Three keys to low-cost, high quality airport retrofits


A park in Stapleton, CO.


If you are familiar with the neighborhoods of Stapleton, in Denver, Colorado, or Mueller, in Austin, Texas, than you already have experience with old airports being transformed into walkable, mixed-use projects. Airport sites offer a community an excellent opportunity to capture the location value of an out-of-date transportation hub and convert it into another valuable city component—more livable neighborhoods.

Both Stapleton and Mueller were “city airports,” located in relative close proximity to their downtowns. Over the years, residential, commercial and industrial development—mainly suburban in character—surrounded the airport. Roadways and other supportive public infrastructure were built in and around these facilities. Because both projects were embedded in neighborhoods and commercial areas, they were attractive for large master developers to work with the cities to create large scale redevelopment projects.

Smaller cities and towns can also take advantage of an airport retrofit program. Implementation may require more creativity if a large developer or rapid market growth isn’t present.

In Kennewick, Washington, about 215 miles southeast of Seattle, the 103-acre Vista Field was replaced by the Tri-Cities Airport. Like Stapleton and Mueller’s old airports, Vista Field was located about five miles from downtown, and the airport was surrounded by housing, businesses, industry, and supportive public infrastructure—mainly in a conventional suburban pattern. Vista Field is also accessible to the Columbia River by walking a few blocks through a residential neighbor and past numerous recreational parks.

A public visioning process resulted in a redevelopment plan calling for a dual-core implementation action plan; The project would be a mixed-use, walkable neighborhood that offers a distinctive shopping and dining experience, more cultural amenities, and a gathering place for social and leisure activities to make the area competitive within the Tri-Cities market. The citizens also did not want a high-debt, high-capital development approach. To meet both objectives, a new approach had to be created.

Here are Vista Field’s three key strategies for a low-cost, high-quality retrofit project:

1. Incorporate a phased-in, coordinated, build-as-you-go approach to infrastructure. Rather than burden the development with expensive infrastructure with high finance costs, coordinate infrastructure installment with phased build-out so the total costs does not exceed the cost of a large-scale buildout.

2. Re-use runways, their grades and subgrades as much as possible. Runway demolition coupled with grading and new road construction patterns generate significant front-end costs. Vista Field takes advantage of the existing runway pattern while also generating an efficient centralized utility plan.

3. Installing some utility lines overhead. Above ground utilities may not be common for cul-de-sac communities, but traditional neighborhoods with alleys can accommodate electric and data lines where they are easily maintained, hidden from view, and sheltered from tree damage during storms.