City sees future west of town
Trip to Denver gives eye-opening look at urbanist design
June 1, 2008
Denver — An ice cream truck jingles in the distance as young couples ride bikes, push strollers and walk dogs past ultramodern architecture, through extravagant roundabouts and over brick crosswalks on their way to outdoor sidewalk cafes below vibrant banners proclaiming, “Spring has sprung.”
This could be west Steamboat.
For now, it’s the urban redevelopment of the former Stapleton International Airport in Denver, which has employed new urban design principles Steamboat Springs officials hope to see implemented in developments west of city limits. As a response to suburban sprawl, new urbanist neighborhoods are designed to be dense and pedestrian-friendly. They typically contain commercial districts, parks and other features that reduce the need for off-site automobile trips.
Stapleton and Lowry – a similar redeveloped Denver neighborhood on the site of a closed Air Force base – were the destinations Friday for Steamboat city employees, City Council members, planning commissioners, utility providers, developers and members of the public. The road trip was billed as a chance to see what works and what doesn’t; officials hope it will aid their review of developments such as Steamboat 700 and 360 Village, projects the city is considering for annexation.
Troy Russ of community planning and design firm Glatting Jackson led the tours and encouraged Steamboat officials to pay great attention to detail in their review of major developments. In the case of parks, for example, Russ said it’s not enough to just build them; communities also should ensure their success through events such as a farmers market.
“You need to constantly think, ‘How do you activate the space through programming?'” Russ said.
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He also pointed out how Stapleton’s neighborhood design mitigated the presence of a King Soopers by orienting smaller-scale retail in locations that draw attention away from the massive blank eyesores on the side of the grocery store.
“Buildings have ugly sides too,” Russ said. “They have to.”
Russ promoted design elements such as sidewalks that bump out at intersections to decrease pedestrian crossing widths and alley-loaded homes, despite the challenges they would create for snow removal in Steamboat.
“What the pedestrian needs to experience is the narrowest street possible,” Russ said of bump-outs.
Russ added later that streetscapes suffer without alleys.
“If (the sidewalk is) obstructed by garage after garage after garage, the pedestrian isn’t going to use it because it’s not interesting to look at,” Russ said.
Russ said these concerns are more important than the solvable difficulties associated with getting roads and alleys clear of snow.
“You don’t design the dog by the tail,” he said.
Russ said alleys provide a great opportunity to switch land uses, which is preferable to having different types of uses fronting each other on opposite sides of a street.
Although Steamboat 700 Project Manager Danny Mulcahy said the Denver redevelopments are vastly different from his own project – remnants such as airplane hangars and an air traffic control tower punctuate the two projects that total more than 6,500 acres – Mulcahy said the concepts embraced in them “are exactly what we’re trying to accomplish.” Mulcahy agreed that the tour would aid the review process.
“What’s important about this is everybody gets the same education and starts at the same level,” Mulcahy said. “We all want the exact same things.”
Mulcahy also said the projects were great examples of the type of public-private partnership he would like to see in Steamboat. According to a Lowry fact sheet, the city and county of Denver invested $1.37 million in Lowry, which was paid back in economic benefits in less than one month. Mulcahy said that when it comes to community needs such as affordable housing, Steamboat has not approached the table with a similarly cooperative spirit.
“The city of Denver is stepping up and making things happen,” Mulcahy said. “It has to be a partnership. : Other than annexing me, I haven’t heard any one thing the community has offered this development. I’m responsible for everything.”
Planning Commissioner Sarah Fox had mostly good things to say about Stapleton. She said the variety of homes reminded her of Old Town Steamboat, which she said is “exactly what we want to emulate” in the west of Steamboat area. Fox did not like areas in Stapleton where identical buildings were replicated for many blocks along a street. She called such areas boring.
Councilman Jon Quinn said he didn’t see “any horrific things” during the tour, and he was especially a fan of using alleys not only to keep building faces cleaner and more interesting, but also to create community-gathering places.
“I grew up in D.C.,” Quinn said, “and the neighborhood kids in my neighborhood hung out in the alleys.”
Randall Hannaway, a Realtor with Colorado Group Realty and a local partner of 360 Village, said he was fascinated by how much detail went into the redevelopments.
“I definitely think a lot of the design elements and attention to detail make a lot of sense,” Hannaway said. “Like all good design projects, you can learn from it.”
Hannaway said he is confident that the same urban design principles used in the Denver communities will translate well to Steamboat.
“Most of what I’ve seen, I really embrace,” he said. “It doesn’t feel claustrophobic to me at all. It feels good.”
On the critical side, Hannaway said he hopes to create a more fun place than Stapleton, which appeared light on entertainment, nightlife and other elements that might attract the young professionals Hannaway hopes will anchor 360 Village.
Councilman Steve Ivancie was disappointed by some of Stapleton’s deed-restricted affordable housing, which he felt stuck out too much and looked like “a storage unit.”
Chris Wilson, the city’s director of Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services, was a fan of water features found in both developments that were being played in by children. Wilson said “spray play areas” and “water-related playgrounds” are popular and relatively cheap.
“It gives you a way to get into using water without the expense of a pool,” Wilson said. “We all know how water attracts us to be near.”