From the Block looks at Denver with the people who know the neighborhoods from the ground up.
When the Denver International Airport opened in 1995, it rendered the old Stapleton International Airport obsolete and created a new and exciting challenge: How should the city replace the old airport and fill in its 4,700 acres northeast of downtown?
The answer came from a new urban design movement called New Urbanism. Denver essentially decided to use the space as a living laboratory, a place to test out the key principles of New Urbanism – mixed-use, walkability, diversity, density and connectivity.
The city joined with the Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation and stakeholders in the community to create a vision document, dubbed the Stapleton Development Plan and generally referred to as the Green Book. Together, they proposed a series of developments, including parks and a network of subdivisions and office parks, that could accommodate 25,000 people and 31,000 jobs, and uphold the principles of New Urbanism. The city approved the plan in 1995 and set about selecting a master developer. Forest City Enterprises was selected in late 1998, and the Ohio-based real estate firm broke ground in 2001.
Our guide this week is John Lehigh, the president and COO of Forest City’s Stapleton division. He previously served as executive director of the Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District, where he was in charge of developing Coors Field in the early- to mid-1990s.
Q: Back in 1998, the city of Denver chose Forest City to implement the Stapleton Development Plan, or Green Book. Why did Forest City want that contract and what was your pitch?
A: What interested us was the Green Book. We saw that the city put five years of work into it and that they really had buy-in from the community. So, we bought into the vision, and we could see that they had already saved us a significant amount of work to get that community buy-in.
We are kind of a unique developer in that we are involved in three product types: apartments, office and retail, all of which were critical parts of the vision for Stapleton. We’re not homebuilders, but we had experience working with homebuilders. It really touched on a lot of things we do.
Even back in the late 90s, a lot of our competitors were focused on only one product type, be it industrial, retail or offices. Very few people play in all these fields at the same time. I think that had a great deal to do with why we were selected.
Q: How has the original vision for Stapleton changed, looking back on nearly 20 years of work in the neighborhood?
A: We broke ground on May 3, 2001, following a few years of negotiations, planning and due diligence.
Since then, I think it’s fair to say that if you pulled out the Green Book today, and compared what’s in there to what we’ve done, they would be indistinguishable. There are some tweaks around the edges, but we’ve been able to follow that plan really closely. The Green Book laid out a vision, not a precise plan, but we’ve been able to follow it quite nicely.
Q: How has the spread of transit options across the Denver metro area, and particularly the opening of the A Line station last year, affected Forest City’s plans over the years?
A: The A Line was not there when we started, that’s for sure. It’s certainly been a huge piece for us.
We’ve known it was coming for 10 or so years. It’s a huge plus to fulfill the vision of mixing office and commercial space. That’s been a challenge for us – establishing northeast Denver as a place for offices, rather than an industrial Mecca – and the A Line helped change that perspective.
The area around where the station is, we had already envisioned that as an office hub since it’s halfway between downtown and the airport. We had been maintaining that hub with connections through the RTD's [Regional Transportation District] Park-n-Ride, but the A Line station really expands on it.
Q: Before all that, was it hard to get people to move to Stapleton in the early years?
A: It turned out to be a feeding frenzy. Once we started on the infrastructure and had the builders start putting up houses, we literally had people camping out to buy houses. They’d release them on the weekends, and people would be standing in lines.
This was around 2002, and the economy was starting to really cook in Denver at that time. It was a wonderful time for us to be starting this project because the momentum built so rapidly.
Now, we often refer to those early buyers as pioneers. They believed in the vision, and they’ve been well rewarded. The value of their homes has increased significantly.
Q: How did the 2008 housing crisis affect Stapleton’s growth?
A: We definitely slowed down, but we never stopped. I think we were probably unique across the entire metro area. We were still seeing our homebuilders sell between 250 and 300 homes per year throughout that whole cycle between 2008 and 2012.
I also know that several of our homebuilders were only working in Stapleton in that time period. Had it not been for the homes they were building here, they would have closed up shop.
Q: For homebuyers and aspiring business owners, how do you sell Stapleton now?
A: We are still 15 minutes from downtown and 20 from the airport. We’re located on the light rail line and the A Line. We have access to I-70. We have a mix of housing, everything from affordable de-restricted houses for 80 percent AMI [area median income] wage earners up to homes costing as much as $800,000 to $900,000. We have terrific Denver public schools here that all perform very well.
You’ve got housing and you’ve got schools, and it’s a great location. We think that pitch is aimed at people who perhaps want to move out of downtown and certainly at new companies who want to move to the region.
Q: Are there any special incentives in place for those businesses? And what is Stapleton Business NOW?
A: Stapleton Business Now is really our broad look at what opportunities there are for offices at the A Line station, more suburban-type offices along I-70, and office space east of North Field, where there is quite a bit of land north of I-70.
We used to be in the Denver Enterprise Zone. [The city of Denver offers businesses a slew of tax credits and other incentives if they open in areas designated as part of this zone.] We no longer are, as of Jan. 1, 2016, and I think that’s a testament to the fact that we’re doing pretty well businesswise.
The other thing I should say is that we have a tax increment financing district that covers all of Stapleton. Last year alone, that district generated $54 million in property tax and sales tax revenue. That’s a significant financial impact for the city, let alone the 25,000 people who live here. They might have otherwise moved to Adams County or Highlands Ranch if Stapleton didn’t offer them a chance to have a new house in Denver.
Q: What are some current challenges Forest City is working on to advance the neighborhood?
A: Right now, one of the biggest challenges is finding more businesses to move in here. We want those pioneers who moved here early on to bring their businesses to Stapleton. We’ve got a couple that have started north of I-70, including a medical office building and another business that relocated from the area near the National Western Complex. I’m excited to see that happen.
Q: It seems like that is starting to make good on the New Urbanism promise of a mixed-use community. Is that how you see it?
A: You know, everyone talks about New Urbanism when they talk about Stapleton, but when you look at old Denver neighborhoods, you can see what we’ve actually recreated. Both here and downtown, the neighborhoods have alleys and their own character, as compared to suburban Denver.
Yes, it fits the bill of New Urbanism, but we like to think about it as an extension of the original Denver concepts.