After years of planning, 2017 may be seen as the year Peña Station NEXT, Denver’s 400-acre, airport-adjacent smart city collaboration, emerges from the concept stage.

Driverless electric shuttles made by French company Easymile are expected to begin running sometime in the first quarter of 2017. Crews have installed smart LED streetlights that automatically dim and brighten based on ambient light.

Panasonic, an anchor tenant, opened an operations hub for its Denver division in September. Easymile plans to open its U.S. headquarters there this summer.

Later in 2017, Denver builder MGL Partners will begin work on Peña Station NEXT’s first residences, 220 apartments estimated to be fully complete by mid-2018. And while it’s still too early to name, an official at L.C. Fulenwider, which is handling real estate on the project, said a hotel group is coming under contract and should also be under construction by year’s end.

Like Rome, Peña Station NEXT won’t be built in a day. Completion could be as far as 20 years away according to Ferd Belz, Fulenwider senior vice president. But he noted: "I think everybody's optimistic it could be half that. I think once we can get some additional announcements with some other groups, it can go pretty fast." And like the storied seat of empire, this area southwest of the Denver International Airport (DIA) will become a crossroads, Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock told Government Technology recently.

“We really see Peña Station NEXT as the anchor of our aerotropolis in Denver. This is a huge opportunity and Peña Station NEXT is very much a cornerstone of what we’re doing,” Hancock said on Jan. 4 after joining Joseph M. Taylor, chairman and CEO of Panasonic Corp. of North America, onstage at CES 2017 in Las Vegas to discuss the project.

Hancock defines an aerotropolis as an urban center or neighborhood that surrounds an airport — one that in this case can enhance DIA’s role as the city’s major port. But the mayor said Peña Station NEXT will also improve the lives of residents by offering affordable housing near the Peña Boulevard rail station that opened last spring.

“We’re trying to do that around all the transit-oriented developments in Denver,” Hancock said. “The greatest predictor of someone’s ability to escape or move from poverty is transportation and mobility options.”

Unlike Rome, Belz said Peña Station NEXT could become a carbon-neutral city. Fulenwider is working with the state and utility Xcel Energy, another stakeholder, to study that possibility this year.

“Whether we can actually achieve it or not — given economics, etc. — I don’t know. But it will give us guidance on how to continue to make our community cutting-edge and less of a guzzler,” Belz said of the study, which should begin this quarter and take six to eight months.

George Karayannis, vice president of CityNow, the smart city arm of Panasonic, said the company views Peña Station NEXT as an applied development, not a science experiment. He praised stakeholders including the city and county of Denver for displaying the forward thinking and leadership that prompted Panasonic to choose to locate in Denver over 21 other U.S. cities.

“We see it as a living lab for our stakeholders. And the intent of the living lab is to evaluate current and emerging technologies and business models in a broader deployment either in the city of Denver, other developments or other utility implementations,” Karayannis said.

The future city is modeled after Fujisawa, a Panasonic smart city built on the former site of a plasma TV manufacturer about a half an hour outside Tokyo.

Roughly eight years in the planning, Fujisawa sits on about 45 acres and currently is home to around half the 1,600 families it will house when fully developed. Fujisawa features EV charging stations and can capture sufficient solar energy to provide three days of off-grid power if needed.

Peña Station NEXT will be powered by a solar microgrid in conjunction with lithium ion storage batteries. An Xcel regional vice president has said Denver's would be the most comprehensive project of its type in Colorado history.

The city will also utilize the Array of Things, a street pole-mounted sensor box developed by Illinois' Argonne National Laboratory that is already in use in Chicago. Arrays, which Karayannis likens to oversized Fitbits, measure everything from noise to humidity and temperature.

These environmental sensors, along with community Wi-Fi, smart parking and interactive street kiosks will make Peña Station NEXT an interconnected city.

Unlike Fujisawa, a virtually gated community with enough security cameras that residents can watch remotely as their children play at playgrounds, it will have far less surveillance.

And where Fujisawa is about 98 percent residential, Pena Station NEXT will mix apartments and townhomes with commercial development including shops, restaurants, retail stores and an entertainment district. It will also include a health and wellness center.

Traditional single-family homes, the signifiers of suburbia, won’t be part of the mix — the land isn't even zoned for them. But the city is planned for a varied mix of residents, Belz said.

“We’re shooting for a broad range, even seniors. Fujisawa is kind of the mini-model for some of this. They have young people and families and seniors,” he said.