Where Learjets and 747s once routinely took off and landed near downtown Denver, homes, parks and prairie grass are now sprouting.
Back in 1995, Denver International Airport – designed by Curt Fentress – opened for business an hour away from the city. Stapleton Airport shut down – and a group of planners and landscape architects began envisioning a new life for its 4,000 acres.
Among them was Mark Johnson, a founding partner in Civitas, the Denver-based landscape architecture firm. “He was one of four people who Mayor Pena asked about what to do with it – what it should become,” says Scott Jordan, also a partner. “The answer was a mixed-use development.”
Since then, Johnson has been leading the design review board. The firm agreed that it wouldn’t do any of the work south of I-70, but once development moved north, it jumped in. And it’s been busy.
Known for delving into the history of a place to inform its future, Civitas looked to the original wetlands and sand dunes of the Sandhills Prairie ecosystem. By creating water conveyance paths throughout the area, they re-established natural water filtration systems, to feed the landscape and nurture habitat corridors.
“A lot of the open space creates storm water capture, detention and release after 48 hours,” he says. “It’s a system to move water from one end to another in an open space.”
The firm also designed a prairie-like landscape that restores pre-airport ecosystems through a series of interconnected open spaces that give residents natural exposure to the landscape. “It’s intended to be a living prairie, so it flows right into a national wildlife area,” he says. “So when you’re buying that land, you’ll be living in it.”
Lots of people are doing exactly that. About 600 homes have been built at Stapleton every year for the past five years. And the lots on the prairie are highly coveted. “It adds $25,000 to 50,000 more per lot,” he says. “People want to live on these open spaces.”
With a home on the prairie, just 15 minutes from downtown Denver, who wouldn’t?
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J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and is architecture critic for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com,, where portions of this column first appeared, and is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand“ (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at: @mikewelton