Architectural Record BE - Building Enclosure

An Abandoned Airport Brownfield Takes Off

Parsons cleans up a massive brownfield site at denver's shuttered stapleton international airport, allowing for the development of new neighborhoods for the inner city
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From Architectural Record
Russell Fortmeyer
Continuing Education

Learning Objectives - After this course, you should be able to:

  1. Describe the redevelopment project at Stapleton.
  2. Explain how the soil contaminants were remediated.
  3. Discuss sustainability implications for the Stapleton Development.



Chances are, you've flown into Denver's gleaming international airport, rented a car, and driven into downtown and past the largest brownfield development in the country, if not arguably the largest urban infill project. If you happened to glance out the window, you might see rolling parkland, rows of new houses, and parents walking their kids to school. What you wouldn't see are piles of dirt, 20-foot-deep chasms, and scrapers peeling back layers of soil.

Of course, you'd be driving by the redevelopment of Stapleton International Airport, abandoned in 1995 and, after significant contamination remediation, the site of one of the largest master-planned communities in the country. The story of Stapleton touches many histories-Manifest Destiny and westward expansion, along with 19th-century industrialization, 20th-century suburbanization, the rise of the aviation industry, and the limits of sprawl.

Established by Mayor Benjamin F. Stapleton in 1929, Denver Municipal Airport began on a site then mostly used for cattle grazing. It was renamed Stapleton International Airport in 1964 and slowly expanded to its present 4,700 acres by 1985. Denver voters approved the construction of a new airport west of the city in 1989, ensuring that Stapleton would be closed. Sensing an opportunity, in 1990 community leaders established the private nonprofit Stapleton Development Foundation (SDF) that, with the City, would put in place a plan that by 1995-the year Denver International Airport opened-provided the basis for how land that had originally been peripheral to the city and then isolated by its nature as an airport, could be integrated into the existing neighborhood. In 1999, the city selected Forest City Stapleton, a subsidiary of the Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, as the master developer of the new neighborhood.

Reclaiming the tabula rasa

The Stapleton project is a kind of bizarre conflation of 20th-century planning techniques. Embodied in the new town is the Modernist urban-planning dream, evocative of Le Corbusier's 1925 Plan Voisin for Paris, where an existing piece of the city is cleared out in a tabula rasa reclamation project and regraded as if what had been had never been. In this case, the visionary architect is replaced by the demands of market research. Conversely, the Stapleton Development Plan-the guidebook to the new neighborhood produced by the SDF-neatly puts into place a New Urbanist vision for the city that emphasizes "defined centers for services and civic uses, walkable scale, access to nearby employment, diverse transportation options, and strong connections to parks and nature." Design guidelines developed by Forest City Stapleton encourage other New Urbanist strategies, including neo-historicist architectural styles and a postmodernist tendency toward the indexical mark, in this case the design decision to keep the airport's original control tower as a landmark for the neighborhood.

Stapleton International Airport's abandoned control tower is now an icon for the new neighborhood.
Photography: Courtesy Parsons

Although architects working at Stapleton inherit clean sites, they still respond to the environmental history of the site in their design considerations. Peter Dominick, FAIA, a principal of 4240 Architecture, has been practicing in Denver for decades and is particularly interested in the idea of how the built environment can be used as a means toward "healing." The firm built one of the first large-scale projects at Stapleton, the East 29th Avenue Town Center, a mixed-use development. "In relationship to brownfield sites, we envision ourselves knitting communities back together and healing fabrics that have been destroyed over time by the particular use that was there," Dominick said, adding that "there is a memory associated with these places that shouldn't be entirely denied."


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Architectural Record