by Michael Leccese
By the time Denver’s Stapleton International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest hubs, closed in 1995, a group of citizens, planners, and private foundations had already been working for six years to develop a visionary plan to recycle the 7.5-square-mile site into a new urban neighborhood. The working group laid out ambitious social, economic, and environmental goals and set them forth in a document affectionately known as the Green Book.
Skepticism abounded back in ‘95, as one editorial observer pooh-poohed the Green Book’s visions as “shallow, fashionable nonsense.” But in 1998, the City and County of Denver selected Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises as master developer. Since then, the subsidiary Forest City Stapleton, Inc., has found practical ways to realize the Green Book’s vision under a master plan by leading New Urbanist architect-planner Peter Calthorpe. Over the next 15 years, Forest City Stapleton will finance and build more than $5 billion of development. In that period, Stapleton will grow to at least 12,000 homes—8,000 single family houses mingled with 4,000 apartments--offered in many price ranges, styles, and floor plans. The plan also includes 10 million square feet of office space, 3 million square feet of retail space, six public schools, and more than 1,100 acres of public parks and open space, which will expand the acreage of Denver city parks by 25 percent.
With nearly 600 acres of mixed-use neighborhoods nearing completion, Stapleton already claims to be the nation’s largest urban infill redevelopment. Since groundbreaking in 2001, Stapleton has quickly blended urban sophistication with suburban amenities such as parks, retail uses, and new public schools, in the process winning several national and international awards. More than 1,650 homes are now occupied with more than 4,100 residents. The 740,000-square-foot Quebec Square regional retail center opened in 2002. The mixed-use 170,000-square-foot East 29th Avenue Town Center opened in fall 2003, blending national chain stores and local shops, along with 400 apartments, condos, public art, a farmers market, and free summer concerts and movies. Elsewhere within Stapleton’s 7.5-square-mile footprint, a 1-million square-foot, open-air shopping center is under construction and a second town center is planned.
About 15 minutes from downtown Denver, Stapleton is making strides toward creating a walkable and transit-friendly neighborhood including street corner schools and shops. A Stapleton light-rail stop is planned under the region’s ambitious $4.7 billion FasTracks regional transit plan. Nearly a score of public bus lines already serve the neighborhood, while greenway trails connect to hundreds of miles of regional bikeways.
Urban Infill for the Masses?
Stapleton is hardly Denver’s only infill neighborhood, but may be the one that most influences development patterns in the metropolitan region. The nearby Lowry neighborhood and higher-density infill projects in downtown helped grow Denver’s population by 80,000 in the 1990s. Denver will grow another 130,000 to nearly 700,000 by 2025.
Still, Denver’s growth lags behind the entire region, where today’s 2.5 million residents could mushroom to 3.5 million by 2025. According to the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), the Denver region will spread from its present 550 square miles to 900 square miles in the next twenty years.
The region’s overall growth management strategy, called MetroVision 2020, has been endorsed by 33 municipalities in metro Denver, although some say it lacks regulatory teeth to control sprawl. Denver’s light rail system, which will grow into a 119-mile regional network in the next decade, will also provide opportunities to rein in sprawl by focusing new development around 57 stations. Meanwhile, Denver suffers from the nation’s third-worst traffic congestion and continued ozone violations for air quality.
Stapleton’s scale—it is the region’s second-largest housing development after 22,000-acre Highlands Ranch in nearby Douglas County—and its social intentions may make a difference by offering an urban alternative for a broader regional population.
Most urban infill redevelopments market to young singles, empty nesters, and gays. Stapleton actually vies for the suburban market of families, with children, who want to buy a single-family home. “Stapleton has all the young ‘urban sophisticates,’ includes singles, younger retirees, and gays that you would find in many urban neighborhoods, but about half of our households are traditional nuclear families,” says Hank Baker, senior vice president of Forest City Stapleton, Inc.
“By offering such community virtues as home ownership and high-quality public schools, we’re intercepting some of these urban sophisticates—couples who would normally move from an urban townhouse to suburbia when they have kids. The traditional architecture reminds them of their old neighborhoods, but they’re happy to trade up to new plumbing and big closets. By keeping these families in the city, we’re addressing a major factor that leads to sprawl. People don’t necessarily want to live in sprawl, but they like having nice new parks and good schools nearby.”
The Fine Print
Because of the unusual nature of transferring a publicly owned airport to a private developer, Stapleton resulted from a complex set of negotiations. In 1999, Forest City Stapleton won a competitive process to become master developer and contracted with the City and County of Denver to buy Stapleton’s 2,935 developable acres in phases as land is required for development—at least 1,000 acres every five years—for a total of $79.4 million in today’s dollars, plus the $44 million Forest City has committed to build parks and open space. The agreement provides for Forest City to allow mixed-uses to evolve over decades—without the usual pressure to sell land to pay off large loans.
To prepare for redevelopment, the City and County of Denver first needed to address some contamination—largely jet fuel—on the less than 10 percent of the site contaminated by pollutants. Before Forest City purchased the land, regulatory agencies issued “no further action” letters declaring these areas ready for residential development.
Environmental clean-up is only part of the “green” story at Stapleton, which strives to incorporate resource conservation and alternative transportation. (One of Stapleton’s numerous guiding documents is a Sustainability Master Plan periodically graded for progress.) The redevelopment will restore prairie and riparian corridors within new city parks and open space. In addition, housing at Stapleton meets or exceeds Colorado’s Built Green and federal Energy Star standards.
When completed, Stapleton will be Colorado’s largest Energy Star community, with energy, water, and other resource savings ranging from 40 to 70 percent over conventional design and construction. Even before an early-millennium drought parched the Rockies and the plains, Stapleton’s residential and public landscapes were designed with water conservation in mind.
The former airport’s 975 acres of concrete and asphalt are being ground up for new road base and concrete aggregate, recycling 6 million tons of material in the process, while reducing pressure to mine for new sand and gravel. This is the nation’s largest recycling project of its kind, and it saves money. “It’s cheaper to mine the runways than to go mine the quarries,” muses Baker.
Stapleton has also been planned to reduce traffic congestion and pollution. The site’s extensive bicycle trails, mixed-use destinations, existing bus service, and planned transit improvements create many transportation alternatives. Even when built out, Stapleton will generate less traffic than the former airport.
Smart Growth, Pros and Cons
These efforts have won recognition for smart growth. Officials from Austin, Texas, to Australia and China have visited to study Stapleton. In 2001, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group named Stapleton to its “Smart Growth Hall of Fame.” In 2002, the King of Sweden recognized Stapleton with the Stockholm Partnerships for Sustainable Cities Awards.
In 2005, Stapleton won two more smart growth honor: a Best in American Living Award (BALA) for Best Smart Growth Community from the National Association of Homebuilders, and DRCOG’s Metro Vision award.
“This new community recycles abandoned urban land and features many 'green building' techniques,” says Will Toor, a Boulder County commissioner and chair of DRCOG. “It creates a complete new urban neighborhood with schools, parks, shopping, transit, and homes in all price ranges. It has become a national and international example of urban redevelopment.”
Yet Stapleton has not escaped criticism. New Urbanists observe that some homes are farther than the pedestrian ideal of one-quarter mile ideal from shops, schools, and transit. Some balk at the inclusion of a shopping “power center” with big-box chain stores. The developers say the power center was necessary to generate sales tax revenues that pay for Stapleton’s public streets and amenities.
“The [Quebec Square] power center also responds to shopping needs of surrounding neighborhood,” says Baker. “Before, people in northeast Denver had to drive a long way for budget shopping and basic services.” He notes the center is designed to evolve into a “more urban” place in the next generation of development.
“The big box area does make one concession to pedestrian values,” wrote urban affairs reporter Neal Peirce in an otherwise-glowing syndicated column of August 22, 2004. “The stores are set on a standard street grid, with sidewalks, street trees and the like. But Stapleton has begun to open some more intimate, neighborhood-oriented shopping areas. The critical question is whether there will be enough of them, close enough to homes, to draw the area’s new residents out on foot.”
Urban Schools: From Minus to Plus?
In November 2002, software engineer Erik Darzins and his wife Melissa moved their family to Stapleton. The prospect of neighborhood schools was a positive and even definitive factor in their decision. The next fall the Darzins began walking their oldest daughter to kindergarten at the brand new Westerly Creek Elementary a half-mile away.
The Darzins represent a new trend: middle-income families with kids moving into the city for the schools rather than away from urban public schools. Melissa Darzins, now vice president of the PTA, generally talks in glowing terms of her new school—10 years ago the site of an airport runway. “Everyone’s been working together as a community,” says Darzins of Westerly Creek’s families and staff. “My child has had a great classroom experience for two years in a row.”
Stapleton’s Education Master Plan poses ambitious solutions to related problems—low-quality urban schools that segregate the poor, while fueling middle-class flight and suburban sprawl. In a few years, Stapleton will include six public schools designed to rival the best suburban schools. Efforts are also underway to improve schools in surrounding neighborhoods. School populations will be economically diverse because Stapleton homes sell from $120,000 to over $1 million, with apartment rents from $600 to $2,000 a month.
The Education Master Plan supports small neighborhood schools for 500 students or less, rather than large, comprehensive regional schools. Here again, educational and planning goals dovetail. Many experts believe smaller schools provide a better education and social environment for students who would “fall through the cracks” in a comprehensive school. Smaller schools require smaller sites that fit into city neighborhoods, allowing kids to walk to school and boosting sense of community.
Creating schools to lure families who can choose to live elsewhere was another major challenge for Stapleton. Though hardly the most distressed urban school system, the Denver Public Schools (DPS) system has real problems. Many stem from busing to achieve racial integration from 1974 to 1995. This well-intended program spurred classic middle-class flight. In 1970, DPS enrollment peaked at 97,781. Enrollment dropped by 30,000 within 10 years and today stands at 72,000. Urban test scores are lower than in many suburban districts.
As the first Stapleton schools opened in August 2003, DPS watched anxiously to see if they would provide models for improving the entire system. Located on a neighborhood block across the street from homes, the Westerly Creek campus includes an 80,000-square-foot building containing both the 220-student Odyssey Charter School and the 325-student Westerly Creek Elementary, where the Darzins are sending their kids. A shared core with offices, a gym, and library connects separate wings for each school.
More recently, the $14 million Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) debuted at Stapleton. Boosted by start-up funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this charter high school welcomed its first freshman class of 130 to a temporary building in August 2004. The school moved to a sleek, new energy-efficient building at Stapleton in January 2005. Tucked in among Stapleton’s homes, DSST is planned to draw half its students from Stapleton and half from low-income, minority, and female kids from throughout the city—the groups usually excluded from science and tech education.
In exchange, students are expected to flourish in a “tough love” environment with high academic standards equal to the University of Colorado’s admission requirements. “The culture is not for everyone,” commented the Rocky Mountain News in a January 9, 2005, editorial. “But if several hundred inner-city kids end up flourishing in it, DPS officials would be insane not to make sure that several thousand have a similar opportunity.”
Many master-planned communities of this scale can be visually monotonous, ecologically sterile, and socially isolated. That’s partially because master-planned communities rely on standard, mass-produced homes to meet a high volume. “You get to pick your home in one of three shades of beige,” muses Baker.
The Green Book calls for Stapleton to look, feel, and function like Denver’s historic neighborhoods, with a variety of home styles, colors, and sizes. To make this work, Forest City Stapleton had to devise new ways of working with production homebuilders, who rely on standardization and mass-production techniques to keep prices down. In 2000, Wolff-Lyon Architects and EDAW, Inc., directed by Forest City Stapleton, produced the 130-page Stapleton Design Book. The team studied historic Denver neighborhoods to create many patterns of building forms, colors, and styles, and then tested the guidelines with homebuilders to ensure their practicality.
Forest City Stapleton used the Design Book to attract competitive proposals from 100 interested homebuilders. The developer eventually chose 20 building companies that are now building 15 housing types, generally on small urban lots with density as high as 25 homes to the acre. Significantly for social diversity, homes for drastically different household incomes often exist on the same block or across the street from each other.
Production builders buy finished lots a block at a time, which gives them enough room for efficient staging and production. But to ensure visual variety, no builder is sold contiguous blocks. As a result, different companies build different homes on facing sides of the street.
A stroll around the first neighborhood suggests that this approach is succeeding. One Stapleton block includes a Craftsman bungalow, a Victorian farmhouse, a brick “Denver Square,” and a two-story Spanish colonial. All garages are located at the rear of the lot and most have alley access. Zoning permits carriage houses, thus providing flexible space for a home office, an in-law apartment, or affordable rental housing above garages. Just around the corner are brick-trimmed townhouses.
A professional design committee reviews and approves not only each house plan, but also how the plan, house color, and architectural style relate to the streetscape. For example, the committee ensures that builders do not construct the same model or architectural style immediately next to each other. Homeowners can later paint houses any color they like, which will allow the look of the neighborhood to evolve.
“The approach is very production-friendly,” says Denver architect Arlo Braun, who designed home models for three Stapleton homebuilders. “What’s different at Stapleton is that you’re forced to pay close attention to small details, like the way a beam sits on a column or the number of divided windows. It takes more construction supervision, but the builder winds up spending a small premium to get a huge increase in design quality and authenticity.”
Financial success is clearly a key to Stapleton’s ambitious social and environmental agendas. If the first neighborhoods did not sell, the entire project would be built much more slowly or perhaps revert to more conventional suburbia. Instead, homebuilders find that neighborhood diversity is driving strong demand. Potential buyers outnumber available houses by 3 to 1, with a nine-month wait for new houses. Builders sell homes by lottery. In turn, the rapidly growing neighborhood population is supporting Stapleton’s shops, services, and restaurants.
While Stapleton’s single-family homes tend to feature period designs with comforting features like front porches, contemporary, Modernistic design is flourishing in multi-family condos and apartments in the East 29th Avenue Town Center. For example, Moda, a 64-unit loft project featuring floor-to-ceiling windows on an unadorned Modern façade, will open later this year. “Residents enjoy the walkable convenience of shopping, restaurants, a neighborhood pub, free outdoor movies in the park, Sunday Farmers Market, and coffee shops,” says Dave Steinke of Infinity Home Collection, developer of Moda. “These contemporary residences will expand Stapleton’s popularity by appealing to an even broader range of people.”
Good Community = Good Health?
Last but not least among Stapleton’s exhaustive list of initiatives—for example, how many other master-planned communities have a Public Art Master Plan?—are efforts to create a model “healthy community.” In 2003, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation made a $200,000 grant to study links between Stapleton’s sidewalks, parks, bike trails, and programmed activities like foot races and kickball tourneys and the health, weight, and fitness of residents.
"If I were to put one pin on the planet, it goes on Stapleton," said Dr. Frank V. deGruy III, chairman of the University of Colorado’s Department of Family Medicine at the School of Medicine. "This is a real opportunity to rethink some of the things we do. The place is being designed with a lot of green zones and walking trails—we're going to use the built environment and piggyback on that."
|Home : Archives : News
Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments : www.terrain.org
Terrain.org is a publication of Terrain Publishing.