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Lowry: From runways to main street

Nora Caley //March 1, 2013//

Lowry: From runways to main street

Nora Caley //March 1, 2013//

When occupants move out of a property, they often leave behind outdated furniture or old appliances. When the U.S. Department of Defense closed Lowry Air Force Base in 1994, it left 1,000 vacant buildings, three runways and 12 square miles of chain-link fence. Over the next 18-plus years, it turned out that recycling the materials was easy compared to the big question: what to do with the 1,866-acre property.

Lowry Air Force Base was one of the military bases in the 1991 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list. At the time, the cities of Denver and Aurora estimated that the area would lose $295 million a year in annual spending, and 7,000 jobs. So the Lowry Redevelopment Authority (LRA), a quasi-governmental, nonprofit entity created by the two cities, held 18 months of meetings for concerned citizens to offer suggestions on what to do with the land.

One citizen suggested returning the land “to the rabbits.” The suggestion was largely ignored.

“Many people feared it would become a homeless area or it would be too developed, so they said let’s just have it as open space,” says Tom Markham, who served as executive director of the LRA for 18 years until retiring in December 2012. “If you have open space you don’t recover $300 million a year.”

The solution was a mixed-use residential and commercial area. Markham, an Air Force Academy graduate, says commercial developers were at first not interested in Lowry, which is bordered by 11th Avenue, Alameda Avenue, Quebec Street and Dayton Street. “They said, ‘We don’t know because you are not on a major highway,’” Markham says. As for the residential part of the development, homebuilders wanted to build cul-de-sacs with what Markham calls “a sea of garages.”

But as master developer, the LRA’s goal was urban infill, and it was the first large development of its type in the Denver metro area. (Stapleton, at 4,700 acres, is larger but started construction after the former Stapleton International Airport closed in 1995, and welcomed its first homeowners in 2002.) “New urbanism was the driving philosophy,” says Hilarie Portell, who has been with the LRA since 1996 and is director of public relations and marketing. “We talked to builders about homes with porches and alleys and garages in back of the house. That was not the norm.”

There was also no norm for how to pay for the development, but the LRA patched together funding from various sources. The City and County of Denver invested $1.37 million to assist with master planning, infrastructure improvements, marketing and affordable housing. There was also $65 million in revenue bonds, which the LRA paid back four years early. The U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration awarded the LRA more than $9 million in grants for infrastructure improvements.

Today Lowry features a town center with small retailers plus a 55,000-square-foot Albertson’s, which is a small supermarket compared to Walmart Supercenters and Super Targets that measure more than 100,000 square feet. “We did not want any big-box stores,” Markham says. Other tenants include the Colorado Community College System headquarters, the Schlessman Family branch of the Denver Public Library, and Pinnacol Assurance.

The first residents moved into Lowry in 1998. Today Lowry has 4,000 homes and commercial buildings for 102 employers. There are also 14 schools, 800 acres of public parks, and the Lowry Dog Park. Many of the materials from the Air Force Base were recycled, including 600,000 tons of recycled concrete used in 23 miles of new streets. Also, 291 Air Force buildings were demolished, with up to 80 percent of building materials such as glass, metal and wood salvaged and recycled. Two half-cylinder hangars were repurposed as the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum and the Big Bear Ice Rink.

The first business to relocate to Lowry was Bonfils Blood Center in 1996. The community blood center had run out of room. “We had five different leased spaces,” says Thomas Puckett, who at the end of 2011 retired as president and CEO of Bonfils. “If I wanted to go talk to someone I had to drive five miles.”

Puckett, who retired from the U.S. Army, had his eye on Lowry’s old commissary, the military grocery store. “It was the biggest building,” he says. “It had 400 parking spaces.” Bonfils was able to get a five-year lease at no cost. To pay for renovations, Bonfils obtained help with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a bond through the City of Denver, and Key Bank, and help from the city of Glendale and the Denver Office of Economic Development.

By 2011 the Lowry redevelopment had created an economic impact of more than $6 billion for Denver and Aurora, and 25,000 people live, work or attend school at Lowry. Lowry is still not complete. The development, scheduled to finish in 2012, will continue because the LRA recently acquired the Buckley Annex. The new property will be different from the rest of Lowry.

“Things change over 20 years,” says Monty Force, the current executive director of the LRA. “We do have an opportunity with this parcel to respond to the new normal.”

The Buckley Annex is a 70-acre property that contained the Denver Center of the Defense Finance and Accounting Services and the Air Reserve Personnel Center, with 3,000 employees. It was announced for closure in 2005 and the property was vacated in September 2011. The property is bordered by Monaco Parkway, First Avenue, Quebec Street and Bayaud Street.

The LRA plans to begin demolition this year, and the redevelopment should take five to seven years. Force says Buckley will have 800 residential units, half of which will be apartments. The rest will be mostly single-family detached homes, condominiums and duplexes. There is more demand for smaller homes now than 15 years ago, Force says, because people are downsizing.

Portell says the LRA has a list of 100 people who are interested in finding out more about living at the Buckley Annex. “That’s with no advertising or marketing. People are keeping an eye on this development. Even folks who moved into Lowry 10 years ago now want to downsize to a greener home,” she says. The LRA hopes to achieve LEED certification for neighborhood design for Buckley.

“We are launching the last major phase and we are building on all we learned in the last 18 years,” Force says. “We are raising the bar on community design and sustainability.”