Who Owns Denver?

Calling a little patch of dirt your own is practically a state right. But who really owns the Mile High’s skyscrapers, Wash Park homes, and DIA? We dug through hundreds of property reports, talked to real estate experts, and logged countless miles to learn the truth. The results were surprising.

May 2011

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Did the 1974 Poundstone Amendment stunt Denver’s growth—or did it make the Mile High City what it is today?

On a map, Denver looks a little bit like an amoeba: One arm stretches deep into Adams County for DIA, others ooze into Jefferson and Arapahoe counties as if Denver might overtake its surrounding suburbs. Of course, looks can be deceiving: Denver won’t likely be extending its borders any time soon, and the ’burbs can thank Highlands Ranch’s Freda Poundstone for that fact.

In 1974, the mother of five, who had no political experience, rallied the suburbs and state to pass the Poundstone Amendment, a law that prohibits a city and county from annexing land without voter approval from the county that would lose land. At the time, Denver was the state’s only city and county—and it was surrounded by angry suburbs that weren’t keen on giving land up to anyone, especially big, bad Denver.

The tipping point had come a year earlier in 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court said Denver must desegregate its schools. (It was the first city outside of the Deep South to be ordered to do so.) The ruling sent one-quarter of the Mile High City’s students across town in an effort to integrate classrooms, but it had the unintended consequence of driving families, who presumably wanted to escape the busing requirements, to the suburbs. Soon, rumors spread that Denver hoped to acquire suburban land to even out urban schools with the lily-white suburbs.

So Poundstone lobbied Capitol Hill and helped pass a law that effectively stunted Denver’s growth and made the city take a good, hard look at itself. What everyone saw was problematic. The urban core—downtown—was dilapidated. The zoning code was cryptic. The roadways were clogged. But there were pockets of land ready for development or a makeover. “In hindsight,” says Ken Schroeppel, an urban planner at Matrix Design Group and creator of denverinfill.com, “the Poundstone Amendment was one of the best things that happened to Denver because it forced us to look inside our boundaries and grow.”

The revitalization had modest beginnings. A brewery co-founded by our current governor moved into a rundown LoDo warehouse. Restaurants followed suit. Then came Coors Field. Soon enough, the very neighborhoods—LoDo, Capitol Hill, Highland, and Park Hill—that had played a part in driving folks to the suburbs were hot again.

Still, Denver wasn’t content to stay the same size. Talk of a new airport gave Denver a chance to take on the Poundstone Amendment. The region desperately needed a new airport, and the suburbs needed Denver to shoulder the project. The city was game—with a caveat: The new airport would be on Denver’s turf. Adams County voters acquiesced in 1989, and Denver grew by a whopping 40 percent. (The annexed land, which includes Gateway, offers some of the best opportunities for new development in Denver.)

Today, the Poundstone Amendment is nearly 40 years old, and its legacy is clear: It forced us to look at our civic identity and redefine what Denver would—should—look like. And while some still fret that the lack of developable land in Denver will push newcomers into the suburbs where space is readily available, some urban planners, like Schroeppel, disagree. “The whole return to living in the urban core is a relatively new phenomenon,” he says. “We need to make sure to find room for multifamily buildings and industries, not just condos.”

Schroeppel points to areas like Stapleton and Uptown as examples of urban revitalization, while listing other areas where Denver can build and re-build, like the Central Platte Valley, Globeville, and downtown’s Arapahoe Square. Schroeppel’s confident that the Denver metro has plenty of room to grow and absorb the one million people who are projected to move to the area by 2030. The goal is simple: Build up, instead of out.