks of Business Executives for National Security in Washington. "They've turned it into a showcase."

From the entrance on Quebec Street, Lowry does give the appearance of showing off. The homes sprouting along the Sixth Avenue Parkway turn their many-windowed facades and ample garages toward the street, looking every bit a suburban estate. Blocks away, streets curl around eateries and cafes where the latte crowd can preen and be seen.

It is the scene that BRAC communities dream of - a 7,000-job military base replaced by a thriving neighborhood of six schools and 3,000 homes, some of which sell for as much as $2 million. In all, Lowry has generated $4 billion for the area since 1994.

Much credit goes to Lowry's location on the eastern edge of Denver, where developers are eager to snatch up open land. But Lowry's success hints at broader lessons. After all, Lowry has achieved prosperity even as redevelopment at El Toro Air Station - located in a similarly desirable area, California's Orange County - has stalled.

The difference is in how local officials approached the closures. While those involved with El Toro remained divided for years over what to do, officials in Denver and nearby Aurora began to move forward together before the base closed in 1994.

The key was thinking entrepreneurially - finding a way to shape the base to meet the greatest need of the surrounding community. For Denver, that meant new housing. In other places, "where you don't have a location that is easily absorbed, that's when you have to get creative," says Thomas Markham, director of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority (LRA).

For Ms. Ford, Lowry was an easy sell. She had never wanted to leave downtown Denver, where the supermarket and the symphony were equally accessible, and where the gas lamps of LoDo radiated an energy that suburbia could not approximate. Yet she and her husband were just starting a family, and the cramped quarters of downtown apartments were too small.

Lowry was the obvious answer, and now she wouldn't want to live anywhere else. "There are all these amenities within walking distance - you can get ice cream, drop off dry cleaning, or even buy stuff for your dog," says Ford. Planners "obviously knew who was going to move in."

Yet reminders of the neighborhood's past remain. Some are quaint, like the two massive hangars that loom above the rooftops of Lowry, or thoroughfares that follow the odd angles of one-time runways. Others are less endearing - like the day men in hazmat suits came to Ford's garden looking for traces of asbestos.

It is a legacy many bases face as the military seeks to clean up land it polluted. Here, the military and state agencies disagreed over how much asbestos remained and how much of a threat it posed - leading to the episode with the hazmat-suited men, who ripped up gardens and quarantined backyards in sealed tents.

The upshot was that the neighborhood was safe, but it highlighted the often stuttering process of handing over federal property to local authorities. In fact, the LRA is still waiting to receive several parcels of Lowry that have yet to be cleaned. "If we'd had a timely cleanup, we would be done today," says Mr. Markham. "You have to have patience and flexibility."

Delays have hit the process since Day 1. Construction on the town center fell behind schedule, too, and Jeff Tetrick remembers moving his business into Lowry when the town was little more than a plan on paper and a thicket of construction workers.

"It was a real leap of faith," says Mr. Tetrick, chief financial operator of Pinnacol, Colorado's largest provider of workers' compensation insurance. "We had 550 employees and no place for them to walk to for lunch."

Now, however, it has proved a popular location. Some employees have moved to Lowry. "It feels like a little Pinnacol town," says Tetrick. "Our employees love working here so much that they stick around and play at movies and in the town center."

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