Dinosaur power! We're talking the Housing and Building Association, we're talking the Realtors, we're talking the Economic Development Corporation, we're talking the Chamber of Commerce. We're talking rich folks who think they know what's best for the city, and think that elected officials ought to damn well do what they're told. In other words, it's time for Council to get with the program and extend Constitution Avenue to Interstate 25.
So rapidly has the city grown that it's difficult to imagine the time, less than 50 years ago, when the neighborhoods around Constitution Avenue began to develop. The city ended at Union; beyond that, only rolling prairie, where my father and I used to go dove shooting on weekends. There weren't any paved roads to speak of; just the railroad right-of-way, where the Rock Island Line carried passengers and freight to Kansas City, Chicago and points east.
As the city began its decades-long transformation from a village of 30,000 to a metropolis of 400,000, developers created extensive new neighborhoods, from Audubon to Rustic Hills. These were (and are) havens for the city's burgeoning middle class -- solid, unpretentious homes on small lots. Homeowners planted trees and flowering shrubs, tended their gardens, raised families. Schools and churches were built, roads were improved, businesses created; meanwhile, the Rock Island Line faded into history, and the trains stopped running.
Twenty-five years ago, the city acquired much of the semi-defunct railroad right-of-way, thinking that it could some day be used as a high-speed east-west expressway. But nothing ever came of the idea; it was expensive, there were other needs, or the economy was in the pits.
Come the mid-1990s, the proposal for the so-called Constitution Avenue Freeway through the neighborhood surfaced with a vengeance, as part of the updated regional Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP). Appalled, the affected neighborhoods began to organize and invited Council members to a little meeting at Horace Mann Middle School. On Council at the time, I'd been opposed to the freeway and thought I'd show up and make a little political hay-sure -- there'd only be a couple of dozen activists there, but a vote is a vote.
Shoulda sensed there was trouble ahead when I had to park four blocks away. Walked into the gym, where there were 500 people -- all voters, all mad. They didn't want to hear any speeches from politicians; they just wanted to tell us one thing: No Constitution Avenue Freeway!
It was a powerful message. It came from neighborhoods that hold real political power; full of long-term residents who vote in local elections. No candidate for an at-large seat on Council, or for mayor, can be elected if opposed by big majorities in those particular precincts. And since then, no elected city official has championed the Constitution Avenue route for an east-west freeway.
But the local power structure, unconstrained by electoral realities, has dreamed for decades of a direct, high-speed east-west connection between the Garden of the Gods industrial corridor, I-25, and the eastern suburbs.
That's why, through skillful, remorseless and quite possibly unlawful political maneuvering, the Colorado Department of Transportation spent close to $10 million on the Fontanero interchange -- which now dead-ends at absolutely nowhere. That's why, regardless of what high-priced consultants may say, the power boys and girls want to punch Constitution through to I-25, and link up with Centennial Boulevard, existing neighborhoods be damned.
Opponents of such a scheme note that a high-speed freeway would affect over a dozen schools and churches, as well as inflicting light, noise and air pollution upon surrounding neighborhoods. Other cities, they'll tell you, have long abandoned notions of driving freeways through older residential areas; why do we cling to such outdated ideas?
One word: money. Development in the city's eastern periphery will suffer greatly unless new residents can have quick, easy commutes. Preserving the peace and quiet of inner-city neighborhoods doesn't make anybody rich; building massive new subdivisions on cheap prairie land creates a lot of paydays. If you're a realtor, a builder or a businessman, growth and development is great -- the more the better.
And if someone else can pay the freight, by way of higher taxes, lower property values, or loss of neighborhood amenities, that's OK.
But if you want a simple, elegant and even heartwarming example of democracy in action, just go to the next neighborhood meeting at Horace Mann. You'll see your fellow citizens, exercising their constitutional right to freely assemble about Constitution Avenue -- and petition for a redress of grievances.
And if you're running for office, call Victoria Serna. She probably still has a few "Stop the Freeway" buttons around.
Better wear one -- that is, if you plan on being elected ...