Fed Center boost

Bill sets stage for turning the complex into commercial hub

By Ann Imse, Rocky Mountain News
October 29, 2003

The Denver Federal Center could be redeveloped into a bustling commercial center with federal and private office buildings, shopping, multifamily housing and parks, if a bill introduced Tuesday passes into law.

Rep. Bob Beauprez, R-Arvada, and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., introduced the legislation, which would allow private developers to take over all or part of the sprawling federal office complex.

The proposal has the potential to transform a one-square-mile section of Lakewood over the next 20 years.

Just as prewar barracks at the former Lowry Air Force Base in Denver are being replaced by office buildings and housing, Lakewood Mayor Steve Burkholder envisions a similar metamorphosis from largely worn-out World War II-era federal offices to a modern, taxable, urban core, served by light rail.

"We're really excited about this," Burkholder said.

The federal center opened in 1941 as a munitions factory employing 20,000 people. It was converted to a campus of federal offices and labs after the war.

It contains 90 buildings in a square mile in the middle of Lakewood, just south of the Sixth Avenue Freeway. About one-third of the land is undeveloped, with trees, grasslands, a pond and a population of geese.

The law would allow developers to contract to build new facilities for the 6,000 federal workers employed there. They could also build private offices, shops and housing, officials said.

The bill is wide open on just how this would work. It would allow one developer to take over the entire federal center, or many companies to make deals for individual projects, said Sean Murphy, Beauprez's chief of staff. The language of the bill permits anything from outright private purchase of the federal property to leases and joint ventures.

"The goal is to make these facilities more pleasant for communities and federal workers," Murphy said. By leasing from private developers, the government can pay rent for better offices rather than try to come up with millions of dollars to build them, he said.

In addition, all utilities on the site need replacement, said Cara Hoevet of the General Services Administration, which runs the federal center.

None of the officials from Congress, Lakewood or the General Services Administration said they knew of any opposition to the plan at this point.

Murphy and Burkholder have very different ideas of how the proposal might play out. The language of the bill appears to allow either of their visions.

Murphy foresees private developers offering to renovate the current buildings. For example, one might rebuild a facility for the Fish and Wildlife service and add two stories of private offices to be leased out, he said.

The developer would get a guaranteed long-term tenant in the federal agency, and the agency would get a discounted rent because the land would remain federally owned, he said. "It's really a win-win for everybody," he said.

But the mayor said new construction is cheaper than renovating existing buildings. So he expects developers to contract to construct new facilities for the federal government and eventually tear down the old. Like Murphy, he expects private offices could end up in the same buildings as federal ones.

Burkholder said he expects some of the land to remain owned by the federal government but leased to private companies. These privately owned buildings would pay property tax to Lakewood. But Lakewood would have to annex the now-independent federal enclave, he said.

However, Burkholder said companies may prefer privatized land, because federal rules make it more expensive and complex to build on federal land. He cited one renovation project on the federal center that started in 1987 and just finished this year.

He said he expects Lakewood to have "the opportunity to work with" about 230 acres of the federal center along the south and west sides.

If any of the federal agencies need to be in a section with heavier security, that would be negotiated with the developer, Murphy said.

Murphy said the federal government is interested in extending such proposals to federal offices around the country.

imsea@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-5438

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