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A Conversation: Place and Why It Matters in Denver

 The new Union Station is transforming what was once a void right in the middle of the city's urban fabric into a human-friendly place.

Confluence's first panel discussion was about placemaking in Denver.

Lowry Beer Garden after renovation.

Bill Vitek of Dig Studio participates in the panel Q&A.

Sponsored by CU Denver and Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti, Confluence's first panel discussion attracted about 125 people on Thurs. Apr. 10 to learn about and discuss placemaking in Denver.
"As Denver continues to boom, placemaking is taking center stage," says Jeremy Németh, Director of the Urban Design Program at CU Denver 's College of Architecture and Planning and an Associate Professor. "The key to creating the best public realms is finding who isn't there, who isn't using the space, and asking them why they're not there."

Continues Németh: "I think we'll have to ask some really important questions. Whose burden is the development on? Are we building a city for all of our residents or just the right kind of people? Our students are grappling with these questions and I think we as leaders and city builders need to do the same."

Moderator Tami Door, President and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership begins the panel discussion. "Denver is recognized nationally as a city that's beginning to come out on the forefront of placemaking," she says. "What are some of the key places that exemplify placemaking in Denver?"

"DIA is probably number one in terms of catalyzing international focus on Denver," replies panelist Trey Warren of Front Range Land & Development, the company behind Belleview Station. "And Union Station is unbelievable."

Warren says Larimer Square is another local icon of placemaking, and something he hopes to replicate at the Belleview Station project, one of the largest transit-oriented development projects in the country.

Jesse Adkins, panelist and Principal at AIA Colorado Firm of the Year Shears Adkins Rockmore Architects, points to LoDo. "I moved here in 1994 and you could look out over Lower Downtown and there was nothing. Beyond the train station, there was nothing."

Coors Field's arrival in 1995 helped reverse the downhill slide, he says, as did LoDo's scale -- 80 feet across the block. In placemaking, bigger is not necessarily better. "In Salt Lake City, it's twice that. There's no sense of place." Conversely, he says, "LoDo is authentic. It's tactile."

The third panelist, Tricia Mueller-Calandra, Director of Project Management at Larimer Associates, also moved to Denver in 1994. "To this day, I remember people saying, 'Denver? That's just a cowtown." Twenty years later, it's night and day, she says. "All of these things are putting people downtown."

"Who are we pushing out?" Door asks. "Are we creating spaces that are welcoming for all?"

Answers Mueller-Calandra: "Inevitably, when you have a city that's doing a lot of development, all of those projects have a price tag, and if they're not financially viable, they don't work. But Denver has an opportunity to be inclusive."

Notes Adkins: "Look at what Denver Housing Authority has done for Mariposa."

It's all about people, offers Warren. "If you're not creating community, you are not creating places."

Restore and reuseConfluence's first panel discussion attracted 125 people to CU Denver's Lawrence Street Center.

Next question: "When you're referencing placemaking, what is it that you're envisioning?"

"You usually start with something that's dilapidated and undervalued," says Mueller-Calandra. "It's just a skeleton of what it once was."

Adaptive reuse and restaurants have been focal points of Mueller-Calandra's work, with projects such as the Lowry Beer Garden, LoHi Steak Bar and Billy's Inn, as well as several retail and bank locations.

The million-dollar question: How do you seed a spot so it grows into a place where people want to be? "You just want to be the spawn. You let the neighborhood to grow on its own."

To Warren, Mueller-Calandra says, "You've got a light-rail stop. You know people are going to come there. How do you make them want to stay?"

"You have to build the infrastructure for place to happen," Warren answers. "You have to bring in the right tenants who bring in people, and the synergies that exist between them."

The 16th Street Mall "used to be the place," he adds. "Places need to be authentic, and the mall was something new."

It's not easy to capture that kind of energy in a bottle. "Architecture is easy," laments Warren. "People are hard."

Health Sciences Center redevelopment

The conversation moves to the topic of the former University of Colorado Health Sciences Center at 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, sold to Continuum Partners for $30 million in February 2014 and the target of a five-year, mixed-use redevelopment.

"That's a tough one to solve," says Adkins of the 26-acre redevelopment. "Lots of issues and big problems. These buildings have been there for 100 years. The street grid exists. There are ingredients you can pull into it. It's one of those nodal opportunities what could continue to fill in gaps around the city."

The panel came around to Lowry Beer Garden, a Larimer Associates project Mueller-Callandra had a hand in, as an example of successful placemaking. The bar and grill is located in historic Hangar 2 at the redeveloped former Air Force base.

"It's such a simple idea that's so successful," says Warren, who points out a chicken-and-egg issue with the establishment. It couldn't have existed before residential development in the area, but it's now proving a catalyst for more development.

Mueller-Calandra agrees, touting the beer garden's walkable location and adaptive reuse in general. "I think there's more of that to come," she says of the adaptive reuse of the historic hangar. "There are opportunities to repurpose several sites."

"You have to provide a place to play, a place to gather, a place to eat, and a place to live," she adds. "It's a matter of bringing all of those components together."

There's a return to "people scale” after the tide turned towards car culture a half-century ago, she says. "We've come back to a place in society where we need to make public transportation something that's attractive and used. It's a must."

An art & a science

Placemaking is "much more an art than a science," Door begins.

Adkins interjects. "It's both -- the economics are the science."

"We love placemaking," Door continues. "It's cool and impactful, but how and why does it matter to Denver?"

Warren's answer: "Gen Y -- that's what they want." As cities battle for talent, Denver is increasingly winning, and placemaking is key to maintaining an edge, he adds.

Placemaking is about "how to make the ordinary extraordinary." He cites Whole Foods reimagining of the supermarket. "I think of that experience and putting it on the street."

After the Union Station and DIA projects, asks Door, "Where do we go from here? What's the next big move we need in creating this place?"

Adkins highlights I-70 in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. "That whole area is very disconnected," he says. "I think RiNo is going to be a very amazing place in a few years, but there's that connection." The proposal to move the interstate below grade and topping it with a park "is a big move," he says.

Mueller-Calandra says its about activating and connecting infill areas. "How do you grow the city and keep this continuous fabric going?" she asks. "We have I-25 and I-70 crisscrossing the city. How do we connect the city?

Warren laughs. "The highways catalyzed the city, but now we want to get rid of them."

Mueller-Calandra calls zoning and planning issues "a constant challenge. In order to spur development and grow a city, you need to constantly challenge the boundaries of what's been established."

"There are times and places for change," she adds. "What worked 50 years ago doesn't work in a place forever."

"While those conversations are challenging, they're willing to listen," she says of city officials. "They get it , and I think that speaks volumes."

Audience Q&A

An attendee asked about potential for revitalization along South Federal Boulevard.

Adkins says established commercial pockets resist redevelopment. "A lot of [South Federal] is owned by different parties. Eminent domain? That is tough."

Mueller-Calandra says it's about giving people more space to operate and cars less. "You've got to start taking lanes away from cars to make it friendlier for pedestrians.

Bill Vitek, Principal at Dig Studio, a LoDo-based landscape architecture firm, says Denver is in an enviable position.

"Orlando, Phoenix, St. Louis would all love to be in Denver's shoes right now," says Vitek. "They don't have this residential base downtown."

His question: "How do we keep those people downtown after they've had kids? What's the next big thing? I think it's parks downtown."

Parks and schools, the panelists agree. Door highlights the opening of the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School on Apr, 9, 2014. "Yesterday we opened the first school in downtown Denver in 100 years."

Septugenarian Harry Sterling stands up next. "I have lived in Denver for almost 80 years, having been born here," he begins. "I'm reminded of what these places used to be. The places have changed immensely, but in some ways they're still the same."

Sterling says he moved around the city before moving "downtown to Larimer Street -- something my mother always warned me I would," he jokes, referencing the street's seedy history. 

"It was an area I wasn't allowed to go to until I was out of college," he wryly recalls, "and now I live there."

Sterling points to change at Stapleton, the city's former airport, and credits Denver leadership in its development. When the stakes are so high, he asks, "How do you prevent mistakes from being made?"

"I don't think you can," answers Adkins. "I actually think mistakes are good, because you learn."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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