Not-So-New-Urbanism: Stapleton

The Congress for the New Urbanism is holding its annual conference in Denver June 10-14, complete with bus tours of our most well-known new urbanist enclaves. But how do you judge walkable, neighborhood-based developments? Is it by the diversity (or lack thereof) of their residents, the number of parks nearby, their stumbling distance to a local watering hole? Over the next few days, we'll explore and judge -- oh yes, judge -- six of these developments and find out for sure just which is the most urban of the new urban.

Forest City's developers had an urban vision for the site of the old Stapleton Airport when they began planning what it would look like in 1998. But, today, its 10,000 or so residents may be much more interested in suburban perks than urban ones.

I crossed through the portal into Stapleton on a Wednesday morning and found moms and dogs and little kids and chai lattes. From my vantage on Founder's Green, the most striking thing about the neighborhood is its symmetry.

On one side is the E. 29th Avenue Town Center -- a tidy little vein of cozy commercial comforts. On the other is a huge, straight street with friendly young trees and colorful brownstone knockoffs. Both extend into the distance. Standing there, it's hard to imagine the real world of North Park Hill, just a few blocks west.

Stumble-ability: Can people stumble home from a nearby bar or restaurant?

No stumbling in Stapleton. There's our favorite piggery, The Berkshire, and... Coldstone? Maybe half of Stapleton residents are within power-walking distance from the current "downtown" (there are two more in the works), but I bet most of them are plenty sober enough to drive.

Multi-modal: Can people ride their bikes/skateboards/unicycles/go-peds without getting smashed by an SUV?

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You mean push their strollers? With a similar sidewalk arrangement to Bradburn and a median down 29th that could probably qualify as a park, yes they can. There are bike lanes on the main roads, so that's an option as well.

Economic diversity: Can poor people live near rich people?

At most points in Stapleton, you're within two blocks of townhomes, row homes, condos and single-family houses.

Real diversity: Is there mix of people, or is it just a gated community with smaller lots?

There are plenty of young white families, but I was surprised at how many African-Americans were around town. Hispanics, however, were only to be found up ladders and scaffolding. A 2006 survey, meanwhile, found that there were about 5 percent LBGT community members.

Green space: Are there open, public spaces where people are recreating? (parks, public gardens, creeks, greenways)

A park system runs uninterrupted through almost the entire community. It seems to be mostly designed for people with a destination rather than picnickers or book readers. There's a nice patch of grass by the town center where one could recreate, and Central Park has no shortage of fields and facilities.

Transit test: Does it have mass transit attached or nearby that people actually use?

Stapleton is just a stop on the way to DIA. But no one's riding buses around here.

Mixed-useless: Is there a mix of shops and business integrated with housing? How many are chains?

The 29th Avenue town center's a little cookie-cutter (Chipotle, Noodles, etc.), but there are a couple anchors that serve to give the place an identity. Okay, one of them is a kid's bookstore and another is a place called U-Sham-Pooch. The bottom line here is, if you want to live above the Starbucks, the infrastructure exists.

Civics search: Are there public buildings, community institutions or civic centers that serve a non-commercial, public need?

Holy community calendar! Printed on recycled paper, you'll be glad to know, the list of activities includes such barn-burners as the "Battle of the Bands... for the good of the community." Regrettably, you've already missed that one -- but the very decent Farmer's Market is available every weekend. And you already know how we feel about the pools.

Priced out: What seems to be the average price of a home? An apartment?

Average home price is in the mid-$300,000 range. That gets you about 1,500 square feet and two or three bedrooms. Renters are a very tiny minority. Plus, they aren't guaranteed membership in the Community Organization, so forget that.

Urbanish: Does it feel like a dynamic urban place? Or is it just lipstick on a suburban pig?

I'd much prefer to raise a family here than in a conventional, arterial suburb. On the other hand, I was struck by the disorienting sensation of driving into Stapleton. It feels like Disneyland, and coming back to an actual urban area is a stark reminder of what gives cities their heartbeat: irregularities and imperfections and signs all over that people have struggled and triumphed. Stapleton is safe and happy and nice, which is exactly what most of the people there are looking for. Give it another ten or fifteen years, once all the development is done and people have started to leave their fingerprints, and this place could have some real character. For now, though, it's just lipstick.

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