Ready for Takeoff: Gateway Plan Bolstered by Visions of DIA 'Aerotropolis'

The Gateway area near Denver International Airport is still largely undeveloped, nearly 20 years after DIA opened. Regardless, observers say that it's another Denver Tech Center in the making.
"Airports will shape business location and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century railroads in the 19th and seaports in the 18th." -- John Kasarda, professor and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next

The term "aeotropolis," coined by airport evangelist Kasarda about 15 years ago, has been adopted as a favorite of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who uses it when he talks about the role Denver International Airport and land surrounding it will play in the city's future.

In Denver that aerotropolis talk usually makes its way to a vast rectangle of land known as Gateway, an area bounded by Interstate 70 on the south, Peña Boulevard on the west and north, and sandwiched by the existing Montbello and Green Valley Ranch neighborhoods. This area about 20 miles from downtown Denver encompasses more than 4,500 acres of land -- nearly six times the size of the Denver Tech Center. It remains largely undeveloped, though Realtors' signs protruding from the bare acreage still populated by prairie dogs suggest change is on the horizon:


A rough vision for Gateway has been in the works since at least 1990, the year the initial "Gateway Area Plan" was drawn up by the City and County of Denver's Planning and Community Development Office. Two years earlier, in 1988, Denver had annexed 2,000 acres near the eventual new airport site and created a comprehensive plan for that and an adjacent 2,500 acres to take advantage of spillover economic benefits from DIA, which opened in 1995.

Proposals for developments such as the Gaylord Entertainment Complex and for relocating the National Western Stock Show to far northeast metro Denver have met resistance and have been mothballed, with urban sprawl -- references to Los Angeles and Phoenix included -- among the concerns cited by critics. But with light rail slated to finally connect downtown to DIA by the second quarter of 2016, plans are taking shape for surrounding developments.

Denver Connection and Airport CityThe area about 20 miles from downtown Denver encompasses more than 4,500 acres of land -- nearly six times the size of the Denver Tech Center.

Chief among those plans is a light rail station at 61st Avenue and Peña Boulevard, with a walkable center branded as "Airport City." DIA recommended -- and Mayor Hancock approved -- the master plan by Denver developer L.C. Fulenwider in August 2012 over another proposal submitted by LNR Property for a station at 72nd Avenue and Dunkirk Street, which would have been the site of Gaylord Entertainment's hotel-convention center project that now sits in limbo.

L.C. Fulenwider's winning proposal includes plans for a hotel and conference center. The area is already home to six hotels and four restaurants, and has space for retail and residential development.

Another big project unfolding in Gateway is a 400-acre mixed-use development east of Tower Road, dubbed "Denver Connection." C.P. Bedrock, the project's master developer that has owned the land since 1997, offers this up to potential builders and retailers on its company website: "The Denver Connection is in the middle of everything -- 15 miles from downtown, eight miles from Denver International Airport, five miles from the Anschutz Medical Campus, 13 miles to the Denver Tech Center, and surrounded by residential neighborhoods home to a highly educated work force."

Retailers already operating on 27 acres of Denver Connection land include Walgreens, Chase Bank, TCF Bank, Carl's Jr., McDonalds, 7-Eleven, Family Dollar, and an inline building with frontage on 48th Avenue that includes an H&R Block, a Domino's Pizza, and medical and dental offices. 

What's attracting interest in this area? "It's the aerotropolis, and it's also the light rail," says Steven Honig, vice president at C.P. Bedrock. "Basically the city and county of Denver is a place that's growing, and people want to be there, and we've got this tremendous draw from the aerotropolis with DIA. Everybody understands that light rail and Denver Union Station are just going to be phenomenal. So it's just a tremendous place to put down roots."

Dan Poremba, DIA's managing director of Airport City development, describes a gradual change that will become evident to travelers to and from the airport. "Over the next 10 to 20 years, DIA passengers and visitors will see nodes of mixed-use development taking place around the three stations on DIA land, located between I-70 and E-470," Poremba says. "All three of these locations are east or south of Peña Boulevard so they will not impede any of the dramatic western views along Peña Boulevard.  These developments are anticipated to bring significant new employment to our region and add convenience for DIA passengers and employees."

The next DTCA rendering of a concept from the 61st and Pena station area plan.

Pat Hamill is CEO of Oakwood Homes, which has built about 80 percent of the homes in Green Valley Ranch east of Tower Road and north I-70 and continues to build about 400 homes a year in the area. Hamill's company began buying property there in 1981. When Oakwood started building about 10 years later, there were only about 750 to 800 homes in the area. Today the Green Valley Ranch/Gateway area boasts about 11,000 households and roughly 32,000 residents, including Mayor Hancock, who, Hamill points out, "lives in an Oakwood Home, by the way."

Green Valley Ranch is the largest master-planned community in the state, but Hamill says development of the area could have come faster. "I would say it's not happened at the speed that it should happen," he says. "So in some cases I think it's been a disappointment." But he notes, "For the first time we've got a mayor who's focused on that as one of Denver's real growth opportunities, and it is. There's only so much that can be developed downtown, and when you look at the opportunities for commercial development and office and so forth, it's definitely the Gateway both in Aurora and Denver, going toward the airport. Mayor Hancock's been very strategic in looking at all the opportunities.

"Great things are going to happen," Hamill adds. "But the growth won't happen unless there's a concerted effort to make it happen. But it'll be the next Tech Center."

Hamill and others are betting that the John Kasarda, the aerotropolis evangelist, is correct in forecasting that business location and urban development in the 21st century will be shaped by airports. Even if that airport is, as it is in DIA's case, some 20 miles from the city center.
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Read more articles by Mike Taylor.

Mike Taylor is a freelance writer in Denver. He is editor of ColoradoBiz magazine and previously wrote for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Anchorage Times.
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