Lone Tree, once known only by stereotype — suburban bedroom community with super-sized mall — is crafting a sleek new image, attracting trophy companies like Charles Schwab and Cabela’s, along with millennials who want urban lifestyles at suburban prices.
When Anna Dreiling, 22, and her fiancé, Michael Gorka, 23, recently looked for a place to live, they chose Lone Tree.
“Everything was clean and new,” Dreiling said. “All the businesses, not just the tech industry, are drawing a lot of young people. We saw lots of people our age.”
This April, they moved into new luxury apartments called The Vue at RidgeGate.
“It’s kind of hip,” Dreiling said. “It has all these amenities, and a gorgeous pool with fountains, at a price that’s so much lower than you can find in a similar atmosphere downtown.”
Two decades after Lone Tree incorporated as a municipality, it’s emerging as a prime example of the “edge city” phenomenon — a form of urban growth cropping up near suburban freeway interchanges with clusters of business, entertainment and retail in landscapes that were once rural or residential.
“Edge cities are like satellites in orbit around a big metropolitan city center that’s developed its own walkability and downtown transportation,” real estate expert Mark Samuelson said. “Lone Tree represents that about as well as any place does.”
Since 1995, the city has grown from about 3,000 people with less than $7,000 in annual revenues to 12,000 residents with annual revenues of more than $36 million.
The future looks bright, because in July RTD approved the Southeast Rail Extension that would add three new stations in Lone Tree, unlocking the potential for developing the city’s east side, along with transit-oriented developments.
Restaurants are popping up, the Lone Tree Arts Center is thriving and real estate prices are rapidly rising.
A new health services hub includes Kaiser Permanente’s new specialty center, along with a$117 million expansion of Sky Ridge Medical Centerwith a new women’s wellness center, and the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, one of the top fertility clinics in the nation.
Schwab recently opened a new retail branch in Lone Tree, the first building of its new 32-acre campus that will be completed in 2015, and TW Telecom — a Fortune 1000 company just bought by Level 3 Communications — moved to Lone Tree last year.
The city might look like an overnight success, but observers say it’s more a tale of toiling away, quietly, for nearly two decades.
“I’ve really enjoyed watching Lone Tree grow and develop as a city,” said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, who credits the city with developing a strong sense of community. “They work hard at what they do. They’re not show horses, they’re workhorses.”
They’ve also got a strong tax base — fueled by sales from Park Meadows mall — along with prime real estate and smart stewardship.
“They’re a smaller town with big leaders and a big vision,” said Lynn Myers, vice president of economic development for the Denver South Economic Development Partnership. “You don’t always get all those components together. A lot of people have good plans, but they can’t get there.”
It’s the municipal equivalent of being born with good genes and wise parents.
Lone Tree started in 1981 as a tiny group of homes with a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer. A decade later, when Douglas County hit its rapid growth spurt — growing 140 percent between 1980 and 1990 — Lone Tree residents became concerned about the quality of development, so they decided to incorporate in 1995.
The city’s first mayor, Jack O’Boyle, was among the new residents who swelled Douglas County’s population growth. He moved to Lone Tree in 1994 after Martin Marietta acquired General Dynamics’ space system unit, where he’d worked in San Diego.
While making rockets in Douglas County’s growing aerospace industry, O’Boyle also served as mayor, working with the City Council to craft a vision. The first hurdle was creating a revenue stream.
“We raised money by selling T-shirts, ball caps and license-plate holders,” he recalls.
They also landed two bank loans.
But five years later, they hit an obstacle that could undermine their future success: Highlands Ranch was considering incorporation as a municipality, and O’Boyle got a look at their map.
“Their planning area went through my planning area,” he said. “That got my attention. I asked them what was motivating them, and if they knew what they’d done. They just wanted access to I-25. I said, ‘That’s a smart thing to do, but we have a problem here.’ ”
The coveted land — a 3,500-acre chunk of prime real estate now known as RidgeGate — stretched east and west of the freeway. Managed by Coventry Development Corp., the land had been purchased in 1972 by a European family that paid with cash, so there was no debt and no rush to develop.
Keith Simon, the company’s executive vice president, recalls the tug of war over that property.
“Highlands Ranch had reached out to us and said, ‘Why not come in with us, and we’ll make a big city,” he said. “Lone Tree was very young and small, and they felt like it might be better for us to come in with them.”
In the end, Coventry and Lone Tree shared a similar vision, so Lone Tree annexed the land.
“In terms of strategic value, it was our most important annexation,” O’Boyle said.
“It’s been a very good partnership,” Simon said.
The planned light rail extensions will go through that land, and Coventry will donate rights of way worth about $10 million to $15 million.
It took nearly a decade to develop the first part of RidgeGate, which is 1 square mile west of the freeway and nearly complete.
The second part, on the east side of the freeway, is four times as large. “If 1 square mile took 10 years to develop, this could take another 40 years,” Simon said. “We’re very patient.”
Much depends on the construction of the Southeast Rail Extension. Mayor Jim Gunning is confident that RTD will land the $92 million in federal funds needed to extend the light rail farther into Lone Tree. “We’re very excited about light rail moving forward,” he said. “The minute they get the federal grant, we know that will start activity on the east side.”
Those three new light rail stations will be cogs for transit-oriented development.
“There’s the opportunity for more density around those stations with the kind of housing options that millennials will look to in the future,” City Manager Seth Hoffman said.
And the city will finally have a center, with mixed-use transit-oriented development, a future City Hall and an adjacent Central Park.
“The heart of Lone Tree will shift over,” Simon said. “There will be a grid of streets, much like downtown Denver — the blocks are actually modeled on that size.”
Much has changed from when sportscaster Susie Wargin moved with her husband to Lone Tree in 1999, after falling in love with the bluffs that edge the city.
“I love living here, and it’s growing like absolutely crazy,” she said. “I’d love to have it be a small town forever, but a good town can’t stay small forever.”