Steve Timms leaned back in his chair. Behind a large conference table, he gestured to plat and zoning maps of Commerce City, Colo., and spoke of its ever-changing boundaries.
As the city’s acting planning manager, Timms works at the planning department, located within Commerce City’s impressive new municipal center. Although friendly and helpful, Timms is also cautious and does not take visitors in his office. Instead, he meets with them in a conference room with large windows that overlook the expanse of vacant land to the west, remnant land from the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal military manufacturing site. Massive grain silos and Suncor’s towers are visible farther along the horizon – monuments to the industry that has shaped the city. Presumably on a less hazy day, the high-rises of downtown Denver would be visible farther to the west as well.
“Technically, this boundary on our east is not set in stone like the other ones are. Potentially we could annex all the way out to Kansas if we wanted to,” Timms said.
In the last 10 years, the population of the city Timms serves has exploded. It now covers 25.8 square miles, an area larger than the entire island of Manhattan. It has 45,913 residents – up by 118.7 percent from only a decade ago. City leaders have ambitious plans for future growth as well. The Denver Regional Council of Governments predicts that by the year 2035, the city will expand to 71,600 residents covering 62 square miles.
In 2010, after considering these figures and projections, Commerce City leaders revamped their Comprehensive Plan for the city, which establishes the community goals, visions and polices guiding future development. The word “sustainability,” peppered heavily throughout the document, is identified as a key component of its community vision. The city’s definition of sustainability is complicated and lengthy, but includes attention to energy audits, building retrofits, renewable energy, energy efficiency and community outreach. From reading the plan and hearing officials like Mayor Ford and Timms describe the future, one thing is clear: Commerce City wants to transform its image from a town best known for heavy industry and its unattractive outfall. It wants to embrace the bike trails, pedestrian shopping centers and solar paneling that have made other Colorado towns and cities attractive to incoming residents. But Commerce City can’t have its sustainability cake by encouraging further industrial business and sprawling residential developments that quickly eat it, too. Looking to the future, leaders have identified sustainability as a key goal in efforts to revamp the city’s image. But in a city known for heavy industry, environmental issues and problems with suburban sprawl, sustainable practices might be the antithesis of their primary goal for ambitious growth.
“What you need to know, in my opinion, is that we need to be a balanced community,” said Commerce City Mayor Sean Ford, speaking about sustainability during a telephone interview. “I think that means you have to have a good balance of the industrial manufacturing type of properties. But you have to have, equal to it, an amount of commercial opportunity and residential opportunity. We’re on our way to becoming that balanced community.”
Traveling east to Commerce City from downtown Denver, the state capital, two things are obvious: traffic and the Suncor oil refinery. Commuting factors heavily into the city’s dynamics. Census figures for 2008 to 2010 indicate that 76 percent of the city’s working population travels to work by driving alone. Around 16 percent carpool, 2.7 percent take public transportation and the remainder walk or work from home.
Almost all highways and freeways connecting Commerce City to Denver loop around the oil refinery. Its looming metal towers, massive oil tanks and complex piping are illuminated with bright lights. At night, the rising smoke and steam diffuse these beacons and make the site look like a supernatural, futuristic city – almost beautiful. Suncor reports its refinery produces 98,000 barrels of oil a day. It is a major supplier of the gasoline and diesel that Coloradans use to fuel their vehicles. It also produces the paving-grade asphalt used to build highways.
If visitors continue on from the refinery to the Commerce City municipal center, where Timms works in the planning department, they will likely take Vasquez Boulevard to 60thAvenue. They’ll see signs for
Arby’s, McDonalds and Carl’s Jr. They will drive – because with the multiple-lane highways and heavy traffic, it would be hellish to walk – by a Wal-Mart Supercenter and the types of chain businesses the discount retail behemoth encourages in nearby strip malls, like Taco Bell, Grease Monkey and Payless Shoes. Postwar-era residential developments mostly line the eastern half of 60th Avenue.
The new municipal center is like a monument to the city’s boom since the early 2000s. Built in 2007, it is a large, two-story structure that features modern, linear architecture. It has shiny stainless steel siding and large, spotless windows. The center is situated in Commerce City’s older half on the southeast corner of the city’s limits.
It has a welcoming façade, a comfortable foyer and a pleasant climate-controlled interior. But city residents seeking permits, records or redress would have a hard time accessing the center without an automobile. The building is fronted by a large parking lot and set back a third of a mile from Quebec Street, a major north-south collector road in the city. The center is neighbored by a large U.S. Postal Service bulk sorting facility, the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and a huge expanse of vacant land. That expanse is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal – a former military testing and chemical weapons development site.
While chatting in the conference room, Timms spread a large map across the table before him. It was the city’s future land use plan map, created in 2010 by the planning division to plot the city’s future plans and footprint. From this aerial view, the future Commerce City looks like a thick noodle draped over two irregular-shaped blocks. Those blocks are the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and the Denver International Airport. Many things – including geography, environmental concerns and border wars with other cities – have shaped the city. But it is primarily formed around industrial business.
“Right now we’re primed for a lot more growth,” Timms said. “The city has always been pro-growth. And pro-business.”
Ingrained in its name, Commerce City got its start with business – particularly of the heavily industrial kind.
“I had a few people that got together and wanted to change the name ‘Commerce City.’ I fought it to the end,” said Mayor Ford, who served his first term as mayor four years ago.
Commerce City’s long-running emphasis on promoting industrial business, however, has resulted in a negative reputation.
“For decades, that was the part of the Denver metro area where if you wanted to do a business that was potentially harmful to the environment, that was the place to do it,” said Tareq Wafaie, community development specialist for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.
Many of those businesses that helped form Commerce City have resulted in widespread environmental pollution.
The Suncor refinery currently employs around 400 people. Last fall, Suncor received some negative attention when the refinery released a slew of toxic chemicals into both Sand Creek and the South Platte River. Among the chemicals was benzene – a cancer-causing petroleum byproduct.
Even after extraction and remediation of nearly 700,000 gallons of groundwater, the Denver Post reported that the contamination continues to spread into the Denver metro area, and may take years to fully contain. Last April, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also sued Suncor for $2.2 million for air quality violations unrelated to the release. The Boulder Stand featured a photo essay documenting protests related to the spill.
The Rocky Mountain Arsenal also had a hand in molding contemporary Commerce City – both as a major source of employment and a major source of environmental contamination. After a decade of manufacturing and testing chemical warfare products during World War II, the US Army turned over Rocky Mountain Arsenal ownership to Shell Oil in the 1950s. Shell used it to manufacture pesticides and operated the plant until the 1980s when it became an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.
The US Army, which played a major role in the site’s remediation, reports that investigations identified 3,000 acres of contaminated soil, 15 groundwater plumes and nearly 800 contaminated structures. After
30 years and $2 billion of environmental investigations and cleanup, lingering groundwater impacts remain onsite.
It took 14 years to remediate plumes migrating to adjacent areas. The cleanups were completed in the fall of 2009 and the EPA gave the green light for development. But the Arsenal site itself had few viable alternatives. It became a federal wildlife refuge in 2004 and is mostly managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Commerce City municipal center and its two neighboring structures are located on one of the few slivers considered fit for development by the EPA.
“It’s a wilderness that’s now the country’s largest urban national wildlife refuge. So it’s something the city’s now proud of rather than ashamed of,” Timms said.
One of the city’s biggest challenges is reconciling its industrial areas with its residential uses. Residential areas have long been at conflict with the commerce and industry that have created Commerce City’s foundation.
“That’s where all heavy industry located, and there was close access to the highway system,” Wafaie said. “With that came very cheap housing. Sure, it’s affordable. But I think it was tough to get property values to go up because you’re in a heavy industrial area.”
Those industrial areas can create what Timms calls “bad neighbors.”
Early on in the city’s history, farmers noticed pollution when their crops died from groundwater migrating from the arsenal. Industrial properties have also created issues with environmental injustice, as poorer residents locate to adjoining and nearby properties that are less expensive.
Now, Commerce City’s relatively recent rapid residential expansion has resulted in an irregularly shaped city that can be frustrating to describe.
To the south and west is the older and more historical half of the city. This area had a steady population and minimal expansion from the time the city was formed in 1952 until it began its rapid expansion in the 1990s. To the north and east is the newer part of the city, which primarily consists of new housing developments, gas stations and a few strip malls. The two areas bottleneck at the Irondale district, which almost exclusively consists of heavy industrial use properties. Because of geographical division, unifying residents and creating a cohesive, sustainable community identity could prove problematic.
“Good urban neighborhoods work together. They see their neighbors more often because they’re out walking around,” said Michael Leccese, executive director of the Urban Land Institute of Colorado. “They’re
sociable, safe, and they have a lower environmental imprint.”
The way planners design the built environment can either create flowing, sociable communities that encourage diversity in race, age, income and background. Or they can often cause formidable barriers and isolate neighborhoods.
For Commerce City, the Irondale area has effectively divided the city into two distinct and isolated residential areas. The two neighborhoods are also divided solidly by income. Census figures for 2010 indicate that the older southwest portion of the city – sandwiched between Irondale and the refinery – has an average household income of just over $47,000. The northeast neighborhoods – which border the new wildlife refuge and lingering farmland – have an average income nearly double that, at approximately $89,000 per household.
All this focus on development has resulted in a sprawling city. And sprawl creates car dependence.
“I think, when it comes down to it, Americans want to own homes,” Wafaie said. “It’s not until they realize that they’re paying 40 percent of their income on transportation, because they no longer can work close to their home, they no longer have access to a grocery store, that they realize they’ve even made a mistake.”
Timms said that outreach programs have indicated that residents want better access to parks, recreation facilities and things to do outside of work and home.
“Sometimes you want things to develop quicker than they do,” Timms said. “When you’re basically creating a whole new city from scratch, things develop slowly. That can be frustrating for people.”
In spite of economic setbacks, Mayor Ford stressed the importance of establishing a residential base, and expressed optimism for the future of the city’s residential amenities.
“We had to get the residential pieces first to be able to pursue the commercial development,” Mayor Ford said. “Even though the economy is bad, I still think there’s a lot of opportunity for development in Commerce City.”
In trying to reconcile decentralized residential expansion with industrial business, city planners asked residents about their vision for Commerce City.
“We asked specifically if the city wants to see one downtown,” Timms said. “Our community said we don’t want to see one downtown, we want to see a combination. We call them activity centers.”
These “activity centers” are not a new concept in planning. They’re typically designed around mass transit hubs in outlying suburban areas and incorporate mixed-use retail and residential centers. Rather than have a traditional, densely-structure downtown, these areas utilize multiple smaller, polycenters throughout the city.
“Now you’re seeing commercial centers pop up within those suburban developments. They’ve responded to that need to be closer to amenities,” Wafaie said.
Commerce City’s first stab at one of these centers is in the historic Derby neighborhood, a triangular-shaped district that features retro-looking 1950s-era commercial buildings and homes. The city provided grants to beautify the area and help businesses improve their storefronts. Ideally, the project would result in a hub with welcoming store fronts, attractive landscaping, safe sidewalks and a light rail stop. Residents in the surrounding area would then walk to the area to buy groceries, dine at restaurants, peruse shops and take trips downtown. At this point, any lingering results of the Derby project have yet to be seen. Several properties remain shuttered and vacant.
When looking at Commerce City’s future, planners keep returning to that elusive term – sustainability. And the city’s attempt at numerous “activity centers” might be the most viable option for incorporating sustainability into a dense urban area facing issues with sprawl, industry and community.
While these changes might be the best option for creating more sustainable development in Commerce City, change will likely be slow and gradual. At the very least, a city bent on growth is bound to hit walls.
“It just takes some of that investment, not only by the local government, but by the community as a whole,” Wafaie said. “But it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Back in the planning department, Steve Timms continues his cordial conversation about Commerce City’s past and future.
“There’s all this land to the east,” he said. “Land is cheaper out there. Because of that, we had an opportunity. I think the city took advantage of it.”