Mixed-use development takes off at Stapleton, Denver's former airport


DENVER - Since 2002, more than 1,500 houses have sprouted on land that was once covered by runways from the earliest days of jet travel, as a 7.5-square- mile mixed-use development rises at the former Stapleton airport, about a 15-minute drive east of downtown Denver.

Expected to have a population of 30,000 when completed about 2020, Stapleton is thought to be the largest project ever undertaken to fill in vacant or underused urban land.

Set against a backdrop of the downtown skyline and the Front Range of the Rockies, the project has been widely praised as a model of "new urbanism." The houses, mimicking the style found in older, walkable Denver neighborhoods, are close together, with the garages in back and the tiniest of yards. Front porches encourage passers-by to stop and chat. About 1,100 acres have been set aside for parks.

'Smart growth'

"From our perspective, it's one of the best examples of smart growth in the Denver region," said Will Coyne, land-use advocate for Environment Colorado, a nonprofit organization.

Homes at Stapleton are going up faster than expected. Forest City Enterprises, the Cleveland-based company chosen in 1999 to manage the development of Stapleton, was required to buy 1,090 acres of the city-owned land in the first five years, a deadline it met in four. Residents can choose among about 20 homebuilders, with prices ranging from $100,000 or so for a condominium to more than $1 million for a house facing a park.

The one weak spot has been some of the condominium housing intended for low-income families. Recently, the developer - a local company without experience in affordable housing, according to Jackie Morales-Ferrand, the city's director of housing and neighborhood development - defaulted on $4.7 million in city loans. Morales-Ferrand said the condos might have been too small and too expensive for the market.

Quebec Square

An ambitious project such as Stapleton requires a vast amount of financing, much more than can be generated from residential property taxes alone. So, to enter Stapleton from Interstate 70 is to be confronted with the very emblem of suburban sprawl, a conventional 750,000-square- foot big-box shopping center called Quebec Square with huge parking lots that can accommodate 5,000 cars, a Wal-Mart Supercenter, a Sam's Club warehouse store and a Home Depot.

Big-box stores are not mentioned in the development guidelines issued in 1995, the year that the 66-year-old airport was replaced. The plan is full of lofty language about creating a community with a "unique identity" and a "high-quality sustainable physical environment" that "accommodates a diversity of people - ages, incomes, races, occupations and lifestyles."

Zac Ryon, a consultant for nonprofit organizations, who moved to Stapleton because he wanted "the look of an old house with the closet size of a new house," says the community has attracted socially conscious residents who find the shopping center unappealing.

"The bulk of my neighbors won't shop there," said Ryon, also a spokesman for Gaypleton, a group with a mailing list of 180 people that aims to represent the development's growing population of gay residents.

A research organization, the Front Range Economic Strategy Center, recently complained that Quebec Square had only a handful of local retailers and criticized city policies that appear to favor national chains.

But officials say that at Stapleton, as in many other large developments, the shopping center is being used to generate the tax revenue needed to transform the former airport. Another economic engine will be NorthField, a 1.1-million-square- foot outdoor regional mall being built north of I-70. It will include a Target Superstore, a Bass Pro Shop, a Foley's department store and a movie theater.

Officials estimated in 1999 that it would cost $346 million to build the major roads, sewer mains, drainage facilities and parks. To pay for most of these improvements, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority is using an increasingly popular program known as tax-increment financing, or TIF, backed by bonds to be repaid through the additional property and sales taxes generated by the project.

The city agency has issued $275 million worth of these bonds for Stapleton, its largest such project by far, said Tracy M. Huggins, the executive director. A part of the incremental revenue will be used to reimburse the city for the additional burden on services.

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