Three decades after the runways were graded across the empty plains northeast of downtown, developers and investors are taking a new look at Denver International Airport and they’ve set off an explosion of growth in the countryside nearby.
The airport’s 54-square-mile expanse, including huge tracts remaining for future runways, lies in Denver. But the lion’s share of developable land is in Aurora, with some 40 square miles north of Interstate 70 along the airport’s southern and eastern flanks.
From the time the facility opened in 1995, road access to the airport has almost solely been from Peña Boulevard, the aging freeway that follows a 14-mile S-curve from I-70 northeast to the terminal.
But Aurora planners are designing a new diamond interchange on I-70 that they’re tentatively calling Harvest Mile, 1.5 miles east of E-470 and six miles east of Peña’s I-70 interchange. From there, new Aerotropolis Parkway will wander a seven-mile route along the Powhattan Road alignment to Jackson Gap Street, the exit from Peña Boulevard closest to the airport's main terminal.
“It will be only the second access to DEN,” said Jason Batchelor, Aurora's deputy city manager, adding that planners are envisioning a thoroughfare largely free of traffic lights, slated for six lanes at full buildout, allowing for better speeds.
Aurora planners are working to stay ahead of a surge of development already underway south of the airport, with more to come.
“Think about the investor view. Where else could you go around the country and buy land that attractive?” said broker Aaron Valdez with Cushman & Wakefield in Denver, who is representing a 260-acre JAG Logistics Center taking shape at East 64th Avenue and Powhatan Road in Aurora, two miles from the terminal.
The parkway would also pass new communities along the corridor between the parkway’s route and the E-470 beltway. Those include 4,000-acre Aurora Highlands, with 360 homes done or under construction, planned for around 12,500 homes at buildout. It spans from E-470 east to the parkway, where Aurora is working with Adams County and a 3,000-acre metro district to finance part of the road.
Farther west, an expansion of Denver’s Green Valley Ranch east into Aurora has 350 homes by Oakwood Homes completed or underway; and north of that, 644-acre Painted Prairie. Earlier this year, the National Association of Home Builders named it Community of the Year.
More master plans are in the works, but Batchelor doesn’t expect residential to reach much farther north.
“We’re trying to keep it south,” he said. The airport plans to build an east-west Runway 7 on the south side of Peña Boulevard, where surrounding development would optimally be commercial or industrial.
“This will be the front door to that seventh runway,” says Valdez.
Leasing has been “shockingly good” this summer at the JAG buildings, he says, despite rising interest rates and a shifting economy. The completed part of the space is nearly full.
The JAG buildings, by Connecticut-based J.A. Green, can accommodate tenants up to a million square feet in its east area, but also has a “shallow-bay cross-dock” design for smaller clients that cover 150,000 square feet — space that’s column-free, providing a 15% increase in storage efficiency, capped by a mezzanine level office space with mountain views.
“Aerotropolis Parkway will unlock a whole new (segment) of the market for construction,” Valdez added.
Batchelor says outsiders are amazed by the level of investment in Aurora’s surrounding area, noting that $1.95 billion in building permits were issued citywide last year.
Batchelor also says companies that have long been fixtures along I-70 between downtown and the old airport are now looking to move out to Denver International Airport. PepsiCo recently announced that it would buy 152 acres inside Denver close to the future runway, moving from its plant in RiNo near the Denver Coliseum.
Batchelor remembers the doubts that were raised when the plan for Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center in Aurora was being considered near Peña Boulevard and E-470. Five years later, the 1,501-room resort plans to expand by 300 rooms.
Batchelor says he shared some early qualms about the Gaylord project. “But what really sold me was when they pitched that they were betting on the Colorado Front Range, that we are remarkably underbuilt.”
The Aurora site near the airport is already flanked by research campuses that Batchelor says nurture its potential. To the west, the Anschutz Fitzsimmons medical campus has a new “Innovation” site on its north side, and Buckley Air Force Base is playing a role in Colorado’s bid to retain the U.S. Space Command.
To the east is Adams County’s 3,100-acre Front Range Airport, now rebranded as Colorado Air and Space Port, getting its FAA renewal as one of 14 licensed U.S. spaceports. According to the county, it could one day fly a horizontal launched spacecraft by Japanese maker PD Aerospace LTD. The spaceport is luring research potential to nearby Aurora parcels, including Port Colorado, a 6,500-acre “innovation campus” where a Solar Technology Acceleration Center is already taking shape.
“DEN is turning out to be a great regional asset,” says Batchelor. “We’re going to continue to see the area developed, whatever growing pains the economy goes through.”