The End of Stapleton International Airport Spurred the Beginning of The Foundation
The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities began life in 1990 as the Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation (SRF). It was a nonprofit formed by Denver civic and business leaders to work with the city to craft a plan to reuse the city’s airport, Stapleton, after it closed in 1995.
It was a story decades in the making.
The sealing of Stapleton’s fate began in the 1970s. National air traffic was rising dramatically bringing Stapleton’s shortcomings into stark relief. Its runway configuration prohibited landing more than one plane at a time during reduced visibility which caused delays throughout the national aviation system.
Additional land was needed to expand but adjacent property was on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a heavily chemically-contaminated national installation whose availability was doubtful; the arsenal became a Super Fund site in 1987 and is now a National Wildlife Refuge.
Neighborhood opposition to higher levels of noise and operations also grew to the point that a group of Park Hill residents sued the city in 1981 over the issues. Elected in 1983, Mayor Federico Pena pushed for more investment in public projects, in part because of an economic downturn. He wanted to settle the airport lawsuit, which he also saw as a vehicle to gain support for a new airport. The settlement in 1985 called for closing Stapleton by 2000.
That same year Denver and Adams County officials reached an agreement to build a new airport northeast of Stapleton. In 1988 and ’89 voters from both areas approved it. For the next two years a group of three dozen community members called Stapleton Tomorrow held public forums to gather ideas on the reuse of the airport’s 4,700 acres. The resulting concept plan focused on economic development, positive impacts on surrounding neighborhoods, environmental sensitivity, quality urban design, educational and cultural opportunities and a generating public revenue.
The city adopted that plan in 1991. Two years later the city agreed to a partnership with the SRF to create a development plan which was guided by the Tomorrow work.
The foundation was launched by beloved Denver oilman and philanthropist Sam Gary. Mr. Gary doubted that the city would make the best use of the airport land. He envisioned a mixed-use development that could help stop urban sprawl. Mr. Gary contributed several million dollars of his own for the planning work and pulled in an additional million from an unprecedented collection of 26 foundations, businesses and individuals. The overarching goal was to maximize the benefits of redevelopment for residents of Denver by following an environmentally and socially progressive path.
In 1995 the city also formed the Stapleton Citizens Advisory Board (CAB) made up of more than 40 representatives from neighborhoods, businesses and other groups. The CAB counseled the SRF and conducted numerous community outreach efforts.
Gov. and former Mayor John Hickenlooper, Foundation founder Sam Gary, Former Mayor Wellington Webb with The Green Book
In 1995 the city formally adopted the SRF’s plan which was bound in recycled green cover stock, and soon earned the nickname “The Green Book.” The Green Book was alternately called visionary and unrealistic.
But the vision led to a much better reality. Today the former airport site is called Central Park. It has 4,700 acres is home to 30,000 people living in homes and apartments for every income level, thousands of jobs and new businesses, some of the city’s highest performing schools, acclaimed parks and open space, innovative sustainability and health and wellness programs that connect new and old communities.
As the Green Book predicted over two decades ago, Stapleton (now Central Park) has become “a model for addressing the economic and social needs of people while respecting the natural world.”
Of course, it’s not perfect. Much remains to be done. And that’s where the Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities is hard at work today.
An Illustration from the Green Book