Feature

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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Landlocked

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.

Growing Pains

Over the past century, Denver’s footprint has grown…and grown…and grown again. Today, it sprawls over 154.9 miles, which is more than four times the size of Manhattan.

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Great Expectations

Come May 1, the Denver Assessor’s Office will mail new property valuations, like they do every two years. Boring, right? Wrong. These figures are the first to reflect the implosion of the real estate market after 2008. What does it all mean? Don’t worry—we’ll walk you through it.

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Homebody

Why I love the land my house sits on—even if I don’t technically own it.

My ancestors were Ellis Island-ledger folk. They came from Ireland, Poland, and Russia, clutching the railroad pamphlets that promised free land in the Dakotas. Thanks to the Homestead Act, they were promised 160 acres if they “proved up” on the land. They broke the prairie’s topsoil, turning over buffalo grass to make furrows for grain, and they cut sod into makeshift bricks to build homes to shelter them from winter’s wrath. They stayed to earn a simple piece of paper that said the land they’d toiled on was their own. But they already knew it. The land had turned into something more than a deed. They’d left the Old World with nothing, but with their own hands they’d built wealth; they were landowners. It was, in short, the American dream.

Growing up, I took Westerners’ infatuation with land for granted. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, so it didn’t seem odd that old-timers could name the section that my great-grandfather proved up. It was normal that parcels of land were named after long-dead homesteaders, like the Broomster Quarter, Dorothy’s Place, and the Krebs Farm. Land disputes became everyday occurrences and were fought with an intensity that, more often than not, tore families apart.

After leaving North Dakota for college, I rented too-small apartments for nearly a decade, but living on someone else’s land, in a home that was not my own, irked me. It was a capitalist urge, but I wanted to own something. Three years ago, I found that something in a 6,200-square-foot Denver lot with a cozy brick house. When I bought it, the home had been remodeled, but the yard was a tangle of thigh-high hemlock weeds and tree stumps. My parents—both avid gardeners—came to the rescue in an Extreme Makeover–style three-day planting extravaganza. (My dad dug up at least eight tree stumps.) The next year, a retaining wall with flower beds went in, then a back patio. I planted 200 tulip bulbs, and then 200 more. With each shovelful of dirt, I thought: This land is mine.

But I was wrong. I recently pulled out my husband’s law-school copy of Property Law. I made it two pages—there are 1,381—before nearly falling asleep. A key point did emerge: Owning land is impossible. The whole idea is a construct. Instead of owning the lot my house (which I do own) sits on, I simply own the “rights” to the land. It’s a pedantic legal point to be sure, but it bothered me. That is, until I realized it doesn’t matter if I actually own that plot of land. It doesn’t even matter that those homesteaders didn’t really own their land. Their lives and hopes were real, and the land was the foundation. That’s the American dream: a made-up concept of ownership that’s turned into tangible things like titles and deeds and property taxes. Now, as a “landowner,” I understand that my rights are temporary, almost ephemeral. But that lot of clay dirt is mine to borrow—for now. The soil in my flower beds occasionally churns up something from past owners (glass marbles or rusted bolts) to remind me that this patch has a history. I’m a part of that now, maybe forever. That’s a foundation, a dream, that I can build my life on, no matter what a law book says.