Stapleton: Denver's Front Porch Neighborhood Pushes its Boundaries

A hybrid urban-suburban, lawn-free mecca for strollers and minivans, Stapleton can hardly be contained as developers push south -- and north, too. And maybe that's a good thing, as the airport-turned-neighborhood has set the bar high in its first 15 years.
"There aren't many projects the size and scope of Stapleton, and what we're doing here is a big deal -- even for Forest City, a major developer in Chicago, New York and San Francisco," says Tom Gleason, Vice President for Public Relations at Forest City Stapleton, the subsidiary of Forest City Enterprises, a more than 90-year-old family-owned firm headquartered in Cleveland.

When America's fifth busiest airport closed in February of 1995, a group of Denver citizens came together to discern what, exactly, should happen to the land. The group of citizens formed its own development plan, and Denver adopted it three years later and selected Forest City as the master developer charged with implementation.

In 2000, Forest City signed a contract to purchase 2,935 acres within a 15-year period at a rate of nothing less than 1,000 acres every five years. To date, Gleason says, the company has paid for more than 2,000 acres, and is on track to meet all obligations of the purchase agreement.  

A messy canvasFamilies love the self-contained community that's nine miles from downtown Denver.

"There was something in the range of 1,100 acres of pavement," Gleason recalls. "Some runways were three feet thick -- or more -- of concrete." Former aviation buildings enveloped 4.2 million square feet; much of that was Stapleton International Airport's six-concourse main terminal. The whole package was wrapped up in a jagged barbed wire fence.

"It was very grim looking, and some people doubted whether [development] could ever take place," Gleason says.

When Forest City acquired the land, there were zero residents; today, Stapleton boasts nearly 20,000. "A number of things came together to really transform the property," Gleason begins.

Forest City and Denver International Airport, which held title to the land, started transforming Stapleton as soon it became possible to do so. Recycled Materials removed an estimated 6 million tons of concrete for the right to sell the recycled aggregate, and Forest City and its builders replaced that with more than 6,000 homes and about 1,000 apartment complexes.

The image Gleason paints of Stapleton circa 2000 is a far cry from Stapleton in 2015. The neighborhood logo might as well be a mom -- or, heck, a dad -- dressed in Lululemon, pushing a double stroller. Young families have herded there for a self-contained community that's a mere nine miles from Denver's downtown core.

The prototype "New Urbanist" neighborhood has been recognized as a standout sustainable community by the EPA, the Urban Land Institute, Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment and a host of other organizations. Stapleton even received the prestigious Stockholm Partnerships for Sustainable Cities Award from the King of Sweden, and it took the Best in American Living Award back in 2004.

"We took our cue, in terms of architecture, from the surrounding, traditional urban neighborhoods," Gleason explains.

As Stapleton resident Skye Barker Maa puts it, "It's new construction, but the personality is still there."

"The idea," she adds, "is that they connect people. In the suburbs, it's usually wide streets and big backyards, and people drive right into their garages and don't have to interact with their neighbors."

Stapleton's different. For starters, most mailboxes are located across the street -- Barker Maa's is all that way down that block. "That forces people to interact," she says.

"The lots are relatively small compared to those in other suburban communities," says Gleason. In navigating that conundrum, Stapleton developers added more public green space, and built homes that back into parks with three -- and soon to be four -- retail complexes interspersed between homes.

Development was "designed to create tight-knit and walkable neighborhoods," he adds, adding that, yes, as the neighborhood newspaper's name, Front Porch Stapleton, suggests, "The homes emphasize front porches."

And Stapleton isn't just prettier than your average suburb -- it's hipper and more culturally attuned, too.

Culture in the 'burbs

"People love the programs, music, concerts and markets," says Diane Deeter, community director for Stapleton's Master Community Association, pointing to an array of (mostly) free public happenings: Friday night movies and Saturday concerts at Founders Green, and partnerships with various organizations including the Sam Gary Branch Library.

"We try to plan programming for about 120 days, starting in May, going through September," Deeter says. There are also a few fall and winter events, she adds, noting, "Five hundred people come out in winter gear to watch Elf the first weekend in December."

It's not just Will Ferrell movies. From dance classes and family dentistry to team sports, Stapleton is a one-stop shop for active families. One offering, though, was missing, and Barker Maa filled a hole by opening a music school.

When Barker Maa launched Neighborhood Music Stapleton in 2012, the cost of land in Stapleton was so high that she ended up opening shop in her basement, hiring two teachers to work with a dozen students. "Two months later, I had 55 students; then there were 75," Barker Maa recalls. By April she had eight teachers and nearly 150 students -- and the classes had seeped into her living room and kitchen.

The school has become another cornerstone of the family-friend community. "We donate to school programming and work in the schools," Barker Maa says. Neighborhood Music Stapleton also hosts a free holiday caroling event annually.

Last May, Barker Maa finally moved her music school to Stapleton South Office Warehouse at 10255 East 25th Avenue, where she leases a 5,000-square-foot space aside an artist specializing in ceramics and a landscaper. The building -- technically located in Aurora -- is five blocks east of another development that has Stapleton residents abuzz.

The Stanley Marketplace

The 22-acre Stanley Marketplace property, at 2501 Dallas St. in far northwest Aurora, opens in early 2016, and will cater to demands that are distinctly Denver: "There have been fights in the neighborhood for a natural grocer or a coffee shop that isn't Starbucks, and I think Mark was really trying to pull that all together with the Stanley," says Barker Maa.

The Stanley will feature 48 independent, Colorado-based businesses: six restaurants, Mondo Market, a boutique Italian deli and grocery, exercise studios, health and beauty shops, office space and a brewery. It was the brewery that got the whole project going.

Stapleton resident Mark Shaker, a partner in developer Flightline Ventures, initially proposed a beer garden concept to Forest City.

"Mark was looking for was a place for us to hang out," says Barker Maa, explaining that there had been a controversy at a brewing company just west of Quebec Street, Stapleton's westernmost boundary. Stapleton families were patronizing the pub, and non-Stapleton guests were upset by the abundance of children.

Lowry has its beer garden, and it became clear that Stapleton residents needed one, too. They're getting it -- only, it'll be located just outside of the neighborhood.  

Aurora officials got wind of Shaker's idea, and called up Flightline. They showed Shaker and his partners a vacant, 60-year-old, 140,000-square-foot manufacturing plant where the ejection seat was invented. The place was way too big for a beer garden, but when local entrepreneurs like Kindness Yoga's Patrick Harrington showed an interest, Flightline decided to put all of its chips on the table.

Developers aren't touching the frame of the 1950s building. "The structure itself is built like a tank, and we're reusing as much as possible," Shaker says. The building, vacant since 2009, is scheduled to reopen this spring with modern systems, new roofing and a well-laid interior.

The site is fully leased, and, thanks to its Aurora zip code, it will be considerably less expensive for its tenants than a building in booming Stapleton. Shaker isn't exactly sure how much lower his price-points will be; but, he says, "We're not the corner of Main and Main, and the project is a destination." Luring small businesses south wasn't too hard, he adds. "Their margins were being sucked away by rents." 

As the Stanley goes up, Forest City plans to take something down. "One portion of that old [barbed wire] aviation outpost fence is still up," Gleason says. That fence literally divides Stapleton and Aurora, and it secludes land still owned by Denver's Department of Aviation.

There's a parkway between East 26th and East 25th avenues, and that "had always been a hard line between Stapleton and Aurora," says Shaker, adding, "They just started putting through streets in in the past year; there were "Keep Out" signs on both sides."

"The dividing line between Denver and Aurora is 26th Avenue," Gleason says, explaining, "Almost all of Stapleton's land was in city and county of Denver, but there are 101 acres on that Southeast portion of Stapleton that are in the City of Aurora."

"Everybody's interest," continues Gleason, "is to get [the fence] removed as quickly as we can do so safely." The ultimate plan, he adds, is for a park and 322 homes on the edge of Aurora next year.

"Beyond physical barriers, there are big psychological barriers," Shaker says. Two very different neighborhoods and communities will be coming together when the Stanley goes live -- two communities that haven't interacted much, despite their proximity. A mile south of Stapleton, for example, Shaker says, "There's a huge refugee population."

"How do you get folks together who don't interact frequently? Through culture," Shaker continues. "The keystone of our project is arts, music and food."

To that end, Cherry Creek Arts Festival is collaborating with the Stanley Marketplace to bring the CherryArts Festival at Stanley, premiering Oct. 23-25, and offering guests a preview of the Stanley.

Stapleton moves northThe unkempt parkway between East 26th and East 25th avenues is the Denver-Aurora border.

Stapleton isn't stopping at Aurora -- development is inching north of I-70, too, toward the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Three years ago, Forest City started developing Conservatory Green, the first community north of the interstate, Gleason says. "Stapleton goes two miles north of I-70," he adds, explaining, "Most people aren't aware that the old runways were extended north."

Late next year, Forest City will be providing lots to homebuilders who are ready to take development north of East 56th Avenue, too, up to the refuge, a once-toxic open space that's clean and home to bison, bald eagles and snapping turtles and a mecca for birdwatchers and anglers.  

The neighborhood's demographic is changing along with its size. Stapleton's first residents are growing up, and Deeter is constantly searching for ways to engage its tween population. "We also have grandparents who have been moving in," she says, describing a multi-generational group akin to a village.  

"There's a sticky factor once you move here," adds Shaker. "The concept of no lawns -- it works!"

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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