By Mary Beth Susman – District 5 City Councilperson 2011-2019 and neighborhood activist for Lowry redevelopment with an assist from Chuck Woodward
It was 1995 and I had to leave the door open if I wanted to see outside of my “office” at Lowry. The office was in what used to be the Air Force Base dry cleaners, and I was in the part where the clothes used to hang on the revolving tracks, so there were no windows. But there was a loading door and just outside, on a little rise, there was a fox den with a vixen and her two kits who didn’t seem to mind, or even notice, that I was there watching them. They were a delightful distraction from my work as were the flocks of geese and the occasional deer grazing on the wide open fields to the east. I was the first person, and the only person for quite a while, from the Colorado Community College System to office on the base – before the conveyance to Denver, before the “plan”, and before the creation of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority.
But how I got there had really nothing to do with my involvement in the Lowry AFB conversion. It’s another story.
In 1992 I heard that Lowry AFB was closing. I knew this would be a momentous change for our city and, more locally, our neighborhoods, so I wanted to be involved. I called our then City Councilwoman, Polly Flobeck, to ask who were the activists in our neighborhood. I invited the community members she suggested to breakfast at my home to discuss how we wanted to get involved. From there we all researched what groups were forming and how we could participate. I eventually became the Denver Chair of the Lowry Economic Adjustment Committee (LEAC), the first planning committee for Lowry.
It was a tumultuous time. Believe it or not, there were some in the community who wanted us to fence off the base and do nothing with it. There was fear that the loss of jobs with the military leaving was going to devastate our economy. At one time the neighborhoods were papered with lurid fliers predicting that Lowry would be a haven for drug dealers and gangs.
The base plan was a blank slate. We had representatives from every neighborhood surrounding Lowry, as well as representatives from business, economic development, human service agencies, civic and religious organizations. Of course, everyone had different ideas, fears and hopes for what the property could be. The base had new buildings and old ones, some from World War II, built as “temporary” barracks. You might remember seeing the smokestacks from the fireplaces that heated them. Some buildings were even older, such as the remaining home from the time when the property was a tuberculosis sanatorium. When the Air Force left, it was a forlorn looking place, and we were all worried about what would become of it and our surrounding neighborhoods.
There was fear of the unknown when we first started planning Lowry. A state committee had been formed to try and prevent military closures. But the historical research shows that when military bases close and the community institutes a serious, inclusive, well-planned process, the economic life of the community improves. This is because military pay is lower than average and is predominantly spent on the base so the multiplier effect (money that gets distributed in an economy) is relatively negligible. That is why there are generally lower economic uses that surround a military community.
We got lucky. The process included many people of divergent viewpoints so we had the benefit of many brains that resulted in creative solutions. We had city leadership that was intent on driving smart economic development. We had an in-fill project surrounded with other development, not a hinterlands location like many military bases. We had a city planning department that embraced “New Urbanism,” a burgeoning rebirth of city design that incorporated ideas for local amenities like grocery stores and other neighborhood shops within walking distance. We were blessed with thoughtful and experienced staff that the city hired to help lead the project.
And for the first time since 1972, Denver was able to provide new housing stock. Since the Poundstone Amendment Denver has been prevented from annexing any property without a vote of the community we propose to annex. Most of our development must come from making the best of the resources and land we have.
At first, we had some difficulty encouraging home builders to look at Lowry, but there was such pent-up demand for homes, especially among young families who were priced out of the market in older Denver neighborhoods that here was finally a real opportunity for the American dream of owning your own home. The 1998 Parade of Homes was held at Lowry and this really ignited interest in living at Lowry. Inside of a year after building began there had to be a lottery instituted for the opportunity to purchase a home at Lowry!
New urbanism concepts also suggested front porches and alleys: front porches so there would “eyes on the street” and also informal opportunities for people to see and know their neighbors; and alleys so that garages wouldn’t be the predominant architecture to be seen as you traveled down a street. Alleys also provide shared space behind homes that encourages a sense of community. We created a town center with build-to lines and parking behind buildings, to create pedestrian interest. We required detached sidewalks with tree lawns throughout to make walking easy and pleasurable. And even if you struggle with the roundabouts, they are the safest and most environmentally friendly traffic solutions for intersections. Not one of the roundabouts is in the top 200 intersections in the city for traffic accidents. And keeping traffic moving instead of idling at traffic lights reduces emissions.
Lowry is an excellent example of a successful economic conversion from military use and a blending of a community into our city. Thanks to the hundreds of neighbors and officials that worked on this project we have a national model, much visited and copied, of what people can do when we work together. Lowry has been given several state and national awards because of how well the redevelopment plan has worked.
Mary Beth Susman was the founding president of three statewide online colleges in Colorado, Kentucky, and Louisiana. She is a Smithsonian Laureate for her pioneering work in online learning, and her work is archived in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. She retired as the Vice-President of the Colorado Community College System in 2004, and then started her own business helping state college systems create online colleges. She chaired the Lowry planning committee and served on the Denver Planning Board before running for council in 2011. Mary Beth Susman served as President of the Denver City Council from July 2012-July 2014, elected in her first year on council.