By Carolyn Weber. After a decade of planning, the largest infill redevelopment project in the country is open for business--and business is booming. Stapleton, situated on the 4,700-acre site of Denver's former airport, was inspired by the historic neighborhoods that surround it. Within the next 15 years, its 12,000 planned homes will house more than 30,000 residents, a population equal to Juneau, Alaska.
It's a wonder this community ever got off the ground. The neighborhoods adjacent to Stapleton have a history of extremely active citizens accustomed to grass-roots movements. In 1990, when the airport was slated to close, the concerned citizens of the Park Hill neighborhood took action. Community members banded together to ensure that their ideas for the redevelopment wouldn't just be heard but implemented.
The group, Stapleton Tomorrow, polled other Denver residents about what they envisioned for the Stapleton site. Two years later they came up with a planning concept that highlighted their priorities. The emphasis was on economic development, environmental quality, education, and a connection to existing neighborhoods. They didn't use the language of new urbanism necessarily, but they had the same ideas. They wanted to integrate the site by continuing Denver's grid street system that would bring pedestrian access and bus service.
In 1998, Cleveland-based Forest City Development was selected by Denver as the master developer. In 2001, it acquired the 2,935 acres of developable land for $79.4 million. Forest City also paid a whopping $44 million to the city in impact fees. "All of the impact fees are earmarked for 1,100 acres of open space," says Tom Gleason, vice president of public relations for Forest City Stapleton.
Infill is nothing new to Forest City, a company that prefers to work in urban neighborhoods. According to Gleason, the approvals process brought plenty of lively debate on the city council. But of the five key pieces of the plan suggested by Stapleton Tomorrow and refined by Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation, all but one were approved unanimously. "Mayor Wellington Webb has made Stapleton a priority and helped move it through," Gleason notes.
Just 10 minutes from downtown, 20 minutes away from the new international airport, and right near Interstate 70, the location couldn't be better. "We're entirely land locked, so this is the ultimate infill," says Gleason. And the flat site, well-suited for runways for 60 years, is also perfect for a new urbanist layout.
World-renowned planner and new urbanism proponent Peter Calthorpe created the site plan for Stapleton. "Peter understands what urban neighborhoods are about," says Gleason. "It's important that the neighborhoods be diverse in use and user." Calthorpe, whose firm is based in Berkeley, Calif., was a hit with neighborhood groups thanks to his responsiveness and because he communicated the concept in a language that everyone could understand.
Although it's developed numerous infill projects all over America, Forest City has never tried anything of this scale. Adding to its risk, the new urbanist concept was still untried in Denver. Small, 45-by-100-foot lots with alley-loaded garages are a big departure from the region's major master plans such as Highlands Ranch. "People are starting to understand it and are responding to an urban model that says you don't have to drive everywhere," Gleason explains, adding that people in Denver are willing to walk greater distances thanks to the sunny weather and a young, fit population.
Forest City will develop the rental and commercial components at Stapleton. It sold finished lots for the single-family homes. Interest from builders was so strong the developer could call the shots. After narrowing the field to 25 builders, it pitted them against each other in a design competition.
The nine builders that made the final cut were each allowed a maximum of 80 lots. "We gave them each far fewer lots than they are used to," says Gleason. "We will be building for 15 years, and they'll get a chance to go to the next neighborhood if their product is well-received and energy efficient," he adds.
Builders at Stapleton must comply with Energy Star standards and meet (if not exceed) the minimum level of the Colorado Built Green program. Administered by the HBA of metro Denver, the program encourages builders to build homes that are energy efficient, have healthy indoor air, reduce water usage, and preserve natural resources.
In addition to green building standards, Stapleton's design principles are also extremely strict. The traditional character of the homes in Stapleton's pattern book, called the Green Book, is rooted in old Denver. It dictates things like exact setbacks for houses and garages, exterior color palettes, and percentage of homes per block that must have a porch. There are also patterns for the characteristics of each home style and guidelines for appropriate types of entries, faccedil;ade details, and materials. Brick is a big part of the story, but the book also specifies stucco and fiber-cement siding.
Local architect Michael Woodley designed the six single-family models for John Laing Homes as well as Trimark Communities' mansion-style condominiums. Woodley had worked with Calthorpe on an early TND project called Laguna West in Sacramento, Calif., when the urban planning concept was still very new and developers provided architects with more design flexibility. In today's market, with land in short supply, developers can call many more of the design shots. "Stapleton was heavy handed, but it got what it wanted," Woodley says. "Builders had to acquiesce to the design criteria."
Woodley says the authors of Stapleton's pattern book, Wolff-Lyon Architects of Boulder, Colo., were less than sympathetic to the constraints of production building. Requirements such as real divided-light windows make it tough for builders to hit their price points. The town architects eventually made some compromises, a process that's still evolving as phase II begins. "My only caution is that there are a lot of units in there and the guidelines are very specific and don't build a lot of flexibility into the floor plans," says Woodley. "It will be better in the long term with some more diversity."
The pattern book allows for six basic architectural styles. But three wound up dominating the mix due to cost concerns. The Mediterranean, for instance, calls for real stucco, which is costly, so there are not a lot of those. The English Tudor style doesn't work well with siding; those, too, are few and far between. "And the foursquare is just a plain box," says Woodley. "So there are really three dominant styles--Victorian, Colonial, and Craftsman."
The real world
Forest City has done very little marketing, choosing instead to let the notoriety of the high-profile project do all the work. Even so, traffic has been so heavy that all the builders resorted to lottery systems. Since the grand opening in January 2002, there have been more than 500 sales at Stapleton, with the majority of buyers coming from other neighborhoods in urban Denver. "It seems that they're willing to trade new kitchens for old trees," says Gleason. "Plus, these are the only new homes right in Denver."
They have attracted a diverse mix of age groups, ethnicities, and socio-economic levels, which is what Forest City hoped to achieve. In fact, the diversity is built into the development mix. At build-out, there will be 8,000 for-sale homes and 4,000 rental units. Single-family detached homes start in the $150,000s and go up to $1 million.
"We've made a concerted effort to address the workforce gap--firefighters, nurses, teachers, etc.," explains Gleason. Forest City has committed to preserving 800 of 8,000 single-family homes for people who make 80 percent of the city's median income of $60,000. The affordable rental units will be available to those whose income is 30 percent of the median.
Stapleton is more than just neat rows of good-looking houses. Gleason is certain that this community will be significant in terms of economic and educational opportunities for people as well. The commercial component will provide spaces and incentives for small-, minority- and women-owned businesses, and the first school is scheduled to open in August 2003. The 29th Avenue town center is under construction and when completed will be the heart of the community, anchored by a grocery store, restaurants, specialty retail stores, offices, and live/work units.
Project: Stapleton, Denver; Sales started: January 2002; Sales through March 2003: 563; Units planned: 12,000; Price: $125,000 to $1 million; Unit size: 1,034 to 3,800 square feet; Developer: Forest City Stapleton, Denver; Builders: Harvard Communities, Englewood, Colo.; KB Home, Centennial, Colo.; John Laing Homes, Englewood; McStain Neighborhoods, Boulder, Colo.; New Town Builders, Highlands Ranch, Colo.; Parkwood Homes, Gaithersburg, Md.; Sanford Homes, Englewood; Trimark Communities, Englewood; Architects: Urban Design Group, Denver; Thomas Cox Architects, Irvine, Calif.; Wolff-Lyon Architects, Boulder; Woodley Architectural Group, Highlands Ranch; Land planner: Calthorpe and Associates, Berkeley, Calif.; Landscape architect: EDAW, Denver