Terry Willis – Neighborhoods that will thrive know when to pivot

Colorado Real Estate Journal

November 1, 2022

As architects, it is our job to help ensure that the places we design culminate into something vibrant and great. Great places have a special kind of energy. They inspire. They feed the soul.

They benefit not only our clients but also the cities in which they are crafted and, most importantly, the people who use and traverse them.

Therefore, before a single line is drawn, we have to consider several factors: location – this includes climate, zoning codes, adjacencies, etc.; need – both for our client and the end user; and the future. The last one is the trickiest part. Some projects can take years, or even decades, to break ground and come to fruition once they have been conceptualized. So, how do we ensure that what gets built will stand the test of time? I would argue that when faced with these extended timelines, we should leverage the opportunity to create something better. Through feedback and market analysis, we can pivot the design, keeping some components and rethinking others to create a destination with the flexibility to thrive for generations.

Central Park Station, in what was formerly called Stapleton, is conceptualized as a walkable, urban, mixed-use environment with residential, retail, office and hospitality intermingled. Each of these uses orients toward a central plaza. The idea was that this plaza would create a memorable place – a place that encouraged interaction along Uinta Street, the traffic-calmed, multimodal circulation spine of the neighborhood, which leads directly to the then-new commuter rail station. Throughout this plaza would be iconic markers that not only provide shade but are spectacular pieces of art conceptualized by Dig Studio and created by art fabricator Demiurge. These take the form of “lenticular cloud” metal sculptures and would establish a focal point. However, as often can happen, this development that was years in the making passed to new developers, but, with each year, the goal remained the same – create a sense of place, of belonging, a space that inspires and brings people together.

Then something wholly unexpected happened – a global pandemic. People’s homes became their sanctuary, gym, day care, movie theater, classroom and office. While many of these shifts were temporary, one supported a pre-existing trend. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 29% of college-educated employees worked from home at least part of the time during the period from 2017 to 2018.

Central Park Station TOD Transit Oriented DevelopmentRetail spaces at the base of an office building spill out into the central plaza, dotted with lenticular cloud sculptures, in the original design for Central Park Station.

The pandemic, along with the continued trend toward working from home, drove people out of their office buildings and into their home offices – and from dense urban cores, like New York City or Los Angeles, into more rural or far-flung markets. While they moved out of the city, they still wanted to be connected. These factors motivated us and the developers, who had transitioned from Forest City to Brookfield to HighStreet Residential, to rethink our design for Central Park Station. Did this bustling mixed-use transit-oriented development need so much office space? The team took a moment, then pivoted. Keeping the spirit of the development alive with the grand plaza, the lenticular cloud sculptures and the ground-floor retail, they envisioned a building typology that was in greater demand – more residential.

Thus, the first phase office building, despite being permitted and “shovel ready,” was reevaluated and ultimately shelved. Its site was redesigned as a mixed-use multifamily residential building, bringing a much-needed supply of new homes to the growing community. The residential component hides the parking by lining the streetscape with homes provided with stoops and back doors for direct sidewalk access. The residential units are complemented by ground-floor retail and amenity functions facing the streets and plazas of the public realm, while maintaining the same indoor/outdoor permeability originally envisioned for the office building.

At Downtown Superior, the multimodal Main Street is lined by residential units that sit above ground-floor retail on one side and a grand plaza lined with retail on the other.
Connectivity and social gathering spaces are the heart of the development at Downtown Superior.

At Downtown Superior, KTGY, in partnership with Morgan Holdings/Ranch Capital, envisioned a place where services and community connection are combined to create a new destination district where residents can enjoy interconnected walkability, neighborhood gathering spaces, and the vitality of an active mixed-use neighborhood. A plaza at the heart of the community acts as a canvas for making moments that matter. Restaurants and cafés spill out onto the plaza, and a landscaped paseo connects the plaza to residential and play fields beyond. The main street was lined with additional retail supporting residential units above.

Then in 2020, retailers vacated a record 159 million square feet of leasable space, according to Forbes. If the retail spaces remained vacant, the bustling and active atmosphere the team hoped to create would never be. It was during this period that ownership transitioned to Carmel Partners, which embraced the original vision, but anticipated a shift in the retail marketplace. So, we stopped, considered, and pivoted to incorporate the flexibility required for an uncertain retail future. Some of the substantial retail space on the ground floor was reimagined as live-work space. These units would support the various home-business, local craft and other enterprises while maintaining the desirable retail storefronts to support the charm of Main Street.

The key to ensuring these new neighborhoods thrive was to center them around the people rather than the buildings. We focused on guaranteeing they were connected through pedestrian-friendly streets and large gathering spaces as well as linked to employment centers through adjacency to transit. The buildings aren’t the focus because it is people who make a place.