A Digital Rebirth
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Feb 06, 2000
The Lowry Air Force Base closed in 1994, leaving 1,800 desolate acres in the middle of downtown Denver. But despite the thousands of vacant buildings, the less-than-pristine environment and miles of abandoned runways, some officials saw potential rather than disaster.
The cities of Denver and Aurora formed a nonprofit authority charged with bringing this empty lot back from the dead. But ordinary redevelopment wouldn't cut it. The vision was a supercharged technology mecca intended to lure the savviest of homeowners and businesses.
Fast-forward to the present. The planned community called Lowry is winning awards. Planners consider it a national model. And perhaps most strikingly, it boasts the most high-tech telecommunications network in Colorado.
"Most developments are out in the suburbs with clean, fresh lands, but when we started this we said, 'Let us paint you a picture,'" said Tom Markham, executive director of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority (LRA). "But getting from point A to point Z is always a challenge."
When bases close, they commonly are transformed into airports or trading posts. The infrastructure limits a redeveloper's options, but a good economy and the base's location open other doors, said Jeffrey Simon, president of the National Association of Installation Developers, a Washington, D.C., organization dedicated to redeveloping bases.
Like the typical base, when Lowry was built more than 50 years ago it "was out in the middle of Timbuktu," Markham said. But when the noisy planes stopped flying in 1965, the metropolitan area that became modern-day Denver sprung up around the base, thriving in the absence of the air traffic.
Because of Lowry's proximity to urban life, it wasn't feasible to use the vacant airstrips for any sort of new air facility. Starting from scratch was Lowry's only choice.
"Sometimes, the basis for a military facility in the first place is still valid, but Lowry's airstrips were no longer needed, so they completely changed the way they looked at it and wiped the slate clean," Simon said.
Because about 90 percent of the base fell within Denver city limits and the rest in Aurora, the two cities joined to form the LRA, which is an independent, quasi-public organization. The authority would plan and develop the site but would disband once Lowry could stand on its own. Taxes would be split between the two cities.
The mission was a mixed-use community. Or as the LRA's mantra says, a place where people could "live, learn, work and play."
But Lowry's twist was that unlike the average community, all of the working and playing would be done in structures designed to handle the latest technology. No one who moved in would have to worry about installations after the fact. Everything would be there, waiting.
The technology, the LRA hoped, would lure people to Lowry.
"Unlike business parks and other existing developments, we don't need to be retrofitted with [technology] because the infrastructure was put in place before the homes, businesses and schools moved in," Markham said.
The master plan included:
* About 4,000 new homes and apartments in a range of styles and prices, including single-family homes, town homes, apartments and custom homes. Existing homes would be renovated and resold. The residential component is scheduled to be finished by 2004.
* A 156-acre Higher Education and Advanced Technology Center. The center would be a consortium of colleges and universities offering academic programs and training with an emphasis on high technology. The center is set to open in 2009 with as many as 20,000 students.
* An 86-acre business park to house bioscience, telecommunications, computer services and
financial firms. There would be no place for heavy industrial or large retail outlets. The corporate aspect is scheduled for completion by 2006.
* Almost 800 acres of open space including urban trails, parks, playing fields, an ice arena, baseball diamonds and a public golf complex. The parks are to be finished by 2004.
The $309 million redevelopment price tag would be paid for in a variety of ways. Most of the money would come from private sources such as revenue bonds, bank loans, real estate sales and leases. Federal, state and local grants would fill out the rest. The LRA additionally is seeking
private donations to pay for amenities, such as public art and parks.
The land itself was nearly free, however, thanks to federal legislation approved last year to spark economic development. That saved the LRA nearly $32 million.
The Technology Foundation
A Sacramento, Calif., -based technology consulting firm, the Broadband Group, designed Lowry's technology plan.
The company let the image of modern community life guide their vision.
"We try to understand the dynamics, demographics, and social needs of a community with focuses on education, health care and intracommunity communication," Broadband's president Tom Reiman said. "We analyzed all aspects of Lowry to see how changes in the delivery of services would affect the quality of life there. Being able to work at home in a true 'telecommunity' was part of the definition of life at Lowry."
Although Reiman said most developing communities allow the telecommunications industry to set up networks with low- to midlevel bandwidth that are virtually outdated the day they're installed, that wouldn't happen in Lowry.
The future was on everyone's mind in this case — as many as 10 years into the future, specifically.
"We knew it had to [be] fiber-rich, and have bandwidth as close to the residents as possible," Reiman said. "Most networks are not engineered with a technology master plan in mind...and most [systems] aren't built with the [assumption] that every home will be online every day."
It was key that potential residents understood what a network of Lowry's caliber could offer them, Reiman said.
"Most people don't care about high-speed networks but about the services it can deliver," he said. "They don't want a high-speed pipe unless it delivers compelling local content."
And Lowry's was indeed something to brag about.
Its Very High Bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL) broadband network — the only one in Colorado — carries voice, video and data via dedicated fiber-optic lines. The network has 98 fibers, each serving a different part of the community. Scientific American magazine determined that just one of those fibers theoretically could carry all the phone calls in the United States.
US West installed the $10 million fiber-to-the-curb network. The company won a 10-year deal with Lowry that allows community residents and businesses to buy all US West telecommunications services at market rate prices. Everyone must pay a monthly fee to participate in the network, a fee that is part of the Lowry Community Master Association dues.
With all of the technology infrastructure in place, the next challenge was getting the word out and getting people to take a closer look at Lowry. It didn't take long.
The Lowry technology master plan is designed to serve 10,000 residents, 10,000 business employees and 20,000 students, said Hilarie Portell, public relations and marketing manager for the LRA. Portell recently bought a house in Lowry and plans to tap into some of the technological
Portell said that she and her husband recently finished choosing their home's wiring package. The couple added an additional office hook up to the standard wiring package of one office jack, three television outlets and three phone connections so they could hook up a laptop in the den.
"My husband is a journalist, and rather than having to go back to the bureau to [file], he'll be able to plug in at home," she said, adding that she also hopes to do some telecommuting.
An informal survey by the LRA of about 300 Lowry homes found that about 7 percent of the residents were working from home, telecommuting or operating a home-based business. The LRA expects that number to increase significantly.
The private sector also is taking advantage of the community's telecommunications infrastructure. In fact, it's a key reason some businesses have moved there.
Last year, five firms moved their corporate headquarters to the Lowry Business Park. Copic Cos., the Colorado Medical Society, Sevo Miller Inc., the American Legion and the Colorado Allergy and Asthma Centers will be up and running in the park this year.
"The digital city exists now," Markham said. "Everybody with a house, building or office has access to a digital broadband network. It's already up and running and usable."
The Next Step
The next project in the works is the completion of the Lowry intranet, which will connect every home, business and recreational facility with local news and information.
The intranet, which should be in place by the end of this year, will carry information ranging from a schedule of homeowners' association meetings to school lunch menus. Residents will be able to sign up for tee times at the two local golf courses and e-mail friends in the community.
Reiman said he also expects that wireless technology will have a major impact on how Americans send and receive information. That also is being worked into the Lowry plan.
"They're about two years away from being a true technology-based community," Reiman said. "It will be a year before the true impact of the online intranet for the community is felt and proven. And with the complete video strategy, [it will be] another 12 to 24 months for the complete technology story of Lowry to be told."