Tag: Denver

Welcome to Stapleton

When I was in Denver about a month ago, I took a short driving tour around the newly established Stapleton neighborhood, a massive redevelopment project underway at the former site of Stapleton International Airport. The largest New Urbanism project in the United States (according to Wikipedia), Stapleton is designed to be a more sustainable, community-oriented, mixed-use neighborhood. I was eager to check out the progress.

Housing and Public Space
Green space was plentiful throughout the progressing development. A large Central Park is complimented by meandering greenways and tiny neighborhood parks. Streets are pretty much laid out in an efficient grid system with occasional deviation. Different areas sport different housing types and styles. Most are based on regional and traditional precedents and are all oriented toward the public street. Prices range from $80k townhouses up to $900k estate homes – view them all.

Stapleton brings back the alley, providing access to garages behind the houses. The fronts of these homes are no longer dominated by garages for cars, but porches for people. Most of the homes sit on compact lots so garages take up much of the back yard, so the front yard and neighborhood park spaces become the place for outdoor recreation and relaxation. This is believed to foster community and more interaction with neighbors.

Sustainability is a key focus of the new Stapleton neighborhood. Tangible measures include building all ENERGY STAR homes that are more energy efficient, some with solar panels; LEED certified office buildings; and recycling old runways and parking lots into new streets, bike paths and sidewalks. Additionally, nearly 27,000 new trees have been planted in Stapleton, and the new Central Park, greenways, and pocket parks have increased the amount of parkland in the city by over 30 percent.

Sustainability is not only about energy efficient buildings, but also planning, diversity of uses, and aesthetics that promote sustainable lifestyles and community. As mentioned above, streets are pretty much laid out in a grid system and connect at many points with the existing city road network. This is more efficient than the typical suburban road hierarchy of cul-de-sacs and short local streets feeding into collector streets and major arterials. Typical suburban subdivisions provide only one or two routes in or out, often making one walk or drive a longer distance due to convoluted curving roads and lack of thru streets. They also cost cities more to maintain because each street only serves a small number of residents. So grid street systems provide more direct access and route alternatives, distribute traffic more evenly, permit more efficient distribution of utilities and services, and minimize maintenance of excess roadways by maximizing the use per person of each street.

Proximity to places of work, stores, restaurants, and schools is also essential for a neighborhood’s sustainability. This reduces the need to drive so much for everyday needs and conveniences. Generally amenities within half a mile is an acceptable walking or biking distance.

Mixed Use and Retail
With over two million square feet of retail planned when completed, the Stapleton neighborhood certainly has a mix of amenities and residential. However, pretty much all the retail and commercial has been developed (and is planned for, according to Stapleton land-use maps) on the western edge near Quebec Street, so it is not as integrated with housing as it could be. Also a majority of the current retail is in the form of a dressed-up big box power center and a lifestyle center / mall, essentially your typical upscale suburban shopping center.

Current commercial and retail space is concentrated in three distinct main shopping districts. East 29th Avenue Town Center is the quintessential “main street” area so commonly found in New Urbanist developments. It is a relatively small area located on the west side of Stapleton along Quebec Street. Pedestrian scale one to two story shops and buildings are built up to street like a traditional downtown Main Street, with plenty of parking concealed in the back. This particular retail area is well connected to the new residential blocks, some right across the street. 29th Ave Town Center is at a main entrance into Stapleton along Quebec Street so it is able to serve both the newer residents of Stapleton and those of older existing neighborhoods across the street.

Another, less pedestrian retail area is Quebec Square, just north of the E 29th. Ave Town Center area on Quebec Street. It is a typic big box power center with Walmart, Sam’s, Home Depot and several national retailers and quick service restaurants. Although clearly car-oriented, there does seem to be effort made to maintain a grid of streets through the center and minimize the visual and physic disruption of massive parking lots by locating most buildings at corners and along the edge of roads. Despite it’s suburban nature, Quebec Square is still reasonably accessible from housing in the Stapleton neighborhood with connections via the street grid sidewalks – longer than a 5 – 10 minute walk for most residents, but quick trips could easily be done via bicycle.

One more major retail area is Northfield Stapleton, an open-air, lifestyle center shopping mall about a mile north of the center of Stapleton on the opposite side of Interstate 70. Following the trend, Northfield provides a faux Main Street shopping environment with decorative streetscaping and pedestrian scale store fronts. This is deceiving as the entire perimeter is surrounded with a massive parking lot and outlaying box stores. In satellite view, it appears the street ways through Northfield were designed for future expansion in mind – so the pedestrian storefronts could eventually extend beyond the original main street. Unfortunately these pedestrian friendly arteries will always end in a car-friendly parking lot. Despite the distance, there is no real direct pedestrian access from the residential areas of Stapleton to Northfield so inevitably even nearby residents will have to drive here.

One last retail center on the eastern edge of Stapleton is yet to be developed. Eastbridge Town Center, planned at the intersection of MLK Jr. Blvd and Havana Street will be 29th Ave’s counterpart. So eventually the residential core of Stapleton will be flanked by two pedestrian friendly commercial zones.

Stapleton seems to be very walkable with appropriate pedestrian provisions and will only get better as the neighborhoods are filled in. However, my initial reaction was that residential areas were too segregated from commercial areas. I figured it’d be much more integrated and mixed. The distance between many homes and shopping would require at least a 10-15 minute walk one way, not bad, but perhaps not enough to keep someone from driving instead if the errand was urgent enough. A quick trip could be made by bike or frequent transit service though.

Connectivity to the rest of Denver is also critical for the sustenance of Stapleton, as many residents are employed outside of the neighborhood. The neighborhood’s transit plan is pretty extensive with a bus hub planned with numerous direct routes to major employment centers throughout the metro. The future RTD train service to Denver International Airport will go through Stapleton, providing a direct connection to Denver’s expanding light rail system. See maps for more information about the neighborhood transportation and land use.

Lowry Neighborhood
Another mixed infill neighborhood was underway in Denver a year before Stapleton Airport even closed. I discovered Lowry, less than a mile south of Stapleton, on Google Maps, as they appear very similar in aerial plan view. Lowry is smaller than Stapleton at only about three square miles, on the former site of Lowry Field and Air Force Base. From quick Googling, it seems Lowry may be a bit more suburban in form than Stapleton, but still much improved over typical suburban housing. At about 80 percent build out, completion of Lowry is expected within a year.

All photos in this post are from Flickr user faceless b / EPA Smart Growth.

> Discover Stapleton (official website)

Travel by Train

Denver Union Station

I arrived back in Cedar Rapids this afternoon (Tuesday) after riding the Amtrak California Zephyr overnight from Denver to Mt. Pleasant, about an hour south of CR. The train was already running about three hours behind early on Monday when I checked the train status online. Scheduled to depart Denver at 8:10pm, the adjusted time was about 10:30. Around 10:15pm, the train had arrived and conductors began checking tickets and issuing boarding passes. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. Almost an hour went by before we boarded, as they were having some trouble adding an addition coach car to the train. Unfortunately no formal announcement was made concerning the issue, so the 50 plus passengers waiting to get on were unaware of the cause of delay.

When I finally boarded I got on car 611, second from last and went on upstairs to find a seat. I didn’t see any empty row so I took a seat near the middle of the train by the stairs, next to a man who had been riding since Saturday all the way from Seattle, heading home to Kentucky. Not sure why he was on the California Zephyr (he must’ve gone from Seattle down to California, then eastward on the Zephyr), when the Empire Builder is much more direct to Chicago going through Montana, North Dakota, and down through Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The train began moving by about 11:30, and I soon made my way two cars ahead to the lounge. At this point the upper observation level was pretty empty and the cafe on the lower level was closed until morning. The lounge car was peaceful and more comfortable than crowded coach. I also planned to watch some movies on my iPod and did not want to disturb my elder seat mate.

Heading out of Denver, eastbound, the train goes through rail yards and passes mostly industrial sites in Commerce City. The TAXI redevelopment caught my eye in particular, which Will Bruder discussed in his keynote speech last Wednesday at FORUM. The eastern gateway into Denver via rail is not particularly inviting, but most aren’t. Denver Union Station is impressive, though, providing a grand gateway right in to the heart of downtown. The interior is large, but pretty plain and outdated. The elegant exterior is more dramatic at night with the charming “Travel by Train” neon sign and colorful spotlights on the building’s stone walls.

Denver plans to turn Union Station into the city’s prime intermodal transportation center, centralizing Amtrak, SkiTrain, intercity buses, RTD transit bus and light rail. This is already in progress with the C and E light rail lines terminus, endpoint for the Free Mall Ride shuttle, and several RTD bus routes. When completed it should be quite the place.

I woke up this morning around 7am, from the breakfast announcement. The northern sky to my left was a dim, gray blue, and a warm yellow glow from the sunrise to my right. It’s a pleasing view to wake up to – if you were able to fall asleep in the first place. I eventually went to the lounge car and had a hot breakfast sandwich. After reaching Lincoln and Omaha, a number of seats opened up so I moved across the aisle to two opens seats and was able to sleep for a few more hours.

I arrived at my destination, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, around 4pm, just about five hours late. An announcement had been made earlier by the conductor that nearly all connections would be missed in Chicago, and emphasized our safety was their top priority. He asked us to, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy our train trip through the breadbasket of America” – how cute.

Overall I was satisfied with my experience this time on Amtrak, but then again I was anticipating delay and understand their current situation. The consistent issue of lateness on certain Amtrak routes is somewhat out of their control. The majority of trains, especially cross-country ones like the California Zephyr, operate on track owned by freight railroads, whose operations get priority over Amtrak. As far as service, all train attendants were generally pleasant and tried to keep passengers happy considering the significant delay. In today’s case, they were offering a complementary meal in the afternoon (served after I deboarded), but I was able to benefit from a complimentary snack just before reaching Mt. Pleasant.

I have ridden Amtrak in the past, mostly on the California Zephyr, but also once on the Three Rivers (now defunct I believe) to Pennsylvania, and one short trip on the Empire Builder from LaCrosse to Fargo. It is quite obvious Amtrak service has gone downhill over the years. It is not terrible, but there are a lot of band-aids, it is merely getting by.

Passenger rail service is a critical part of our nation’s transportation system and needs to be reinvested in and expanded. Amtrak provides transportation access to numerous small communities that may be hours from a commercial airport. Train travel is also much more efficient and more affordable than flying. While cross-country train travel is no longer practical for most people, it makes a lot of sense regionally between distances about 500 miles or less. Not only is it easier and less stressful than flying, rail typically takes passengers right into the center of cities, unlike airports that tend to be located miles away from downtown.

Midwest High Speed Rail Association

Several states, such as Illinois and California have partnered with Amtrak to expand passenger rail service. Regional associations have been established to promote regional high speed rail networks around the country. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which includes Iowa, promotes an expanded regional network originating from Chicago and providing more frequent service to more locations throughout the midwest. The proposal includes a new line that would run through the Quad Cities, Iowa City, and Des Moines, through to Omaha. A new line from Chicago to Dubuque is currently the most promising for Iowa in the works right now.

Amtrak and passenger rail service deserves much needed investment and support from the federal level. It is a matter of national security, sustainability, and accessibility. It is my hope that we will see much greater support for Amtrak and alternative transportation from the new Obama administration.

Libeskind’s Sculptural Approach

Today at FORUM I went to a seminar by Maria Cole, who worked with Daniel Libeskind (most famous for the Jewish Museum Berlin) on the addition to the Denver Art Museum. Coming from a very pragmatic, program-based approach to building design, it was a contrast to Libeskind’s more sculptural approach. Instead of producing a design through space programming, his first compulsion is to develop a sculpture that can address urban forces and implement the program later.

In the case of the Denver Art Museum, a large, triangular form extends to the north, gesturing, but not quite touching the original museum building (like God’s finger extending to Adam’s, but not touching, in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”). On the south side the museum steps down to a more human, pedestrian scale to relate to the Golden Triangle mixed neighborhood that is adjacent.

The structure of the addition is not aesthetically significant to the design and is mostly hidden. Libeskind considers the building as sculpture, so the structure inconsequential. Therefor the structural design of the building was made as simple and efficient as possible with the complex design.

Interesting presentation. The art museum addition is quite an intrigue from the outside…I will need to check out the inside sometime. There are numerous examples of modern galleries of art building new additions that are as fantastic as the art itself. It raises the question: are these new spaces buildings for holding artwork, or are they their own piece of art? The addition to the Denver Art Museum is not only a building expansion, but an addition to their art collection.

> Denver Art Museum
> Studio Daniel Libeskind
> Wikipedia: Denver Art Museum

Day 2 FORUM Update

Today was the second day of FORUM 2008 in Denver. Each night features a keynote speaker and election and business matters. As the VP of our Iowa State chapter, and the only ISU member attending the conference, I am participating in the Council of Presidents, which met this morning and will meet again Thursday to elect the next leaders of the organization. Today was the college and career fair expo with reps from a number of architecture grad schools around the country, a few, mostly, local firms, as well as a few professional organizations and businesses. I had the opportunity to speak to a few firms and visit some offices in Denver with the FORUM “Firm Crawl” today. I also stopped by two other neat firms on my own.

I’ve been commuting into the downtown for the conference each day from Castle Rock, south of the metro, where I’ve been staying with my brother’s family. I’m taking the RTD light rail from the County Line park-n-ride near my brother’s workplace up to downtown. Initially I found the numerous lines confusing since the majorities of each line are shared along the I-25 corridor (each different line has a slightly different terminus), but it is certainly easy enough to figure out.

From County Line, second to last stop on the E,F, and G lines, takes about 35 minutes to get downtown, and so far has not been too crowded. The ride is pretty comfortable, though the seats aren’t very easy to sit on for that long. My only major complaint, though understandable, is the high transit fare. $4 one way from County Line to downtown (spanning four fare zones) – soon to increase to $4.50 in January. So I am spending quite a bit of cash on transit this week.

I took the #32 bus from downtown to a firm office about 30 blocks away – on a 40 foot Orion V. The bus was pretty clean and comfortable, with padded seats. One way fare on local buses is $1.75; $2 beginning in January.

All in all it’s been good so far and the contacts I’ve made should be helpful in landing an internship this summer – especially with the economic downturn where unfortunately many architects are facing layoffs. Check back for more updates.


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