DENVER — When excavators digging on the land that was formerly Denver’s Stapleton Airport unearthed an old Cessna, J.W. Duff, the 86-year-old owner of J.W. Duff Aircraft Co. was not surprised. “Lots of planes" were disposed of by burial when the airport was still in operation, Duff said. Finding something unexpected is just one of the many challenges of turning idled airports into something else.
Stapleton’s journey from in-town airport to one of the city’s newest planned residential communities began more than a decade ago when it was replaced by Denver International Airport, which was built 12 miles out of town in the middle of a vast prairie with no residential neighbors to be bothered by its noise. Repurposing a large civilian airfield like Stapleton had not been done before in the United States.
But over the last decade the mixed-use community that has been developed there and one like it in Austin, Texas, are seen as examples of how problematic properties can be successfully converted. And these developments are being closely watched, as growing demand for air travel puts pressure on other urban airports with little space to grow.
“Airport repurposing is a rare event driven by unique local circumstances," said Chris Oswald, vice president for safety and regulatory affairs for Airports Council International.
In Malmo, Sweden, the Bulltofta Airport built in 1923 was used for commercial passenger service until the 1970s, when Sturup Airport was built and the Bulltofta site was turned into a shopping and entertainment complex. Hong Kong’s downtown Kai Tak, made obsolete in 1998 with the opening of the new Hong Kong International Airport, will soon be turned into a cruise ship port, stadium and residential community.
With the development less than halfway complete at Stapleton, 4,000 residences have been sold and 13,000 people now call the community home.
The common thread for all these projects, Oswald said, is the availability of an alternative airport with greater capability. “The availability of such sites is very rare, and the combined political and financial will to make use of them is even rarer," he said.
The land developers behind the Denver and Austin projects agree. For all the unique problems with turning highly specialized industrial property into a place people can call home, they could not have succeeded without cooperation from a multitude of entities, including politicians, bureaucrats and residents.
“It’s very important to have an alignment with all the interests in the very beginning," said James Chrisman, senior vice president of Forest City Stapleton Inc., which is in year 12 of its 25-year development in Denver. “Projects go different directions, cities turn over. We’ve worked with three mayors, the economy changes," he said. “You need a strong foundation of a plan and a vision that everyone is committed to, to survive all those ups and downs that occur."
Forest City Enterprises agreed to buy nearly 4,700 acres from the city of Denver as the development proceeded. When complete it will include 8,000 single-family homes, 4,000 apartments, 12 million square feet of office and retail space, and 1,100 acres of parks. Significantly for the city, the new community has helped to reverse declining property around Stapleton.
“You have to remember there were planes that were 15-20 feet above the houses," Chrisman said during an interview in the developer’s office not far from the site of the landing area he was describing. “There was a landing strip on the other side. They were coming right over those houses and landing."
In giving Stapleton a new purpose, Forest City joins with just a few other real estate companies. When the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport in Austin, Texas, closed in 1999, California-based Catellus was hired to turn 700 acres of runway, terminal and parking into a similar mixed-use community called Mueller.
Catellus got into the land redevelopment business 40 years ago when the rail industry faced similar circumstances. “Contaminated railroad sites are similar to the airports of today," Weaver said. In both cases, the question is: “How do you take old industrial sites with a number of issues, get them cleaned up and turn them into great mixed-use developments?"
No organization tracks how many decommissioned airports around the world have found a second life, but even without numbers, the concept is controversial. Paul Freeman, a pilot who maintains an online archive of former airports in the United States, says civic leaders look at airfields and see dollar signs.
“Smaller cities can exercise short-term financial gain by selling off to developers," he said. “It’s a one-time plus on the balance sheet, but the community loses a net long-term resource."
Airport experts say it is difficult to know how many communities will eventually choose to move airports out of urban areas and into the remote countryside or even if turning airports into new neighborhoods is a good or a bad development.
“Provided that the region’s air services continue to benefit, I don’t think we have a position," said Oswald, of the Airports Council. “Speaking personally, I think it’s kind of cool, a way to create a unique community."