Case Studies in Placemaking: Stapleton, RiNo and LoHi

Placemaking is not an exact science, not in Denver, or anywhere else. It's something of a collaborative balancing act between developers, businesses and the general public, and it never happens overnight, according to some of the movers and shakers in a few of Denver's hottest neighborhoods: RiNo, LoHi and Stapleton.
As the old maxim of real estate goes, location, location, location helps, but it doesn't make for a vibrant place all by itself.

You need people -- and their businesses -- to activate spaces, and you need to leverage the existing neighborhood amenities, and you need a little luck, as well as the grace to follow the crowd where it goes.

Then you need to be one step ahead of the trends: Seismic shifts in lifestyle and technology are reshaping our urban places and how we make them.

At the 2012 TEDx in Naperville, Illinois, Gunnar Branson, CEO of the National Association of Real Estate Investment Managers, expounds on "Moore’s Law of Real Estate." (For the unfamiliar, Moore's Law typically refers to the number of circuits doubling on microchips every two years.)

"Real estate is about to go through one of the most incredible change that it has experienced since 1450," says Branson, quickly getting to the crux of Moore's Law when it's ported to real estate.  "We are getting smaller and we are getting closer."

With Kindles and iPhones, there is no longer is demand for as many things -- people aren't buying books and CDs like they once were. In other words, we have less stuff, so we need less space.

Against this backdrop, there's a definite demand in Denver for dense new developments in places where space was once used in much different ways -- think of RiNo 15 years ago, or LoDo or Stapleton before that.

There's a long list of big Denver developments in the works, and all of them want to make vibrant and human-scale places: Union Station, Belleview Station, St. Anthony’s, the former Health Sciences Center, Gates.

Branson speaks of "desire lines” in parks and on college campuses -- the pathways that appear on lawns after people start inhabiting the space, often to the dismay of the designers. "These are the paths we leave in the grass where people take shortcuts to get to where they're trying to go," he says. "What I love about desire lines is that they will not be resisted."

An edible "desire line" in Denver

In Denver, the Edible Landscape in Stapleton is a response to another kind of desire line.

"One of the things we would point out is people discover very popular gathering places on their own," says Tom Gleason, VP of Public Relations for Forest City Stapleton, the master developer of the 4,700-acre former airport in northeast Denver. It's now home to 30,000 residents and 8,000 single-family homes, 19 years after the airport closed.

In Stapleton, cherry, plum and apple trees in open spaces proved to be just that, along with berry bushes and grape vines, especially when it came time for harvest. They were planted as landscaping, but emerged as community hubs and sources of fresh fruit.

"We reinforce those by putting in 'harvest tables,’" says Gleason. "We saw that emerge naturally in the southern neighborhoods, so we're now incorporating it in a more formal way in the northern neighborhoods."

Likewise, Stapleton is in the midst of replicating its Town Center on 29th for its new Conservatory Green neighborhood north of I-70, complete with Valencia Green, a public space and performance venue patterned after Founders' Green at Syracuse Street and 29th Avenue.

"Context is so important," Gleason notes. South of I-70, the plan extended the existing street grid into the former airport, he says, but north of I-70 is a different landscape of rolling hills without surrounding historic neighborhoods. "We are taking our cues from the land."

But Gleason is quick to point out that Stapleton's collaborative approach to planning has been critical for the development's sense of place. "The most important thing is the master plan for Stapleton. The credit for that goes to the community."

He says the plan called for extending the street grid of the existing neighborhoods into Stapleton, as well as the character. "I always laugh when people say 'new urbanism.’ New urbanism is really just a return to old urbanism. … People walk and bike where they want to go. If you make it easy to walk, people will do it."

"We place an emphasis on front porches," he adds. "People get to know their neighbors. That creates an identity for the neighborhood. It's no longer faceless neighbors on either side of you."

Gleason also points to nearly 1,500 acres of open space, sustainability and the Town Center on 29th Avenue as key ingredients for placemaking in Stapleton.

Urban placemakingA before and after of TAXI.

Of course, Stapleton was much more of a blank slate than your typical urban area.

Take RiNo. Mickey Zeppelin, Founder of Zeppelin Development, was one of the first local developers to invest in the neighborhood, but being ahead of the curve is old hat for Zeppelin.

"I've been involved in LoDo since before it was LoDo, and the Golden Triangle, and now in RiNo," he says. "Each had features that made it become a place. With LoDo, it was proximity to downtown, the historical context and the stock of interesting buildings."

The Golden Triangle is a "fabulous civic and cultural place” with great access to downtown, Broadway and Speer Boulevard, he adds. "In RiNo, it was really the urban connections as well as the grittiness and this great industrial character."

"They're usually places that have been neglected," says Zeppelin, noting that placemaking is often about "recapturing” the human spark that was lost over the years. "What's missing is the people energy."

There is no blueprint for creating human-friendly places, he adds. "It's an organic process. It's never a straight answer -- it's spontaneous and serendipitous -- but it needs planning. It's pulling the community together, finding what they want, developing a plan and getting the city to buy into it."

In LoDo, the tug-of-war between preservationists and developers was the critical issue. Without buy-in from both camps, he argues, it wouldn't have worked.

RiNo is a considerably different animal. "Starting TAXI [in 2001], there was a sense we were slightly insane in taking on this area," says Zeppelin of the formerly abandoned 20-acre Yellow Cab HQ on the west bank of the Platte River. Developers "looked it as a somewhat derelict, well, very derelict kind of place."

But Zeppelin saw plenty of potential -- with the river and its bike paths, great access to downtown and I-70 and the aforementioned industrial vibe. He initially repurposed a 25,000-square-foot building into office space, then built the mixed-use TAXI 2 building in 2008. In the six years since, he's opened four more buildings with a fifth -- DRIVE 2 -- underway.

Today TAXI has over 200,000 square feet of retail, office, and residential space and has helped spur other developments around it, including several apartment projects and Industry, a coworking space slated to open in May.

"You never know when it's going to catch hold. It doesn't happen right away," Zeppelin says. "With TAXI, it took a bit of time to catch on. A lot of it is pointing out the possibilities."

Placemaking needs to be dynamic, Zeppelin adds. "It's an evolving kind of thing, and you keep adding to it."

To this end, Zeppelin Development converted a 1880s foundry into an artisan food market, The Source, that opened in Sept. 2013.

At TAXI, family housing is next, with groundbreaking on 60 two- and three-bedroom rental coming in July and ribbon-cutting slated for early 2015. "As TAXI has evolved, we've looked at the needs of people and hoped we could capture that," says Zeppelin. "We have a whole demographic of people who can't afford to buy urban because prices have gone up."

Lessons from LoHiIn 2008, Tamburello opened Little Man Ice Cream and Justin Cucci opened Root Down.

Paul Tamburello of Red Chair Realty Advisors and Little Man Ice Cream has been called “godfather” of the Highlands.

"In 1994, after I got my real estate license, this is one of the first places I started to explore," he says. "Very few people focused on it. I couldn't understand what people were missing. You could see the potential."

Abandoned houses dotted the blocks, and foreclosures were rampant. "It was kind of a mess," Tamburello remembers. So Tamburello started buying houses then building townhomes in the 1990s and "one thing led to another," he says. "It just snowballed."

Restaurants and residential development took off after Lola moved from South Pearl Street to Lower Highland (LoHi) in 2007. In 2008, Tamburello opened Little Man Ice Cream and Justin Cucci opened Root Down.

Tamburello credits the "incredible vision from the land-use committee up here” when it came to taking out the viaducts and one-way streets while maintaining connections to downtown and setting the stage for the pedestrian bridge over I-25.

He also says the LoHi brand has been critical in the area's placemaking. "Much to the dismay of the historians up here, branding it as its own space was really important," he adds. "In 2005, I said, 'Let's just call it LoHi.’ within a couple of months, people were advertising apartments for rent in LoHi."

Location is also ”huge," adds Tamburello. "But it's more than physical location. Zoning around you is huge. People often don't realize what's going on around them until it's too late."

"Everybody thinks of [placemaking] as the built environment, but I think it's capitalizing on what's already there," adds Tamburello. "People always think you have to spend all this money to create place, but people in Mexico take an empty dirt lot and carve out a place."

Local exhibit A: Now Colorado governor, brewpub entrepreneur John Hickenlooper organized the "Running of the Pigs" through alleys to promote his Wynkoop Brewing Company in the 1990s. "They turned the alleys in LoDo into a place," says Tamburello. "They didn't need to spend any money."

The key is "finding animators in communities to animate those spaces," Tamburello says. "They're the people who know everybody. They're the people who connect people with each other. They're the people who say, 'Let's do an event,’ then they do it every year."

Little Man Plaza now hosts 150 events annually. Tamburello says he could have put in an office building or some other use on the site. "That's what making a place is really about -- taking existing assets and animating them."

Next on Tamburello's revitalization radar in Denver:  North Federal Boulevard, West Colfax Avenue and East Montview Boulevard. Of the last of the three, he says there are "funky, interesting, older buildings where people should be doing funky, interesting things” east of Quebec Street, between Stapleton and the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, now home of the Anschutz Medical Center.

"Stapleton is a huge anchor and the redevelopment of Fitzsimons is a gigantic anchor," he says. "That pocket in there is just going to explode."
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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