Design Elevated: Sustainable Urbanism From Colorado

This past April 27, 2023, AIA Colorado was honored to showcase several of Colorado’s leading designers at Design Elevated: Sustainable Urbanism From Colorado. The event was organized in conjunction with the Cities Summit of the Americas, a convergence of Mayors and Civic Leaders from across the Western Hemisphere, hosted by the US State Department. With day two of the Summit drawing to a close, attendees were cordially invited to the History Colorado Center and immerse themselves in an evening of inspiration, as they delved into the minds of the brilliant architects, city planners, and cultural thinkers behind some of the most innovative state projects and programs in our region.

After an introduction from AIA National President Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, explaining the critical roles of architects as partners for progress, each speaker presented their work in 20 slides set to an automatic timer of 20 seconds per slide. Delivered in this “PechaKucha” style, the format provided a fun and quick environment.

As AIA Colorado CEO Mike Waldinger stated in his opening remarks, there is “no act more optimistic than to build.” These presentations highlight just a few of the inspiring and transformational projects underway or recently completed in the Denver Metro Area.

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Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, AIA, with RTD, kicked off the evening with his presentation, “Transit and Mobility.” Correa-Ortiz traced the history of public transit in the Denver area, beginning with the sustainability of the First Peoples. The shift to private cars in the post-war era eroded the social fabric and air quality of cities across America, including Denver. Today, RTD and other local urban planners are working on solutions to reinvent a more sustainable and equitable transit network. Denver’s recent investment in Union Station is a model for the future, because “we can only build the future that we can imagine.”

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Kathleen Fogler, AIA, and John McIntyre, AIA, from Tryba Architects, presented “Rethinking Urban Renewal.” Urban Renewal has historically represented a process that severs the built environment from its cultural and ecological history. Now, urban projects must be thought of as “akin to gardening – strengthening existing conditions, grafting in new elements, acknowledging the importance of pruning – demolition and removal, but at a scale appropriate to context.” Due to changing technologies, front range cities such as Denver have many opportunities to refresh underutilized industrial spaces with desirable proximity to the urban core. Adapting these buildings rather than tearing them down allows for opportunities of scale not typically seen in ground-up construction. The result is projects that contribute to a more authentic mixed-used urban fabric. In addition to acknowledging built history, “Rethinking Urban Renewal,” also means recognizing natural history, and our role as part of the natural world rather than separated from it.

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Chris Shears, FAIA, of SAR+, presented “River Evolution,” which traced Denver’s relationship the Platte River. During Denver’s early history as an industrial frontier town, the Platte was hemmed in by railyards and factories, remaining ignored and polluted for years. In 1975, community leaders turned their attention to restoring the river and its ecology to create a public amenity. This led to the development of the Confluence and Cuernavaca Park, which have become beloved public amenities in the heart of the city.  Today, planning efforts are underway to redevelop “The River Mile,” 200 acres of underutilized post-industrial land along the river.  Redevelopments include a new typology of public housing from Denver Housing Authority (DHA) called Sun Valley, and rethinking pedestrian connections between Ball Arena and Coors Field.

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Cathy Bellem, AIA, of Anderson Mason Dale Architects, presented “Serving the Whole Person,” telling the story of two projects designed in collaboration with Dr. Lydia Prado, currently the executive director of Lifespan Local and formerly Vice President of Child & Family Services at the Mental Health Center of Denver. While in this role, Dr. Prado spearheaded the effort to develop the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being in the Northeast Park Hill neighborhood. Following Dr. Prado’s philosophy that “communities themselves best understand how to improve their own well-being,” Anderson Mason Dale assisted in leading community workshops to gain insight into community needs. Today, the campus is inclusive across all ages, and serves as a community hub alleviating food and health insecurity as well as a mental health resource. The design team has recently broken ground on a similar project in the Westwood neighborhood, where their goal was not build the same building but follow the same process of listening and learning from the community. 

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Chad Holtzinger, AIA, from Shopworks Architecture, presented “Housing that Heals,” with a focus on projects that emphasize the health and safety of children. He began by presenting research on how childhood trauma manifests into poverty and systematic homelessness. Architects are good at dealing with physiological needs (creating a comfortable built environment) and safety needs (creating a safe physical environment), but how can our profession take it farther by promoting self-actualization, esteem, love, and belonging? With this framework in mind, Shopworks designed calming and safe environments that eliminated typical areas of stress for traumatized individuals, such as secluded corridors or dingy laundry rooms. They used natural materials such as cedar shakes to create intriguing textures and aromatics. Their design process focused on working with experts and local activists to promote a connection to ethnicity and sense of place as a “way to systematically change the way the built environment yields health in our community.”

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Alex Garrison, AIA, from Gensler, presented “Adaptive Reuse,” emphasizing that “the most sustainable building is the one you don’t have to build.” Like other presenters, he touched on the idea of breaking the cycle of urban renewal and connecting the past to the future. As his first case study, he presented recent research efforts by Gensler into the many potentials of transforming old office buildings into mixed-use residential. As vacancy rates continue to rise in the Central Business District, Gensler has been contracted by Denver to study potential sites using the algorithm they have developed. They have coined the phrase “Bad Office Makes Good Residential,” realizing that many features of outdated office buildings (smaller floor plates, smaller windows, etc) is exactly what makes them attractive for apartment conversions. Gensler also used their adaptive reuse philosophies on a strategic intervention for Denver Beer Co, transforming an old gas station into a community hub and taproom.

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The final presentation of the night was from Terra Mazzeo, AIA, of Stantec, called “High Performing Civic Resources”. Her first case study covered the redevelopment of the Denver Water Operation Complex. The campus’s administration building is one of the highest performing built works in the region, showcasing Net-Zero Energy, LEED platinum certification, and, most significantly, Net-Zero Water. The campus was conceptualized to showcase the conservation of water as a critical natural resource. It achieved Net-Zero Water through natural water detention, extensive rainwater harvesting, expansive areas of natural ecology, and a water recycling system that is on display in the main lobby. Denver Water’s commitment to use their campus as a model for water conservation mirrored their efforts to increase sustainability across the regional water system. They “used architecture to help change policy, and in so doing has illuminated a path towards regional water security.”  Mazzeo also presented on the MacGregor Square project, a redevelopment of an entire city block funded by the Rockies Baseball team. Public open spaces, “designed not only for game day, but every day,” form the heart of the project. 

AIA Colorado would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to all presenters and Summit Attendees who joined us for a evening celebrating our professions collaborative role shaping the future of our cities. Architects and Planners in Colorado and around the world are engaged citizens who look forward to working with city officials on transformational projects that will increase sustainability and equity across all our urban cores.  

The Case for Union Station Event Recap

On July 14th, the AIA Colorado Regional and Urban Design Knowledge Community hosted a panel event in reaction to the recent negative public discourse surrounding one of Denver’s most trafficked and iconic public spaces, Union Station. The event, called “The Effect of Public Policy Surrounding Design in Contested Public Space: The Case of Denver’s Union Station,” was engaging, insightful, and provided a valuable opportunity for design professionals to hear directly from stakeholders in Downtown Denver’s planning and transit communities.

Union Station is a sprawling entity, comprising the historic Great Hall, home to the Terminal Bar and Crawford Hotel, a train shed which serves as a hub for RTD light rail services, and an underground bus terminal, servicing both local and regional bus lines. The underground terminal in particular has been the subject of criticism in recent months, citing issues of safety and public drug use. RTD had to close the public restrooms in this section due to fears of Fentanyl contamination and has considered proposals to close the bus terminal to the public, only allowing ticket holders access.

The purpose of the panel discussion was to bring together public design and transit experts to help examine this issue through the lens of design. Can we as architects and designers propose a better solution for a more equitable transit-oriented public space?

Our panelists were four prominent Denver professionals with a passion for public transit. Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, chair of the R+UDKC and a senior architect and urban designer for RTD, opened the discussion with an overview of the history of Union Station and a summary of current design solutions proposed for the bus terminal. Debra A. Johnson, CEO of RTD-Denver, which owns Union Station, provided valuable insight into the day-to-day operations of public transit in Denver and RTD’s relationship with the communities it serves. Ken Schroeppel, Director of Urban Design at CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning, provided important context on the history of Urban Planning in Denver and the development of the modern Union Station. Andrew Iltis, Director of the Planning and Community Impact department at the Downtown Denver Partnership, expanded on the relationship between Denver tourism, the Business Improvement District, and Union Station.

The conversation began with a reflection on how the relationship between society and public space has been affected by the pandemic. Many news articles have cited the pandemic as the genesis of concerns over increasing levels of public drug use in the underground bus terminal, leading to fears that that the terminal is not safe for the average commuter. It is true that the during the pandemic, with stay-at-home orders in place, a void was created in our public spaces that was often filled by persons on the fringes of society. As Ignacio pointed out during the discussion, the spaces haven’t changed – the users of the space have. How do we diversify the users of public space while still providing an opportunity for prosperity to everyone?

Andrew was able to provide valuable data on how transit ridership dropped sharply in the wake of the pandemic and that the daily commuter traffic numbers have been picking up but not quite to pre-pandemic levels. However, tourism numbers in downtown are certainly back to pre-pandemic levels or higher as more and more people opt to engage in the various entertainments offered downtown. As Debra pointed out, “There is no such thing as a rush hour any longer.” Since so many people continue to work from home, we may not see the same peak hours that we have in the past, but that does not make the role of public transportation less critical. Transit isn’t dead, it just looks different.

As the discussion turned to solutions for the “problem,” panelists emphasized the balancing act RTD must navigate. Although their primary role is a provider of public transportation, Debra acknowledged that transportation is interwoven in the communities they serve, and they have a responsibility to engage the public when planning for the future. In Andrew’s experience, Denver is one of the most collaborative of cities between the public and private sector. One creative solution proposes the formation of a dedicated organization similar to the Times Square Alliance in NYC, which is a non-profit dedicated to maintaining Times Square as an engaging public space.

Of course, the question of who gets to use our public spaces will not be answered in a single panel discussion. It will require immense collaboration across organizations and disciplines. As designers, we must continue to engage in these discussions to provide our unique insight on how public space can be designed for equitable, enjoyable, and safe experiences for all members of society. Thank you again to all the panelists and AIA Colorado members who participated in our discussion!

© AIA Colorado 2023