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.