Fort Collins Residents Push To Preserve Open Space Near Stadium Redevelopment

May 22, 2019

Zee Ziola remembers the sounds he used to hear on mountain bike rides through Maxwell Natural Area. On fall Saturdays, the boom of a cannon signaled the start of another home game at Hughes Stadium. Fans erupting in cheers marked a Rams touchdown.

"This side of town would get crazy packed," Ziola said, standing at the edge of the old Hughes site in Fort Collins.

Now the 161-acre property is vacant, serving as the future home of a new neighborhood.

Colorado State University and Miami-based home developer Lennar entered into a conditional sale agreement in late January, setting the price at $10 million. In the agreement, the company said it plans to build between 600 and 700 homes at the site in the coming years.

As the city's development review process moves forward, Ziola and other Fort Collins residents are sounding the alarm on the potential pressure it could put on the nearby Maxwell Natural Area.

"I metaphorically talk about it as Lennar is going to drop a people bomb right next to this natural area," he said.

Ziola moved into a neighborhood across the street from the stadium in 1999. He said he wanted to be closer to one of the city's natural areas, where he could spend his free time biking through the foothills with friends.

"We can actually do a loop before work," he said. "We can come back down, shower up and be at work by 8. It's pretty great."

But when Colorado State University closed Hughes Stadium in 2016 and tore it down last spring, he heard the university was trying to sell the land to a home developer. He said he worried that putting hundreds of new homes adjacent to the Maxwell Natural Area would spell the end for the trail.

"You start to think, 'Okay, what are they gonna do with this land?'" Ziola said. "Are they gonna protect it?"

John Stokes, the city's natural areas department director, said the project will optimally have a buffer zone built in between the new homes and the Maxwell Natural Area.

"To be pragmatic, we live in a growing community and so we have to, I think, view new developments as partners and all of this because we are partners, we all live together," he said. "We're going to have to figure out how we live together and how we interface a new development with an open space or a natural area."

Those types of conversations are also happening on a much broader scale. Right now, the city is updating its natural areas master plan for the next 10 years.

What are they gonna do with this land? Are they gonna protect it? -Zee Ziola, Fort Collins resident

"We can add more land to our portfolio," Stokes said. "We can build additional trails or trail connections. We can enhance our parking lots. We can do all of those things, but over time I would expect to see these trails get more crowded. I do believe that that is inevitable."

Cameron Gloss, the city's comprehensive planning manager said the city is studying the potential environmental impacts of the proposed neighborhood.

"We really have not kept up with housing," Gloss said. "If you actually look at the numbers and see the regional growth where we're actually pushing some of our workers out further and further from our community."

In the past decade, Fort Collins' population has grown by nearly 30,000 residents, according to the state demographer's office. The median home price is now $420,000 and steadily going up. And, Gloss said, projects on the scale of the Hughes site are a rarity.

"You can imagine of all the sites in Fort Collins, this is one of our largest opportunity sites and an area where if you were to build a new neighborhood, this might be a good fit," he said.

Zee Ziola rides his mountain bike down the Foothills Trail in Fort Collins. Ziola has expressed concern about the negative impacts of a proposed neighborhood development nearby on the natural area.
Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC

Ziola said he's open to compromise.

"Let the developers make their money," he said. "But also use that as a reason to invest and a reason to better manage the natural area to accommodate for all those people. 'Cause at the end of the day more people recreating in our natural areas in a responsible way is a good thing."

CSU and and Lennar didn't want to comment for this story, but a final closing of the Hughes Stadium land is expected later in the year. Once completed, a detailed plan for the neighborhood will be released to the public.

This story is part of an occasional series looking at the growing pains facing communities along the northern Front Range.