Words by Eric Peterson
A stone’s throw from Denver city limits, Stanley Aviation manufactured ejection seats for military aircraft at its Aurora factory from more than 50 years starting in 1954.
After the 140,000-square-foot, two-story facility shut down in 2007, the 22-acre site sat quietly in the shadows of the booming residential redevelopment of the old Stapleton airport. The idle plant became a barbwire-ringed netherworld, a roadblock between Stapleton and the older adjacent neighborhoods to the south and east.
But that dynamic is changing: Developer Flightline Ventures is reinventing the cavernous old plant as Stanley Marketplace, a multitenant market that could fill the void between the surrounding communities. The space was 100 percent leased before construction commenced: About 50 restaurants, retailers, salons and services have signed on in anticipation of the late summer opening. The pedestrian-friendly project also includes office and event space and a community park.
The mastermind, Flightline’s Mark Shaker, originally just wanted to build a beer garden for Stapleton, but the Stanley building demanded a notably bigger idea. Construction on the $30 million project began in fall 2015.
Project manager Steve Lawrence with Castle Rock-based general contractor White Construction Group has a decades-long background in construction on the Front Range. “Half my experience has been adaptive reuse,” he says. “We used to call it remodel. We’d take an old building and remodel it into something else.”
Likewise, the project’s architect, Joseph Vigil IV of Workshop8 in Boulder, has done “a fair amount of adaptive reuse,” including the Colorado Governor’s Mansion in Denver, converting a carriage house into a museum, and several Carnegie Libraries. And Vigil cut his teeth designing shopping malls, relevant when it came to multitenant code issues for Stanley Marketplace.
It also fits nicely with his architectural perspective. “I happen to be a Modernist, and it’s just a great old Modernist building that was built in the 1950s,” says Vigil, noting that more windows and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure were keys to the design. “I like the idea of taking a building that sat empty for many years – to some it might have reached its useful end – and recycling it.”
The old layout has proven a good match for the new use. “The good thing about the building, it was built with a steel structure that allowed it to be opened up,” Lawrence says. “You just had columns and beams – you could let your imagination go wild.”
The build team has also been creative in repurposing materials at the site. Signs, concrete rubble, and steel beams are being reused and recycled. An eatery, Comida, is leaving in the factory’s massive overhead crane as a conversation piece. The old guard shack is becoming a drive-through for Rosenberg’s Bagels. A burly structure once used for testing jet engines outside will become “The Chapel” for special events.
Lawrence says the second-floor offices looked straight out of Mad Men when the project commenced, noting, “All the old tables from the 1960s were still in here.” It’s likely they’ll find a new use when the project is complete.
Retro furnishings aside, adaptive reuse also brought a long list of challenges. Lawrence says that the remediation of the site was the first big step in turning the Flightline vision into reality. “It was a $1 million asbestos job,” he says of the abatement process.
Beyond costly remediation and abatement work that took about six months, Vigil adds, “A good portion of the building was built before modern construction code.” Case in point: The project required a full 100,000 pounds of reinforcement to bring it up to 2016 standards. “Just addressing these fundamental issues takes up a huge part of the budget,” he says.
But Lawrence’s biggest strength might just be building complex mechanical systems. Before the Stanley, he headed up the build-out of the Westin DIA’s mechanical on a single 100,000-square-foot floor. That was a good primer for a much different project in the Stanley Marketplace.
“They hired me for this one,” he says of joining White in 2015. “This is a huge MEP project – MEP are the three largest contractors on the job.”
The notably complex mechanical systems for the Stanley were constrained by both budget and space. The building “is not built as high as the standards are today,” Lawrence says. Instead of 15 feet, each floor is about 11 feet tall, meaning mechanical and electrical infrastructure had to be shoehorned into notably tighter spaces.
“It’s been very challenging,” says Lawrence. “We had to adapt the mechanical system. It’s basically a hybrid.” Rooftop units provide HVAC for the second floor, he says, while a variable refrigerant flow-based system with heat recovery handles the ground level.
“The challenge was to use the building to its ultimate capabilities, but keep the tenant’s per-square-foot price down,” Lawrence adds. “You can add lots of bells and whistles … but price yourself right out of the market.”
And different tenants will have different needs in terms of not only the mechanical systems, he adds, but a host of other systems. “This place is set up to be able to change around tenants.”
Lawrence says that his experience – along with that of the project’s superintendent, Jim Lang – were a good fit for the project. “There isn’t a type of building we haven’t worked on,” he says. “If you had a green super or a green PM, you’d be in trouble.
“It’s not your official design assist, but it has become that way because of unforeseen conditions. We had to make changes on the fly,” Lawrence says.
Because of the size and scope of the project, budget constraints also have proved challenging, according to Vigil. “I think a more experienced developer would have walked away from this project. Flightline was gung-ho from the start, and they’ve kept that enthusiasm the whole way through. They’ve been really fun to work with.” (Flightline’s Shaker says his “healthy naïveté” has proven an asset.)
“This project would not have happened without the help of the city of Aurora,” says Vigil. But that also required “balancing” a good number of retailers and restaurants with other tenants, which impacted design.
But he expects the end result to be greater than the sum of the Stanley’s parts. “There’s a child care facility and a brewery,” says Vigil. “Some people might see a conflict there, but I think it will be a community atmosphere where a bunch of people from different walks of life will come together.
“It can be a real gateway, a connection point between a pretty suburban, lower-class neighborhood and a pretty suburban, upper-class neighborhood at Westerly Creek,” Vigil says. The connectivity will allow for a “more urban lifestyle. They can now go and ride their bike, walk, or pull a wagon and get locally produced food at locally owned establishments.”
“The fences will all come down,” echoes Lawrence. This will allow for events like the Big Wonderful and CherryArts Festival to make full use of the property, and a concert pavilion is in the long-range plan. “How cool will it be to be sitting at the beer garden with a concert going on?” says Lawrence.
And Stanley Marketplace can act as a connector as it fills a hole in the surrounding area’s dining and retail landscapes. “There’s nothing around here,” says Lawrence. “Aurora’s capitalizing on it. This is going to be an anchor for future redevelopment.” Noting that condominium and microhousing projects are already in planning both on and adjacent to the site, he adds, Aurora “will be paid back tenfold in a short period of time.”
It looks like Flightline’s perseverance will pay off. “They had a vision, and I don’t think that’s gone away,” says Lawrence. More seasoned developers “would probably scrape it,” he adds. “But what do you put back in its place?” \\