A Stairway to Health: Mariposa Merges Exercise and Architecture

The former South Lincoln Homes are being phased out in favor of a denser, mixed-income approach to public housing, and a model for transit-oriented development. The new Phase 3 building makes exercise educational, musical and entertaining with a one-of-a-kind interactive staircase.
The sun shines brightly and a trio of Somali girls run past the sprouting community gardens in their vibrantly hued hijabs.

With an eight-story mural of a Somali woman in similar dress a block away at the Tapiz apartment tower, the girls cross the open space between old and new.

The old is the South Lincoln Homes, the public housing projects built here in the 1950s.

The new is Mariposa, which began with Tapiz (Phase 1), low-income housing for seniors and the disabled. Phase 4, currently under construction, is slated for completion by the end of the year, and the sixth and final phase should be finished in 2016.

Once it's all done, there will be 900 housing units where there were 278, and a mixed-income approach -- the "deconcentration” of public housing by mixing in otherwise identical market-rate and workforce apartments. The developer, the Denver Housing Authority (DHA), is bringing in different architects for each phase to avoid a cookie-cutter look.

DHA Executive Director Ismael Guerrero says the prep work for Mariposa involved bringing a wide range of stakeholders to the table.

"It's very much a community-driven process, from planning to design to program implementation," says Guerrero. "These are diverse, mixed-income communities. I really believe there is a dividend to diversity."

The key, says Guerrero, is answering the question, "How do people interact?"

Stairway to healthA 40-foot chandalier hangs in the middle of the Phase 3 building

One big piece of the puzzle is DHA's "Healthy Living Initiative,"  funded by the Colorado Health Foundationhe adds. "It's focused on creating a healthy environment” -- which means green and sustainable as well as walkable and active. "All of those elements make a healthy neighborhood."

"Just as you can appreciate a healthy neighborhood, you can see and understand a toxic neighborhood," says Guerrero. "The biggest impact is the kids and what their future opportunities are."

"In South Lincoln Homes, the things that were missing were services and amenities onsite about staying on school, living healthy and even what they ate."

The nearest grocery store? "You have to cross two state highways to get to it," notes Guerrero. "Those streets can be a challenge."

"We're going to bring some of those choices closer," he adds, "so you don't have to take your life into your hands to get to it. We want to make it a food oasis."

There are multiple angles to this goal: Osage Street Cafe, the community gardens onsite (Denver Botanic Gardens is a partner) and a push to get local convenience stores to carry fresh and healthy food alongside salty snacks and soda. "We're not looking for a big-box supermarket -- we don't have the room for it," Guerrero notes.

The Mariposa area's walkability has been hampered by a dearth of "last-mile connections” from the 10th Avenue and Osage Street light-rail stop. "When you got off the light rail, you weren't anywhere in particular," says Guerrero. "There were no good ways to get to where you were going to."

This has changed, with the arrival of B-cycle, car sharing, bike lanes and better sidewalks in the neighborhood. "We didn't lead with retail," says Guerrero. That's always a mistake."

But the project did lead with the Osage Street Cafe and Arts Street in Phase 1. "It's becoming a destination for people who don't live there," says Guerrero. "That's going to amplify the volume of traffic." And then, as the plan goes, retail will follow.

Featuring 81 apartments and six townhomes, Phase 3 recently celebrated a grand opening, with a unique interactive staircase at its heart -- likely the country's first such staircase in a residential building.

Rezan Prananta of Shears Adkins Rockmore, the architect of record for Phase 3, is the the mastermind behind the staircase.

"We knew we had to respect the community," says Prananta of the origin of the concept. "Phase 1 had an eight-story Somali woman. For Phase 3, we added Mesoamerican culture to the architecture of the building."

This includes the color scheme, with Maya blue and Aztec red, but also the staircase's story of Kukulkan, the Mayan snake deity best known for slithering down the pyramid at Chichen Itza on the solstices.

With 36 buttons that activate sounds or animations on the 40-foot chandelier, the folk tale of Kukulkan's gift of the sacred chocolate tree to humanity unspools in the form of words, light and sound on the interactive stairway. "This is probably the most comprehensive work I've ever done in terms of disciplines," says Prananta.

There are sounds of rain and thunder, musical samples from Youth On Record (the music education nonprofit that is opening later this year in Phase 4) and educational displays detailing the science of hurricanes.

"We wanted to make the stairs more engaging and more fun," says Prananta, noting that you can actually play a song with the musical samples, which -- like the chandelier's color scheme -- can be changed at any time. "People can relate to the story -- they can feel, they can hear and also we put information on the handrail."

But he also wanted to make the stairs more used: "We put the stairs in front. You see the stairs first -- you don't see the elevator."

It's working, Prananta adds. "I've heard kids say, 'Mom, I don't want to use the elevator. When you hear that, it's very fulfilling."

But it's not the only aspect of Phase III that promotes healthy living. Prananta points out a nice patch of lawn that was left open on the building's edge rather than building to the street.

"If you come here at 8:30 at night, you'll see dozens of kids out playing. Parents can sit on their porch and watch their kids play, just like single-family homes."

There's no playground, but that's by design: Phases 2 and 4 feature playgrounds, plus there's a newly improved outdoor pool and waterslide at the La Alma Recreation Center, a block north of Phase 3.

"It's like an urban network," says Prananta. "People get to walk around the neighborhood and mingle."

To this end, there's even a colorful map from Arts Street on the wall in the foyer that covers the neighborhood's walkable destinations.

Before and afterThere will be 900 housing units where there were 278, and a mixed-income approach.

All things considered, it's a big shift from the "before” of South Lincoln Homes: denser, greener and more diverse.

"It was obsolete housing," says DHA Community Affairs Officer Stella Madrid, with concrete floors and cinderblock walls. "The ability to do any maintenance required digging through all of that concrete. It was just throwing good money after bad."

Madrid says DHA leveraged federal, state, city, and local nonprofits like the Colorado Health Foundation for funding.

South Lincoln Homes residents were given the opportunity to return after the redevelopment. "They're showing a really good return rate," Madrid says. "It's one of the highest so far."

A 23-year employee of DHA, Madrid has a unique perspective on the project -- she's a former resident South Lincoln Homes. "I grew up in this neighborhood," she says. "It's home."

She calls the redevelopment "very emotional, but all for the good," positing that Mariposa will serve as a catalyst for the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood. "We wanted to make a major investment in these communities that have been underserved for so long," Madrid says.
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

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