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Posted: May 01, 2011

Rundles wrap-up: Exceptional

Jeff Rundles

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For years and years the development buzz in the Denver metro area was suburban - the Denver Tech Center, Highlands Ranch, the E-470 beltway, the Boulder turnpike; south, north, east, southwest, northwest. Some of it was fine, much of it was cookie cutter, and all of it was sprawl, the kind of development - residential and commercial - that requires a lot of automobiles.

But in recent years Denver has been very lucky to have major pieces of development property within the adjacent city - so-called in-fill development - at the old Lowry Air Force Base and the shuttered Stapleton Airport. Just one of these would be one of the largest in-fill development opportunities in any city in the country, but we got both of them in relatively short order. What has been accomplished with these properties, unfortunately, is a mix of wonderful and pedestrian - as in mediocre and not pedestrian-friendly.

I love the mix of housing and "city-center" streetscapes in both locations, particularly at Lowry, but I could do without the big-box retail and oceans of parking lots prevalent within the Stapleton development. I was hoping for more of a sense of community, and a seamless tie into the adjacent neighborhoods, something nearly accomplished at Lowry and only partially successful at Stapleton.

The object, it seems to me, should be to create a place where people - all kinds of people, at different stages of life - would want to live, while at the same time a place that would be an attraction to dwellers in the existing adjacent neighborhoods and beyond - and I mean more than merely shopping opportunities.

Lowry seems to have this, with parks and ball fields, work spaces, music venues and educational centers mixed into neighborhoods and a city center. Stapleton attempts this, but falls short, I believe, because the major retail centers and other amenities in the development have no real tie to the neighborhoods - whether new in the development or existing next door. And both Lowry and Stapleton miss the mark by featuring only one city-center; there should be two or more "downtowns," which would make the whole(s) more walk-able.

Don't get me wrong; there are many things about both developments I find very appealing. The point is that large tracts of undeveloped land within the boundary of a city - any city - are rare commodities, and they require collaborative thinking well beyond what you'd expect from the run-of-the-mill subdivisions gobbling up prairie all around the metro area.

Out there, people are building housing. Undeveloped or redeveloping land within a city's boundary, on the other hand, must be viewed as part and parcel of the city, an enhancement and value-added amenity rather than merely an add-on.

I bring this up because while Lowry and Stapleton are, for all intents and purposes fait accompli, there is another significant parcel of land within the city that will soon be redeveloped, and I believe everyone in the whole area has, or should have, a stake in what happens.

Okay, the 28-acre former University of Colorado health sciences campus near the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and Ninth Avenue pales in size to Stapleton or Lowry, but the opportunity is no less important. The university had a deal to sell the parcel to Shea Homes, which was going to do homes and offices (ho-hum), but that deal fell through. Now a new developer has emerged, Sembler Atlanta, which is expected to buy the parcel for $34.8 million and close in early 2012.

Sembler, headed by Colorado native Jeffrey Fuqua, plans a mix of residential and retail, and so far is saying and doing all the right things: meeting with community interests, seeing "what the market wants," and planning a "walk-able and street-friendly" development.

The CU health campus site is an important piece of land. It supported many high-paid workers for years and was the centerpiece of a vibrant business district and neighborhood. The entire region, really, has a stake in what happens there, and it must go beyond mere market forces, although that is important. This is an opportunity not only to create something economically viable within the 28 acres, but also something that will enhance the surrounding neighborhoods, the city as a whole and the region at large.

With Stapleton and Lowry we got an increased tax base and vibrant growth within the city, but it has come with caveats and what-ifs. A lot more community and citywide input needs to be focused on the CU health sciences site so we don't just end up with redevelopment.

This site requires exceptional.
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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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Readers Respond

Stapleton isn't perfect but if you spend some time there you will see that it has largely lived up the promises made in the Green Book, the community's original planning document, we are less than 10 years into a 25-30 year buildout. I live there and love that we can walk or bike to the town center and enjoy many of the year-round events held in the public spaces. Stapleton is planning a second "downtown" on the eastside of the development. There’s an incredible diversity of parks and pools. I don't believe that anyone in the neighborhood lives more than 1 mile from an elementary school. In terms of incorporating the surrounding neighborhoods, spend some time at the existing town center, the Kings Soopers, and Northfield (especially the area around the movie theater) and you'll find one of the most diverse mixes of people in the city. When the I70 interchange at Central Park Blvd. (with bike lanes and pedestrian path) is completed later this year, it will be an important link between Northfield and the existing neighborhood. Also, there are plans to more fully incorporate Aurora into Stapleton when streets east of Beeler are extended across 26th Avenue. Finally, the East Line connecting DIA to downtown will have a stop right in the middle of Stapleton making it easier to access the development and for those of us living in Stapleton to get to the rest of the city. There is some big box development but Quebec Square is along a 6 lane arterial and Northfield sits at the intersection of I70 and I270 and the 30,000 people who will ultimately live in the neighborhood, let alone the people living in the surrounding areas appreciate the access to some of those retail locations. By Matthew Cohen on 2011 05 20
As a resident of Stapleton, (and formerly of Lowry as well) I'm going to challenge your review of the neighborhood. While you're correct that there is a fair amount of big-box retail in Quebec square and Northfield, the actual neighborhood of Stapleton is a walkable, thriving community. More so than Lowry, in my opinion. The town center in Stapleton is more vibrant, busy and retail-diverse than most neighborhoods. The summer movie and music festivals are very well attended and benefit the the corporate and locally-owned surrounding businesses heavily. Business that's unique to Stapleton, like Sweet Williams Market, has also flourished because of the support and sense of community. Ditch your car and bike to the Farmer's market on a Sunday, and you'll be lucky to find a rack for your bike. My point is that the neighborhood of Stapleton isn't the same as Quebec Square and Northfield. But that's by design. But let's be realistic about the big-box retail. If it didn't exist there, it would've existed elsewhere. And it gives the entire North Park Hill, Stapleton and surrounding Aurora neighborhoods access to retail favorites like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. And, people love having those businesses there. For years, that area was really under-served. Now there's access to good grocery options, home improvement and lots of restaurant choices. And people are voting with their dollars. There's still plenty of land to develop in the Denver DMA, and even more land left within Stapleton. Stapleton has and continues to take a thoughtful, patient approach to developing it's neighborhoods, and it's retail. It it hadn't, it wouldn't be the success it is now. Your review focuses only on the map of Stapleton. Look beyond the map, get out of your car and find the neighborhood. By Ryan on 2011 05 20

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