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#8: Stapleton Redevelopment

Number 8 in Denver’s Top 10 Urbanism Achievements of the Aughts is the redevelopment of the former Stapleton International Airport. The decade began with the seven-square-mile site mostly “de-airported” and a master developer and detailed redevelopment plan in place. Construction of Stapleton’s first streets and homes started in 2001 and its first residents moved in during 2002. Over the course of the rest of the decade, it was full-steam ahead for the project, as Stapleton closed out the Aughts with over 3,000 homes, more than 8,000 residents, two major retail centers, offices, schools, hundreds of acres of parks… and it’s not even close to being built out yet.

Everyone has an opinion about the Stapleton development. For some, the lots are too small and the homes too close together and too pricey for their size—it’s just a little too urban. For many others, the project isn’t urban enough, with insufficient density and diversity for a project so close to the region’s urban core. On the urbanity spectrum, Stapleton falls somewhere between suburban and urban at a point that differs depending upon who you talk to and which aspect of the project you discuss.

Every time I go to Stapleton, I find myself intrigued, impressed, disappointed, amazed, conflicted. On one hand, I think the quality of the development—the streets, parks, plazas, bridges, and the buildings in general—is quite high, with a clear design intent and attention to detail that permeates the project. On the other hand, some of the neighborhoods give off a bit of a Truman Show vibe, and the residential architecture strikes me as perhaps more of a caricature of Denver’s historic neighborhoods than a modern interpretation of them. Yet, after spending a fair amount of time in Stapleton, I find its neighborhoods more interesting and appealing than just about any suburban development I’ve been to.

The heavy investment in park space has its pros and cons in my opinion. The parks are very well done and the natural areas along Westerly Creek are incredible. Central Park is a great public space and it will mature and be mentioned one day in the same breath as our city’s other great urban parks like City, Sloans, Washington, and Cheesman. However, there may be too much open space at Stapleton. One-third of the project’s land area is planned as parks and open space, which seems too high of a percentage to me, and that there’s some good urban land there that should be developed to capitalize on Stapleton’s central location.

Most disappointing are the commercial areas. The Stapleton master plan completely lacks any of the easy-to-walk-to, intimate, commercial corners tucked within a neighborhood like we have in our historic Denver districts. If Stapleton is supposed to be old Denver urbanism that’s new, then where is Stapleton’s Old South Gaylord, 32nd & Zuni, 11th & Ogden, or 12th & Elizabeth? The 29th Avenue Town Center is nice, but Quebec Square and Northfield are wasted opportunities. Both rely on the same big-box-power-center-that-could-be-anywhere-in-suburban-America design. Where is the mixed use? Where is the structured parking? Where are the apartments above the retail? At a minimum, Northfield and Quebec Square should have been a Belmar, but instead, we got an Aspen Grove.

One thing is certain, however, about the Stapleton project: it has been hugely popular and it has had a major impact on Denver’s growth and development. It has provided landlocked Denver with a type of development that it hasn’t had much of a chance to offer in many years. As the largest urban infill and New Urbanist project in the country, Denverites and urbanites across the country have watched Stapleton grow over the past decade and will continue to view it with interest as it matures, as Stapleton represents a notable experiment in how we build our cities in the new century.

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21 Comments

  1. MarkB says:

    Absolutely right–a great opportunity, a great reducer of sprawl due to its location close-in, but many missing parts, or badly-planed ones. The worst aspects are the traditional suburban retail centers, particularly Northfield. Every time I go there I am irritated by the fact that I have to drive my car between Target and JC Penney, or even Macy’s and JC Penney–and if you want to walk from Target to Macy’s you take your life in your hand crossing that busy central thoroughfare. Northfield would have been better with a lot less open parking–they could have put just as much retail use on half the land, AND combined it with apartments above. It’s no different from Forest City’s Orchard Towne Centre at 144th and I-25.

    One other thing you didn’t mention: the quality of the construction. While the larger buildings around 29th Avenue Town Center appear to be fairly well-built, the houses are the typical Scotch-tape and bobby pins construction typical of the worst suburban developments. Old Denver neighborhoods are full of well-built houses. I don’t see ANY at Stapleton.

  2. Jim Earley says:

    Agreed. I’m generally impressed. I would have hoped for the type of commercial space that Bradburn (on 120th, halfway between Sheridan and Federal) developed, but on a slightly larger scale. Instead, the commercial areas have about the same level of staleness as most strip malls. There’s little in the way of anything compelling for me to want to go there, particularly when I can patronize the same chains elsewhere.

  3. Niccolo Casewit says:

    First of all, Stapleton is too large to be considered as “infill”. The density (as in low housing densities), and lack of variety define it as sprawl. The center has it’s order. The Development is not transit served, and is not planned to be (smith road Light rail stops to fare from the center?), it’s auto dependent and has induced so much traffic on Quebec south bound that the Central Ave. Interchange is now obligatory. Parks can be as large as the Berlin Zoo Gardens, or The Boulder Flatirons. Open space should not mean “undefined” and are not really great places when the density is so low nearby. On the other hand, Denver did well to transform it’s old airport, a brown field, into something folks seem to want. It was a court order, and it looks like it.
    Thanks for the posts!

  4. Chris from Downtown says:

    I don’t imagine that these “new urban” developments do much to reduce emissions from motor vehicles. I’m willing to bet that the percentage of Stapleton residents who commute to their jobs by walking, biking, or using mass transit is much smaller than the norm in a traditional urban setting. Fastracks includes one Stapleton light rail station, but, at best, that will function as a suburban park-and-ride, a single station serving a huge area of seven square miles. And Belmar may be fun, but who travels to or from there without a car? The fundamental problem is that these and other “new urban” developments focus almost exclusively on housing and retail. They don’t bring in enough jobs to employ their residents, and they don’t provide a way to come and go that is more attractive than driving.

  5. Ralph says:

    Thanks for the post Ken. Like your convention center graphic, here is a stop motion .gif I made of the Stapleton area a while ago. If you’d like to use it in your post feel free.

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3410/3254992356_b11e6c0c87_o.gif

  6. Ken says:

    Ralph, excellent! Thank you for sharing that.

  7. Ted says:

    While I agree with everything that has been said, I think it is worth noting that the main urban “town center,” which will be the light rail stop’s TOD, has yet to be built. The plan can be seen here: http://www.denvergov.org/StationAreas/StapletonStation/tabid/395254/Default.aspx This TOD plan appears to be much more along the lines of Belmar and if built will easily eclipse 29th town center as Stapleton’s true town center. It can also be seen from the “Ultimate buildout of station area” pdf that Denver plans to extend 37th avenue straight through the brand new Walmart at some point in the future. This would indicate that Quebec Square, like all suburban strip malls, was designed with a “shelf life”… that is, an understanding that in time it will run its course and be redeveloped. While I don’t think this justifies the “lack of urban-ness” in retail that Forest City originally planned, it is comforting to see that there is potential for the area to grow and change and become more urban through the decades.

    It is also worth noting that, like Quebec Square, Northfield appears to have been planned with a similar “shelf-life” plan for redevelopment. What sets it apart from other developments like Orchard Town Center however (and this can be easily seen from looking at a google earth aerial), is that the parking lot wasteland has already been platted out into separate city blocks and the structures along the “main street” are built with much higher quality than most developments of this type. This means that once Northfield runs it course as a “mall,” the big boxes can be torn down and the site can be subdivided and redeveloped (hopefully with residential mixed use) without disturbing the main street which seems to have been built to last. This sets Northfield and Quebec Square (which has also been pre-platted for redevelopment) apart from most other suburban malls and strip malls which have to be completely dozed and rethought every time their shelf life runs out. Pre-platting allows Forest City (or whoever ultimately owns the site) to sell off the site in small bits over time to different developers, which hopefully will help grow a more “organic” urban feel over time.

  8. As a Stapleton resident and Realtor, I appreciate your insight and agree with many of your opinions. The big box retail (e.g. Quebec Square & Northfield) is an easy target and should be questioned as a sustainable backbone to the tax revenues needed to see the “Green Book” through to its completion. Clearly, most of the retailers cater to the greater community at-large, and not necessarily the Stapleton community (e.g. Dress Barn and Country Buffet). We want the retail to succeed. We need the retail to succeed.

    The main objection for prospective homebuyers is as you mentioned, the lot sizes. Some buyers just cannot see past this. However, most buyers seem to be able to, because of the amount of open space, pocket parks, parks/pools, etc. My backyard is small, however, I live directly across the street from a Pool/Park. That Pool/Park is an extension of my backyard. I treat it as if it’s mine and only mine, except I don’t have to water it, mow it, fertilize it, etc. The amount of open space is a blessing.

    What I find curious, is how the loudest opposition to Stapleton derives from those who don’t live in Stapleton. The irony of course, is that we all moved from somewhere. In my case, we moved from the Highlands/Berkeley neighborhood. Those same critics would be astonished to find out that many of the residents moved from the Highlands, Park Hill, Wash Park, Hilltop, Cherry Creek…all neighborhoods included in 5280′s annual “Top Neighborhoods” article. Obviously, I’m drinking the Stapleton “Kool Aid,” but it really is a wonderful neighborhood, a great investment, a neighborhood with vocal advocates, new infrastructure, and most importantly, a neighborhood with residents who are as passionate about Stapleton’s vision as I am.

  9. Ken says:

    Great comments, Scott and Ted. Thank you.

  10. BeyondDC says:

    >I find its neighborhoods more interesting and appealing than just about any suburban development I’ve been to.

    That’s the right way to look at Stapleton. It’s a really great suburb, and that’s OK. What it’s not is particularly urban. Those “kiss the ‘burbs goodbye” ads from its early days were deceptive.

    And while I think there is plenty to criticize about Stapleton, I think it’s unfair to go after the most common target. Quebec Square is there so it can be demolished one day. They built it to be the cash cow that pays for the rest of the development. In 30 years when the useful life of those strip malls are over and it’s time to redevelop, Stapleton will be ready for something better at that location. One thing Stapleton’s planners deserve praise for is understanding that you don’t build a neighborhood in one year; it takes at least a generation to get it right. Quebec Square is temporary and was always going to be temporary, so I can live with it.

  11. Stapletonite says:

    I wrote a long and thoughtful response, but failed to include my email address on here and lost everything because it wouldn’t let me go back! Here were my points again, but not so eloquent or maybe not grammatically correct since I’m now frustrated.

    - Stapleton’s building standards are some of the highest around! KB Homes’ (largest builder in the country)former Construction Manager has said that KB Homes Stapleton product has the highest building standard of ALL of their communities in the nation because of the building standards the development plan and the city require. Almost all homes (including mine) are 2X6 construction, they are all energy efficient, and built green. I pay 2-3 less in energy bills than my friend that has a 1909 Four Square in Cheeseman. Even after they gutted their house and retrofitted it, they still can’t escape the energy stealing old brick construction of their house. They also have issues with other parts of the house because of obsolete building standards (not because the house is old). These Stapleton homes are not like some of the cruddy constructed homes you see in suburbs. My professional house inspector has inspected my current home and also my former home in Stapleton, and he said both were constructed very well and loves how they were built. He lives in a victorian in the Baker District.

    Stapleton is still in DEVELOPMENT! I find it amazing when folks judge things and make ignorant comments about something that is still a work in progress, and they don’t take time to see the master plan. Even the currently developed South Stapleton is not complete. All those empty lots you see scattered and “skipped over” throughout “currently developed Stapleton” are deliberate because the developer and city are sticking to the development plan and waiting for the market to allow for more mixed use, more density, more walkability. Is it fair to cast judgement and make comments about a house under construction before it’s complete? Would you think it’s fair to give an opinion on a home’s kitchen before the cabinets are installed? It’s the same principle here. More walkability, mixed use, sustainability is planned …even in the current “developed” parts of Stapleton.

    Where are the apartments above retail? They are at the 29th Ave Town Center in Stapleton! Stapleton also has live-work homes. My friends’ insurance agent has his retail agency at street level and lives above it with his family in the southend of Stapleton (not near any Town Center or Shopping Center). The “Southend” neighborhood of Stapleton has retail. You will find a a restaurant, offices, and other establishments (including a future marijuana shop). This area is not near any of the other retail areas, and it’s very close to dozens and dozens of homes. There are also other retail establishments in Stapleton. Examples include the wine/liquor store and dry cleaner that are WITHIN Stapleton and adjacent to several homes near the firehouse. These are NOT near the other shopping centers. Those 2 REGIONAL POWER CENTERS of Quebec Square and Northfield were designed to serve ALL OF THE NE DENVER AREA (not just Stapleton). This is why they are on the edges of Stapleton and adjacent to the highway. We need to look at them for what they are. The 29th Ave Town Center is specific for Stapleton (and adjacent Park Hill). I know several Stapletonites (including myself) that WALK to the 29th Ave Town Center to grab a bite to eat, a drink, a haircut, visit the vet, etc. I live 8-9 blocks from it, but have no issue with walking or biking to it. When I walk back home, I see other folks walking back home from the Town Center and some are walking further than I am. 2 other Town Centers are planned for Stapleton, and other areas will have light retail/mix use on top of that scattered throughout. So, there ARE other areas WITHIN Stapleton that have retail, offices, and there are more to come!

    The vast majority of Stapleton folks embrace walkability and sustainability, and would rather live a semi-car free life. Everyone I know that moved here said they bought into the new-urban idea of walkability. Most educated themselves on the master plan of new-urban design and walkability, and paid more for their homes for this lifestyle. The Stapleton newspaper and other community communication outlets are always talking about how we can do better with walkability and sustainability, and some are complaining if we aren’t getting it right away. In fact, that wine/liquor store and dry cleaner in the middle of Stapleton? That is there because Stapleton residents demanded that there be some retail on this parcel! We could have bought much cheaper homes in 95& of the rest of the Denver area if we didn’t embrace the new-urbanism plan. Forest City and the city of Denver has constantly assured us in meetings that they will stick to this walkable, more dense, sustainable plan! They have asked us to be patient. Although A FEW of the original ideas have changed of WHERE some of these mixed use or denser spots will be, they are still going to happen in other spots.

    I currently live about 4 blocks from the future commuter rail stop. Every neighbor I’ve talked to plans to WALK to this stop to go to work downtown, go to the airport, or go downtown to party and not drink and drive. My old neighbors that live on the other side of Stapleton plan to ride their bike to the light rail to go to work at their office near Auraria. A lot of folks in the neighborhood will walk or ride their bike and we are ALL anxiously waiting for the stop so that we can USE IT. More folks in Park Hill, Mayfair, Commerce City, etc will use the park-n-ride. The area surrounding the future rail stop is planned to be a MIXED USE transit oriented development. Again, another reason why this whole area is vacant.

    - Another area that is vacant are the large lots off MLK and Central Park Blvd. All of these corners are slated for high-density multi-family units that are planned to also include some retail off of Central Park Blvd (within Stapleton). Many developer inquiries have come to Forest City about doing something else with these lots/parcels, but the Forest City and Denver are sticking to the plan. There are also a lot of multi-family buildings in Stapleton that a lot of non-residents don’t realize. A building could often look like single family home at first, but it is actually a 6 unit condo building. These condo’s and apartments are scattered thoughout Stapleton to diversify the housing stock.

    I’ve spent too much time re-writing this, but I think you get the idea. :)

  12. Stapletonite says:

    By the way, Stapleton has a large ride-share/car pool program into downtown, I see a number of folks ride their bikes to work, and A LOT of folks live and work in Stapleton. Many businesses in Stapleton are owned by folks that live here. My realtor, my professional landscape service (their business in the industrial part of Stapleton), my neighbors OBGYN, my dentist, and my barber all live here and have businesses here. These are just a few examples. Some of the other folks on here fail to remember that we DO have the much more walkable 29th Ave Town Center — which is a larger scale version of what Bradburn has. Quebec Square and Northfield are not just created for Stapleton….29th Ave Town Center is. When you have 7 square miles of land, not all of it will be the smaller areas of retail designed for Stapleton residents like 29th Ave Town Center, Southend Stapleton retail, and the other pocket of retail that we already have.

  13. jimluk says:

    I can agree with most of the aforementioned arguments about both the promise and disappointments of Stapleton, but the thing that bothers me is the (perceived?) buffer zone between the new and old along Montview Blvd between Quebec and Central Park. There seems to be a deliberate effort to deny any north south integration of the street grids across Montview with a series of schools and currently fenced of fields. I can’t recall right now what the proposed plan for the rest of this area is, but it would be nice to see the n-s grid carried through into Stapleton which in turn would prompt investment in the older neighborhoods and redevelopment along 17th St.(unwelcome competition for Forest City perhaps) and allow access by area residents to all of that park space. Stapleton should be treated as an extension of the street grid and not follow the suburban enclave model of having only a few entrances off of major streets.

  14. Stapletonite says:

    I believe 3-5 streets will still carry through. Not all of them can because of property lines. My understanding is that Aurora will not/can not provide their part to pay for the road construction/infrastructure, so the street construction has been delayed. 2 of the streets were supposed to happen by now, but none of them have ever been cancelled. They will still happen at some point when the money happens.

  15. DenverLowry says:

    Is the Lowry redevelopment part of this discussion? Or is that urban redevelopment project a different subject? How does it compare in general terms to Stapleton?

  16. Ken says:

    That would be a good topic for a future blog: Stapleton vs. Lowry from an urbanist perspective.

  17. Dave says:

    Its not surprising that buyers of single family homes want bigger lots. There is really nothing urban about single family detached homes, no matter how close together they are. A good model for mixed use urbanism would be cherry creek north which is made up of mostly low rise condos over retail and is very walkable. Maybe there isn’t that much of a market for such development, but i’m sure neighborhoods like those will hold their value much stronger than the lower density stapleton developments.

  18. Rob C says:

    Amen Stapletonite!! I actually live in Park Hill and love being in Stapleton and enjoying all it has to offer.

  19. MarkB says:

    I have to make one more comment: just about all of Denver is suburban in character. Capitol Hill is a suburb. West Highlands is a suburb. Wash Park is a suburb. They just happen to be within the city limits. Denverites historically have preferred low density, a tendency that dates to the 19th century. I’m glad to hear that there will be more non-residential uses “inside” of Stapleton than there are now, and I’m especially glad to know (if the above posters are correct) that Quebec Square and even Northfield are planned to be obsolete after a generation. Except: what a sad commentary that is on American society.

  20. Dave says:

    Mark, agreed- I live in Baker, one of the oldest neighborhoods in denver and it is definitely suburban, just not in the 1950′s sense.

  21. Niccolo Casewit says:

    Appendage to my Post previously —-For those hoping for higher density development phases at Stapleton, I am hoping with you too! Will there also be financing for some 60 new TODs at the planned FasTrack stations, or will they all just be park and rides?

    Does anyone have a breakout of “”Housing Densities and “mix of uses” at Stapleton at full build-out? The Net Density DU/a is the most important parameter, assuming there is connectivity to the station planned. A minimum net density of 14 DU/a is the # per Blueprint Denver development standards of 2002 (not the Green Book???) ; this is just the the starting density needed for TOD; densities go up quick, and can be as high as 100 DU/a in truly urban environments which are not AUTOCENTRIC. Density is Key to sustainability, mixed uses, and it is the Ridership which keeps the buses running when actually FULL. My comments are not original–it’s from mostly known experience, not conjecture, but out West here, we are billed as revolutionaries! How Vaudevillian! LOL