Making big boxes more civil

A street grid adds a human-scale element, enhances transit access, and creates the potential for urban-style redevelopment in two recent Colorado power centers.

Two Denver area shopping centers show how large-scale retail, when subjected to strong community planning, is evolving toward designs that are more accommodating to pedestrians and better integrated into public transportation systems.

Quebec Square, a 740,000-square-foot regional shopping center containing Home Depot, Super Wal-Mart, and other big box stores, opened in late June to serve the material needs of Denver’s new Stapleton community.

The Stapleton development — a 7.5 square-mile model of smart growth and New Urbanism — could probably not have come into being without the shopping center. “Quebec Square is the ‘economic engine’ that generates a significant portion of the tax-increment financing that makes the entire 4,700-acre redevelopment of the former Stapleton possible,” says Tom Gleason, a spokesman for Forest City Enterprises, Stapleton’s master developer. “It also provides retail that has long been needed in the northeast portion of the city.”

Quebec Square has one foot planted in the conventional big-box territory and the other foot in more walkable terrain. The developer “extended the street grid from the surrounding neighborhoods onto the retail site as much as possible,” says Gleason. “With that street grid comes the pedestrian amenities of sidewalks, tree lawns, and other elements designed to make it an appealing environment.” People can walk to the Square from existing neighborhoods, nearby hotels, and the United Air Lines Flight Training Center, where 1,200 people work.

Many restaurants and stores on retail pads will have dual entrances — serving pedestrians entering from the street on one side and motorists entering from the parking lot on another. “Restaurants’ outdoor seating areas will be placed to help activate the street,” Gleason notes. “Buildings have been pulled out to the street as much as possible to reinforce the urban edge.” For drainage, a “green swale” runs the length of the center, creating a wildlife habitat and a feature that pedestrians can enjoy.

A transit station accommodating buses, autos, bicycles, and pedestrians will open next year near the Wal-Mart, at the shopping center’s northern edge. If voters in the six-county Regional Transportation District say yes in balloting (possibly in 2004), a sales tax increase will build a rail line from downtown Denver to Denver International Airport, with a stop at Stapleton — probably on the other side of the road from Quebec Square’s transit station. Rail would “give us the opportunity to create transit-oriented development of a higher density,” Gleason says. “We tried to establish a template for the site to evolve over time.”

The grid gives Stapleton residents several ways to approach the big boxes rather than having to go onto a large arterial. It also allows the center to be redeveloped in the future in a more urban manner if demand materializes. Hank Baker, a vice president for Forest City, says, perhaps with a bit of hyperbole, that Quebec Square is “the most new urbanist power center you will ever see.” Although Calthorpe Associates of Berkeley was master planner for Stapleton, the planning and architecture of the shopping center were produced by KA Architects of Cleveland, with EDAW doing the landscape design.

About 12 miles southwest of Stapleton, in the first-ring suburb of Englewood, the Englewood Town Center is another retail development that mixes big-box retailing with transit and other uses. The 350,000 square feet of retail in the two-year-old Englewood Town Center include Wal-Mart, Petco, and Office Depot, along with a main street area containing smaller stores.

Large discount stores are important to the many lower- to middle-income residents of Englewood, explains Community Development Director Robert Simpson. “We wanted retail that responds to the community’s needs.”

Simpson negotiated with the big retailers to occupy somewhat smaller buildings than usual and to accept shared parking and lower parking ratios than they would have preferred. “They wanted 5 to 6 spaces per 1,000 square feet,” he says. “Most of them accepted about 4.5. Wal-Mart is 4.9. On a typical day, we have very tight parking.”

“The Wal-Mart fits into the grid pattern,” Simpson points out. “You can park your car and walk.” Four hundred bus trips a day also enter and leave the Town Center.

The 70-acre Center, built on the site of the Cinderella City mall, which closed in 1997 after 30 years of operation, combines retail with 438 rental apartments, 350,000 square feet of offices, the Englewood Civic Center, an amphitheater, a central plaza with a fountain, and a light rail station. The Civic Center itself is a multiuse facility featuring a busy public library on the ground floor and city administrative offices and a cultural arts center above.

In return for receiving 14,000 square feet of space in the cultural arts center rent-free, the nonprofit Museum of Outdoor Art offers art classes at reduced rates, mounts exhibitions throughout the year, and has installed what Simpson says are “world-class pieces of sculpture” in the Center. The museum and other cultural organizations, along with a weekly farmers’ market, “begin to create a heart and soul,” Simpson says. “It’s a place where people want to come together.”

Calthorpe Associates did most of the conceptual work for Englewood. David Owen Tryba Architects of Denver brought the design to fruition.