Economy & Economic Development  May 7, 2019

Boom on the backbone

It can be slow going making the drive between Northern Colorado and Denver along Interstate 25.

Ordinary congestion — which has become worse and worse as the population of Northern Colorado has swelled in recent years — is currently compounded by a series of construction projects aimed at improving the heavily traveled I-25 north corridor.

Sections of the roughly 60-mile stretch of roadway between Wellington and Broomfield regularly see more than 100,000 cars and trucks pass through on a single day.


Click link to view locator map of 46 projects along northern I-25 corridor.

North (Wellington to Johnstown)

South (Berthoud to Broomfield)


The interstate is the main north-south throughway in Weld, Larimer and Broomfield counties, a region that has seen explosive growth and ceaseless residential and commercial development.

Over the next few years, the interstate corridor will add thousands of homes, millions of square feet of commercial space, gleaming new offices, cavernous industrial buildings and, perhaps, even a gondola.

Those developments are being fueled by strong population growth. Greeley was the seventh-fastest-growing metropolitan statistical area in the nation — encompassing all of Weld County — adding 9,031 residents between July 1, 2017, to July 1, 2018, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Fort Collins-Loveland MSA — comprised of Larimer County — added 6,525 people, good for the 34th-fastest rate in the country. The Boulder metro area added 2,005, and Broomfield County boosted its population by 1,035.

With all of those additional residents come additional cars and additional strain on the region’s transportation infrastructure — particularly along I-25.

In an effort to improve transportation conditions, the Colorado Department of Transportation is taking on a large-scale widening and interchange upgrade project along the interstate between Fort Collins and Johnstown.

The project, expected to cost more than $300 million, is happening 15 years before it was originally expected to be needed, according to CDOT. Funding, in large part, is coming in the form of a U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grant.

Growth is bringing more and more people, “and I don’t have the roads for all of those people,” CDOT deputy director Johnny Olson said.

“As a transportation official, I’ve said to myself, ‘Oh god, I need to retire. I don’t know if I can handle this,’” Olson joked during a presentation to Northern Colorado real estate professionals earlier this year.

While the state cannot wave a magic wand and summon a new highway to relieve pressure on I-25, it can certainly make improvements along the existing roadway.

“We’ve got existing traffic and a hodgepodge of two-lane and three-lane sections of road between Northern Colorado and areas to the south,” said David Crowder, McWhinney’s vice president of community development and general manager of Centerra. “It can be very congested, especially during commute times.”

CDOT is adding one express lane — also known as a managed traffic lane — in each direction along the stretch between Johnstown and Fort Collins.

The addition of a managed traffic lane — a flexible toll and bus lane where prices can shift based on traffic volumes — can increase the flow along general purpose lanes by 20 percent to 30 percent, according to Olson.

The interchange at the Interstate 25 and Colorado Highway 402 will be rebuilt with a new bridge elevating the highway over the interstate. Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation

Crews with CDOT and the project’s construction contractor Kraemer and IHC Construction Companies LLC are also replacing the interchange at Colorado Highway 402.

The highway, which currently runs under I-25, will be flipped to run over the interstate. The hope is that this change will slow traffic and improve safety at one of the region’s more dangerous interchanges.

The state will also improve frontage roads at the intersection and widen the Park-n-Ride.

Highway 402 is expected to be closed at I-25 for four months starting this summer. Traffic will be rerouted through detours.

To the north, CDOT will widen and raise the bridge over the Big Thompson River to reduce traffic and the chances of flooding.

The bridge over the railroad near Kendall Parkway will be replaced. Pedestrian and bicycle transportation amenities will be improved at the interchange near Centerra.

That interchange will also be home to one of the project’s most unique features: a bus rapid transit stop smack dab in the middle of the interstate.

“This will be a huge improvement for that area that will really help mobility there,” Olson said.

The new bus stop is being supported by Centerra developer McWhinney.

“The Centerra Metro District had an interest [in roadway improvement] because they are responsible for infrastructure here,” Crowder said. “The metro district contributed $6 million to the I-25 widening project. That’s part of the collaboration that brought local money to a very large project.”

Golden Triangle Construction Inc. is building this 83,890-square-foot industrial building at Centerra in Loveland. The building will include flex industrial, manufacturing and office space, along with loading docks. Courtesy Golden Triangle Construction Inc.

Buy-in from local groups helped convince state and federal agencies that the I-25 improvement project was worthy of funding, he said. Local governments in Loveland, Johnstown, Fort Collins and Weld and Larimer counties also contributed significant sums toward the cost of the overall project.

Center-lane bus stops help improve travel efficiency because they eliminate the need for buses to merge before exiting the interstate, often a time-consuming exercise.

Shortened commute times “obviously make public transit more attractive,” Crowder said.

McWhinney is also pitching in on the design work associated with some aspects of the interstate project.

“We are actually participating in weekly design sessions with our engineers and architects and [CDOT’s team] working through what it is going to look and how it is going to operate.”

Centerra is an area that “embraced the freeway and its potential to focus growth,” Crowder said.

“A lot of communities didn’t embrace the freeway or create the economic tools” to allow for developers to fund infrastructure improvements, he said. “Loveland really had the foresight to do that, which is why Centerra is different” from less successful developments in the area.

At certain interchanges along the corridor — Harmony Road in Fort Collins, for example — CDOT will reconfigure the traffic signal timing to improve traffic flow.

The northern stretch of the road improvements will feature the replacement of the Poudre River bridges. This will include the addition of walking trails and a wildlife crossing.

In Fort Collins, the bridge at Prospect road will be replaced. Additional turn lanes and through lanes, along with aesthetic improvements such as landscaping, will also be added.

Road improvements along the I-25 north corridor are expected to be complete by 2022.

Benefits of I-25 widening

“The freeway really does serve as the backbone of the economy in our area,” Crowder said.

“The Front Range is such an attractive area for people to settle in, to do business in, to set up new businesses,” he said. “The importance of [I-25] is obvious when you think about it as the main connection between the north and the south” portions of the Front Range.

“It connects our economies, both locally within Northern Colorado as well as to the economies to the south and north” such as Colorado Springs and Cheyenne, Crowder said.

While the I-25 economy in Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley is fueled by intraregional commerce, it is also given a boost by folks just passing through.

Hotels have begun to proliferate along the corridor, catering to travelers heading north toward Yellowstone or south toward Sante Fe, New Mexico.

The interchange at Interstate 25 and Prospect Road will be widened with the addition of new turning and through lanes. Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation

For example, WoodSpring Suites is building a new extended-stay hotel on a vacant parcel just east of U.S. Interstate 25 and south of Mulberry Street in Fort Collins. McWhinney and Englewood-based hotel developer Stonebridge Cos. recently completed a Courtyard by Marriott at Skypond Drive and Centerra Parkway, near Interstate 25 and U.S. Highway 34 and just south of The Promenade Shops at Centerra. The companies are partnering to build two more hotels in Centerra.

The benefits of the expansion project are expected to be realized “not just from pure property activity and development, but also from a workforce standpoint,” CBRE Northern Colorado vice president Mistene Nugent said.

WoodSpring Suites has proposed a new 123-room extended stay hotel in Fort Collins. Courtesy Fort Collins city planning documents.

Improving connectivity between areas where people live and where they work makes those areas more appealing for new companies to move in and for residential developers to build more homes.

Northern Colorado has seen steady growth and positive net migration for years, evidence that transportation problems have yet to become so severe as to choke the life out of development. But growth compounds traffic issues and employers are starting to take notice.

“Getting to Denver [from Northern Colorado] is tricky and it can take an extended amount of time to make that trip,” Nugent said. “There are some companies and employers that are starting to talk about the impact [of long commutes] or about employees being able to get to the airport or to travel for meetings.”

Expanding the interstate and reducing traffic and congestion could help eliminate one of the perceived stumbling blocks employers face when deciding whether to launch or expand operations along the I-25 corridor in Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley.

“The connection improvements on I-25 improve access and drive times throughout the region,”   NAI Affinity CEO Ryan Schaefer said. “For the most part, people living here are driving somewhere else to work every day.”

Communities along I-25 that have exits with access to other major roadways leading to Denver International Airport, or cities a few miles east or west of the interstate such as Greeley or Boulder, consider themselves particularly well-positioned.

Centennial Landing 18,000 SF, two-story office building to be constructed on a 2.18 acre site on the north side of the intersection of Weld County Road 9 (east I-25 Frontage Road) & Business Park Circle.

“Not only is the I-25 corridor important, but so is accessibility to the toll roads to get to [Denver International Airport] and to the markets of Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver,” Firestone economic-development director Paula Mehle said. “We are kind of in this perfect triangle to be able to access those three larger metro areas.”

Firestone’s Colorado Highway 119 interchange is a notable example of an area that’s primed for development and also provides connectivity between I-25 and Boulder County’s major population centers.

“As is always the case with economic development, traffic is the number one criteria for businesses when they’re looking at where they want to locate. For retailers, they’re looking at traffic counts,” she said. “For manufacturers, distribution companies and offices, they’re looking at having a major transportation route to move their products in and out and to get their employees to work and home. So in that way, I-25 is really important for [the recruitment of] both retail and primary employers.”

In Northern Colorado, residential growth has been driven in large part by its relative affordability compared with nearby portions of the Boulder and Denver metro areas.

“People are saying, ‘I can get more for my dollar, the schools are great, the infrastructure is being built up. This is where we are going to lay our roots down because this is what we can afford,’” The Group Inc. president Brandon Wells said.

“You’re seeing a lot of people coming from Denver and moving up north,” he said. “Some of them still commute, some of them are retired. They all still want to be connected by the interstate.”

Affordability issues, combined with generational changes in preferences and economic conditions in the wake of the Great Recession, have led to a shift in the types of housing available along the I-25 corridor.

Parcels that may have been developed into large single-family home communities in the past are now home to a wider variety of housing types: smaller homes, condos, rental apartments, townhomes, twinhomes, duplexes.

“What you’ve seen are people saying, ‘If I’m going to pay this kind of money for housing, I want to have quality finishes and amenities. I’m willing to compromise; I don’t need the big lot; I don’t need the big house,’” Wells said.

How will roadway construction impact new development along the corridor?

The I-25 corridor has been a development boomtown for years and will likely continue along that track long after the roadway improvements wrap up. But will there be an impact on active development while the widening project is underway?

In some cases, developers are content to hold off on projects until the roadway expansion project is nearer to completion. But in other cases, developers are working to have projects built during the interstate expansion so they are positioned to take advantage of the benefits of the improvements immediately.

“I think some people are waiting to see what’s going to happen with that expansion,” Nugent said. “It really depends on what [developers’] appetites are for waiting and what their cash position is.”

For some developers, the planned roadway improvements helped convince them to invest along the corridor.

“We’re very excited about the work that CDOT is doing,” said Roy Bade, executive vice president of Arizona-based real estate investment firm Caliber Cos. LLC. Caliber is developing a project in Johnstown called The Ridge.

“We find [the interstate widening] adds a lot of value to the site,” he said. “It was part of the consideration when we were looking at doing this project.”

Certain interchanges have remained relatively underdeveloped because the roadway infrastructure does not lend itself to major development projects. That issue is expected to be alleviated by aspects of the expansion project.

“At Prospect and I-25 in particular, that interchange right now is really difficult to maneuver. The plans for that overpass are to expand it significantly,” Nugent said. “If you look at the other interchanges in Fort Collins, they are mostly pretty fully developed or at least partially developed to some degree. [The Prospect interchange] is one where I think we are going to see a lot of development activity once the expansion is complete.

The type of development most appropriate for the area around a certain interchange differs from exit to exit along the I-25 corridor.

“There’s development and activity that has happened over the years based on existing conditions at each of the interchanges,” Nugent said. “That’s how that natural development occurs. But as we mature and develop those interchanges, we start seeing some changes in terms of what the long term plan looks like.”

Along the major intersections in Fort Collins, much of the proposed development comes in the form of multi-use parcels subdivided to serve as retail space, offices, housing or hotels.

At Firestone’s Highway 119 interchange, which includes a host of bustling gas stations, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants that cater to travelers and truckers, development plans are aimed at diversifying retail and commercial opportunities.

“Having the exit at Highway 119 is significant for getting the traffic to stop into Firestone and dine, shop, work and live,” Mehle said.

But the town wants to provide more than Del Taco and Popeye’s.

“We’ve got some really strong sites along 119 that are already zoned for retail or commercial development,” Mehle said.

Smaller communities stepping up

Like Firestone, there are a number of smaller communities along the I-25 corridor that view their proximity to the interstate as a competitive advantage.

“As home prices and the cost of living continues to increase” in population centers such as Fort Collins, Greeley, Loveland and Boulder, “you start to see more of the population squeeze into areas” such as Berthoud, Johnstown or Dacono, Nugent said.

While some businesses demand that their operations come with an address within a city with significant name recognition such as Fort Collins, others are content to cash in on cost savings in communities such as Timnath.

“We do see a lot of folks asking about what it would look like to be in the city of Loveland and how that land price and fee schedule differs from Timnath or Johnstown or Dacono,” CBRE Northern Colorado vice president Pete Kelly said.

Smaller communities certainly have the capacity to take on successful development projects along the I-25 corridor, Crowder said.

“The freeway is a major artery. So as with the human body, it carries the lifeblood of the economy north and south,” he said. “With the right tools you could see additional growth similar to Centerra along the freeway corridor” in other communities.

A host of factors commingle with accessibility to the interstate to create a variety of growth opportunities in different communities along the corridor.

Dacono, for instance, has the potential to supercharge development just east of the Colorado Highway 52 interchange due to the presence of a designated opportunity zone adjacent to I-25. This is the only such zone that directly abuts the interstate between Denver and Fort Collins.

The opportunity-zone program, established by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, is designed to update the nation’s tax code to unlock the reinvestment potential of capital gains and direct that capital to the communities that need it most.

As regulations surrounding the program are clarified, experts believe investors will begin taking more advantage of opportunities in areas such as Dacono and Fort Collins, which has a designated opportunity zone directly northwest of the Mulberry Street and I-25 interchange.

“They’re very new and people are still figuring out how to operate them,” Kelly said. “Everybody’s intrigued but people are still learning how to be productive in them. The more comfortable people get, the more we are going to see people seeking out the opportunity zones.”

Caliber is especially interested in exploring new development in opportunity zones throughout Northern Colorado and Boulder Valley, Bade said.

In Berthoud, growth is being teed up by something unique: a golf course.

While TPC Colorado is about a 10-minute drive west of I-25, the course is expected to spur residential development throughout the town, according to Berthoud economic-development director Walt Elish.

Golfers putt on the 16th green, a par-3, on the TPC Colorado, a ground-up golf course development located in Berthoud. The 800-acre golf community will encompass a master-planned residential neighborhood, an 18-hole championship golf course and clubhouse, a community center, pool, fitness facility and a dynamic lakefront gathering locale. Joel Blocker for BizWest

Berthoud will be in the spotlight when it plays host to a Tour professional golf tournament this summer.

“The town is prepared to use that as an advantage,” Elish said of the golf tournament.

Local development leaders expect increased name recognition to boost Berthoud’s profile.

“People are really excited by this growing community that’s focused around this beautiful golf course,” Wells said. “It’s got unbelievable views, and it’s a great location for continued infill and development west of I-25.”

Big-time bookends

While there are major projects throughout the I-25 corridor in Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado, the stretch of roadway is bookended by two planned developments with game-changing potential.

The northern bookend in northeast Fort Collins is Montava, a mostly residential development near the Anheuser-Busch facility at the intersection of I-25 and Mountain Vista Drive.

The Montava project, led by developer Max Moss of HF2M Colorado, calls for the construction of about 4,000 new homes — a variety of housing types including single-family, townhouses and apartments — along with retail spaces, parks, a school and an active farm.

The project, which has been scaled back a bit since first announced publicly,  is currently making its way through Fort Collins’ development review and approval process. Construction is expected to begin next year at the earliest. 

“Eighteen months ago, we started this project … because I was looking for an opportunity to put my life and resources into this community,” Moss said during a public hearing held last year on Montava.

“The key to being a good land developer is to really understand [the answer to the questions], ‘What does this land want to be? What does it need to be? What does the community want it to be?’” he said.

Montava, Moss said, is a key piece to the future of growth in Fort Collins because it represents one of the city’s few remaining large, undeveloped tracts of land ripe for residential housing.

“There’s a housing struggle in Fort Collins,” both in terms of affordability and availability, Moss said.

If the project is successful, it could be a boon not only for residential real estate, but also for commercial and retail operations that will be needed to serve the new neighborhoods new population.

“It activates more commercial land on the north side of Fort Collins near I-25, which really isn’t on anybody’s radar right now,” Kelly said. “It’s a really sizable project. It’s a big picture, large scale deal.”

He added: “Real estate tends to have a gravity to it, a magnetism. Things tend to follow a current.”

Historically, that developmental gravitational pull has been stronger in southern portions of the city, Kelly said. But Montava is “a project that’s big enough to potentially disrupt that current” and redirect the focus of development to the north.

“You put a couple thousand homes up north; you’ve got to have access to grocery stores, access to schools, access to employment,”  he said. “… Communities are really trying to create these centers of activity, centers of activation that people are drawn to.”

On the southern end of the Boulder Valley section of the I-25 corridor is McWhinney’s Baseline development in Broomfield.

Children’s Hospital Colorado received a high ranking among pediatric facilities nationwide from U.S. News and World Report. Here is CHC’s north campus building in Broomfield, part of the hospitals network of hospitals in the state. Courtesy Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Baseline, a roughly 1,000-acre project formerly known as North Park, is located west of I-25, south of Colorado Highway 7 and north of Northwest Parkway. The project is zoned for office, services, retail, manufacturing, and research and development.

At full build-out, the project could include more than 6,000 homes and more than 17 million square feet of commercial space, according to Broomfield city planning documents.

“Baseline is a unique new project that offers close proximity to Denver’s major transportation corridors and urban centers along with other key community amenities, like housing, a medical campus and innovative schools,” Ashley Stiles, vice president of development for McWhinney, said in a prepared statement when the company inked its first industrial tenant last year.

Quality Electronic Distribution, a Denver-based regional electrical distributor, took over more than 32,000 square feet of space within the first Baseline industrial building, which was completed June 2018.

JPMorgan Asset Management Global Real Assets, the real estate arm of JPMorgan Chase Bank, bought more than 100 acres within the development. The banking giant is building a $220 million, 150,000-square-foot operations center on the land.

Companies pushing operations out from Boulder and Denver have expressed interest in having office space built at Baseline.

“We’re 15 minutes from Boulder, 15 minutes from downtown Denver, 15 minutes from the airport,” McWhinney chief investment officer Troy McWhinney said. “It is a great location.”

McWhinney said the company is being deliberate with the relatively slow pace of development.

“We’re being very careful right now at this stage in the [economic] cycle,” he said.

“Broomfield is a great area, and I think it is going to get better. So we are in no hurry to push [the speed of development],” McWhinney said. “… This land has been sitting there for millions of years. So whether it gets developed in one year or 30 years, we’re in no hurry.”

Pictured is a site plan for Brands at the Ranch, a $500 million mixed-use development planned for the northeast corner of Interstate 25 and Crossroads Boulevard in Loveland. Courtesy Water Valley Land Co./Stellar Development

Between the bookends are massive planned developments such as The Brands at the Ranch and Centerra in Loveland.

Developer Martin Lind, president of Water Valley Land Co., is building a $500 million development that will straddle both sides of I-25.

Plans for The Brands at The Ranch, which is expected to take roughly a decade to build out, include 600,000 square feet of retail space, 1,200 apartments, 1,000 new hotel rooms and a huge IMAX theater. Project planners have even kicked around the idea of building a gondola to transport people over I-25 from one portion of the development to the other.

Tenants already signed on to the project include Winter Wonderland, Zi’s Imperial Kitchen, Nordy’s Barbecue, Galaxy Theaters and Tucano’s Brazilian Grill.

“It’s a much bigger deal than we ever conceived 10 years ago,” Lind told BizWest when the project was announced. “It really is an exciting project for the region.”

Martin Lind, CEO and president of Water Valley Co.
Developer Martin Lind, CEO and president of Water Valley Co., points to an artist’s rendering of what The Brands will look like when complete. The Brands at the Ranch and The Brands West will be built on 60 acres within city limits north of Crossroads Boulevard east of I-25 , and on 140 acres west of I-25 across from the events center. Image by Joel Blocker

Lind has said the project has the potential to become “the LoDo of NoCo,” a reference to the popular and heavily developed Lower Downtown neighborhood in Denver.

The 3,000-acre, master-planned Centerra continues to be a juggernaut, with the Lakes at Centerra residential area nearing buildout and the commercial component continuing to grow.

Most recently, developer McWhinney announced the expansion of the Motorplex at Centerra with the addition of four new car brands on a recently purchased 15-acre parcel.

Another nearby project is the 265-acre The Ridge development in Johnstown.

Caliber has signed on two homebuilders to construct more than 200 homes on the site near the I-25 and Highway 402 interchange. Another roughly 400 multifamily units are also planned.

The commercial component of The Ridge will include 100,000 square feet of retail and office space, along with two 50,000-square-foot industrial buildings.

“We’re really going to build a little city there,” Bade said, estimating the cost of construction at about $300 million.

Stretching toward the interstate

As the interstate has become an increasingly important transport route — providing an alternative to traditional north-south connectors such as U.S. Highway 287 to the west and U.S. Highway 85 to the east — communities have stretched development and annexed properties closer and closer to I-25.

“What you continue to see is the tentacles of Northern Colorado reach out to the interstate,” Wells said.

“We’ve seen municipalities reach out to connect themselves with I-25” in an effort to bolster their tax bases on the back of interstate-related commerce, he said.

Wells said development will continue to stretch toward the interstate. As an example, he pointed to a property between Loveland and Greeley that is being marketed as “the next Centerra.”

The roughly 1,000-acre property known as Apex Vista is just west of the intersection of U.S. Highway 34 and Weld County Road 17. Apex Vista, which comes with a $19 million price tag, was recently annexed by Greeley, pushing the city’s boundaries west toward I-25.

“It’s at a very key intersection in Northern Colorado,” NAI Affinity president Jake Hallauer said. NAI Affinity is marketing the property.

“Greeley is growing west; Windsor is growing in pretty much every direction; Johnstown and Milliken are growing to the north and east; Loveland is growing to the east,” he said. “This area really makes logical sense as the next big, master-planned community.”

Not the only game in town

While I-25 remains the spine of Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado, it is by no means the only important transit corridor in the region.

“It’s interesting — I think Northern Colorado has generally grown toward I-25, but we are seeing trend start to change a little bit,” said Mark Bradley, owner of Realtec in Greeley. “East Greeley is starting to gain traction because of Highway 85 being a viable corridor. Weld County Parkway is also becoming a very interesting corridor for transportation down to Denver.”

East of I-25, U.S. Highway 287 runs parallel to the interstate from Wyoming south to Denver. The Highway serves as a major commercial corridor through the downtowns of Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Lafayette.

The area between Denver and Boulder is served by U.S. Highway 36, a major commercial corridor that includes giant office parks such as Interlocken in Broomfield.

Of course, roadways aren’t the only type of infrastructure that factors into the growth equation.

“The freeway is just one piece of infrastructure that’s required for growth to happen,” Crowder said. “You need a labor force, you need other infrastructure like sewer and water. So roads are an important piece, but they’re not the only piece.”

It can be slow going making the drive between Northern Colorado and Denver along Interstate 25.

Ordinary congestion — which has become worse and worse as the population of Northern Colorado has swelled in recent years — is currently compounded by a series of construction projects aimed at improving the heavily traveled I-25 north corridor.

Sections of the roughly 60-mile stretch of roadway between Wellington and Broomfield regularly see more than 100,000 cars and trucks pass through on a single day.


Click link to view locator map of 46 projects along northern I-25 corridor.

North (Wellington…

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