Rundles wrap-up: Exceptional


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.

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