Centennial: Bridging the 'great divide'

Still-young city grapples with question of identity across its regions

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Twenty years ago, Arapahoe County residents watched as Greenwood Village, the nearby and affluent city, crept closer to encroaching on major business corridors along Interstate 25, threatening to poach resources from neighborhoods in the south Denver area.

So residents enlisted in a protracted push to create a city of their own: Centennial, which became one of the largest and most populated municipalities in the Denver metro area. After two years of court battles, a state Legislature green-light and thousands of petition signatures, 77% of about 28,000 voters in what is now Centennial approved the formation of the city.

On Feb. 7, 2001, Centennial was legally established, capping off a spirited effort to, as one founder put it, “control our own destiny.”

But two decades later, underneath that success, a feeling still persists among residents that the city sprawls wide across an uneven and sometimes confusing map. What’s more, the city’s west and east ends — separated by the Cherry Creek Reservoir and Centennial Airport — can feel like different worlds altogether. I-25 serves as a natural impediment, said Randy Pye, Centennial’s first mayor and a founder of the city.

“Most people don’t think about it, but Parker Road is the other one. Those are two rivers in Centennial,” Pye said. “And I’ll tell you, today, most people on the east side don’t know what the west side’s doing, and the west side doesn’t know what’s going on in the east side.”

Jill Meakins, a 25-year resident of Centennial who lives on its east side, said I-25 and the mile-long stretch of Arapahoe Road car dealerships separating the city’s two sides is a unique problem.

“Since Centennial was cobbled out of pre-existing neighborhoods and business areas, the ability of having an identity is very difficult,” Meakins said. “I don’t know how the great divide can be fixed.”

To tackle the dilemma, former mayors, city founders, engaged citizens and everyday area residents weighed in on the question: Who is Centennial?

‘No man’s land’

Centennial’s identity is a topic that “there’s still much ongoing pondering over,” said former Arapahoe County commissioner John Brackney, one of the founders who started the movement to form the city in 1998.

“The question is, what’s the sense of belonging? And we, all in our community, say we grew up in Littleton,” the 129-year-old city to the west, said Brackney, who was born and raised in the area and lives in northwest Centennial. “We’d go to Main Street, town hall … my church was down there.”

But, Brackney said, he and his fellow unincorporated Arapahoe County residents “were in this kind of no man’s land,” and they adopted the identity of nearby Littleton. Unincorporated means an area is not within a city or town, overseen generally by the county government.

“If you live in west Centennial, there’s a pretty unique culture over here,” Brackney said. “Streets at SouthGlenn is still pretty important to us — there’s still some affinity for Littleton, access to Highlands Ranch and Denver.”

In the middle of the barbell-shaped city sit Walmart, Topgolf entertainment center and other retail and business centers near Arapahoe Road, with few residential neighborhoods, a stark contrast to either end of the city.

And unless people on the west have a friend to see in the east — or vice versa — there’s not much reason to travel to the other end, Brackney added.

For Cathy Noon, Centennial’s second mayor, parts of Aurora and the Town of Foxfield that stick out in the middle of Centennial’s east wing have posed a challenge.

“It was harder to have that identity as a city because we’re a little more swiss cheese on this side,” said Noon, who lives in the east, where two large swaths of unincorporated Arapahoe County also interrupt the continuity of Centennial’s map. “We don’t have the connection with the west side of town because there’s a different school district, a different parks and rec district. There were things that we inherited that made us more separate than the same.”

Littleton Public Schools covers most of Centennial’s west end, but east of South Holly Street, Cherry Creek School District encompasses the rest of the city. Parks, trails and recreation in the area are mostly overseen by South Suburban Parks and Recreation in the city’s west and central parts, by Arapahoe Park and Recreation District generally east of Parker Road, and by Arapahoe County Open Spaces. The city owns Centennial Center Park and a few other spaces.

And if that weren’t enough, Postal Service ZIP codes also add to the confusion of where residents live.

Two codes that have carried Littleton’s name also cover areas in west Centennial, and two with the Englewood name show up near the city’s center, in unincorporated Arapahoe County areas like Inverness and Dove Valley — even though Englewood doesn’t border Centennial at all, lying clear to the northwest.

“When you hear a company is coming into Englewood, it could be near Centennial Airport,” Pye said. And even the airport isn’t in Centennial, its name predating the city by almost two decades.

Andrea Suhaka, who lives just west of I-25, remembers that what united residents in the late 1990s was a desire to have a government of people “who could work for each one of us” rather than the “big and impersonal” county.

The aim was for citizens to control their destiny on taxes, boundaries and other decisions, Brackney said.

“I’m not so sure that’s the case now,” said Suhaka, secretary for the Centennial Council of Neighborhoods, a coalition of homeowners associations and similar groups. “I can’t say most, but a whole heck of a lot of our residents have moved in since the city was formed. A lot of them act like it’s just another city and don’t even know our history.”

‘For greater good’

With four city council districts spread across the wide city, Suhaka, a former Centennial city councilmember, feels a disconnect in how the city approaches policy.

“Since 2008, the council became too locked up in their individual districts, and they’re not all pulling for the greater good,” Suhaka said. “That attitude is making it harder to establish a uniform identity.”

Meanwhile, the lack of a citywide newspaper left Centennial without “a unifying fourth estate to give news of the area,” Brackney said. The Centennial Citizen, for years, generally didn’t distribute east of I-25 until this May.

The paper’s expansion “can get people paying attention to the same things,” Brackney added. “Why would I know something about a neighborhood (many) miles from me unless there’s a citywide newspaper?”

For current Mayor Stephanie Piko, who lives in the east part of town, the difference comes not in the city’s different council districts but, rather, in its neighborhood structures.

“Although each councilmember is in a district, we have a very consistent track record of making sure our decisions are for the good of the whole city,” Piko said. “I think more challenging things are on the far west side of the city, where the HOAs are not as common or not structured as strongly as they are on east side of city.”

The lack of cohesive identity in Centennial hasn’t appeared to affect big policy decisions, but Piko said tasks like trash pickup coordination and maintenance of neighborhood infrastructure are more challenging on the city’s west side.

And, sometimes, the city’s disconnect has come down to pride and recognition.

‘They wouldn’t say Centennial’

Although Centennial’s west end consists of older homes and the east features new growth, both ends are vastly residential and nearly free of large business developments.

“I actually think the neighborhoods on the east and west side, once you’re in them, have very similar feelings,” Piko said.

One change Centennial has seen since its formation is that more people are plainly aware of the city, said Noon, the former mayor. In the beginning, people didn’t know where the boundaries were.

“ ‘Am I in? Am I out? I used to be Aurora, I used to be Littleton,’ ” Noon said people would say, referring to confusion over postal addresses. When she became mayor, people would answer the question of where they lived by replying with their neighborhood’s name: Willow Creek, Chapparal and so on.

“They wouldn’t say ‘Centennial,’ ” Noon said. Now, “there’s more identification with the city as a whole and the fact they live in a city.”

The lack of a gathering place in the east part of town also affected the feeling of being connected, Noon said.

“The west side, they’re closer together, to shopping, (to) SouthGlenn,” Noon said. “The east side, we don’t have that gathering place — or we didn’t until we had the park.”

In 2012, Centennial opened Centennial Center Park, its first city-owned park, next to the Centennial Civic Center, the city hall, along Arapahoe Road at 13050 E. Peakview Ave. At the park, the city holds a slew of summer events, complete with food trucks, concerts, a car show and a chalk-art festival.

“One of the reasons we built (the park) is to have that place in the middle for people to come together and have events that bring the city together,” Piko said. “And I think it’s done that exceptionally well.”

Noon has seen some more intangible qualities reinforce people’s pride in living in the city, too, such as its long list of appearances on national “best-of” rankings for its quality of life and its mention during the 2012 summer Olympics.

“We just can’t forget how much having Missy Franklin in our city helped bring us to the forefront,” Noon said, referring to the Olympian from Centennial. “Her name flashes, and it said `Centennial, Colorado’ — it didn’t say Denver. (People) were darn proud. They were proud that their kids looked up to her.”

And even the more concrete parts of city life — attractions like Topgolf and IKEA moving into Centennial — have brought the middle of the city more identity, Noon said.

But Suhaka is skeptical that a more uniform Centennial identity is possible.

“We’re huge and varied,” Suhaka said. “People still identify with neighborhoods because the homeowner associations are so strong. I do wish there could be more uniform identification for neighborhoods so their people realize we’re all in this together, but I really doubt that could happen.”

Big cities have distinct neighborhoods, such as Elyria Swansea in north Denver and Cherry Creek in central Denver, Suhaka noted.

“Littleton has older and newer parts and continually holds events to try and bring people together, but I don’t know how well that’s working,” Suhaka said. “So Centennial will keep holding its events to try to bring people together and maybe, eventually, we’ll succeed.”

A ‘main street’

On a May afternoon, Liz Helwig, 36, was playing with her daughter at deKoevend Park, near Arapahoe Road on South University Boulevard. A resident of northwest Centennial, she characterized the city as a great place in which to raise kids.

“Typically, there’s more space than in Denver,” Helwig said. “The parks and recreation are great.”

But Benjamin Fields, who sat watching kids play sports in that same park, expressed frustration with the city’s image.

“There is no identity — it’s just sporadic,” said Fields, 40, who also lives in west Centennial. “When people ask where I live, I say, `Centennial.’ That could be here or way east … it’s hard when trying to relate to someone.”

Noon thinks keeping Centennial well maintained can set it apart from surrounding suburbs.

“If we can continue to reinvest in our businesses, our shopping centers, in our homes, I think it keeps that level of pride in the community and that level of ‘I want to be there,’ ” Noon said.

One desire residents voiced was for another attraction in the middle of the city — a senior center, a cultural or arts center, or a “Main Street.”

“I think it’s great that Centennial puts on so many events at Centennial Center Park, but it isn’t somewhere people regularly gather who don’t have children or in the winter,” said Shoshana Howley, who lives in the town’s east end near East Smoky Hill Road. “I think having more of a ‘Main Street USA’ area for events would bring together a wider range of the community. Somewhere with smaller shops, cafes and restaurants that was more walkable, but that isn’t a mall, would be a huge draw.”  

Pye would like crowds to be able to come to a “Centennial arts center.”

“We never approached the arts. We left that to other cities,” Pye said. “If you’re a citizen of Centennial, you don’t identify Centennial with any kind of arts. And that’s a major part of a city. I’ve always thought we should have a foundation here about arts. I’ve always got some pushback on that because it’s money.”

Noon pointed to the competition, though, in considering such a center. Parker and Lone Tree both have established performing arts centers, and Greenwood Village has the cultural Curtis Center for the Arts.

Unless the city accepts the need to better brand the city, Pye said, citizens will have a difficult time saying they’re proud to live in Centennial.

“Until the city makes the decision to be proud of the city and brand the city with our logo at (more) entrances and really start talking about that, our identity is tied up to IKEA and United Launch Alliance,” Pye said, referring to Centennial’s high-profile businesses.

But for Noon, Centennial’s parks, outdoor spaces, schools and suburban feel are something to celebrate — as she heard when she was mayor.

“Even people who swore they’d never live in the suburbs, they start having children” and start looking at what Centennial has to offer, Noon said. “And they move in and go, ‘Wow, I never thought I’d like the suburbs.’ ”

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