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Archive of posts filed under the Urban Design category.

Aria Denver Update

A little over a year out from our initial post, I’d like to turn our heads to the progress of Aria Denver. Since its groundbreaking in August of 2012, we have got buildings constructed and new residents entering the neighborhood. In this update, we will look at what’s on the ground, but also take a look at some of the changes that inevitably occur over the course of a multi-phase project such as Aria. [note site changes since August 2012]

Previous Plan

Current Plan

At current, Aria is only about 19% built out. About 76 out of some eventual 400 units are currently constructed, but the project scope is quite complex. With a diversity of living arrangements, some units will be constructed around a pocket neighborhood design that will put residents in an intimate physical environment that promotes social interaction. Townhomes will also play a role, as will large footprint apartments buildings. Also, as mentioned in our original post of Aria, plans for a cohousing component are still moving forward. The newly completed construction of town homes and multi-family units give us an idea of how their design will transform the site, and neighborhood.



In a residential market that is used to building boxes (maybe with a community room or a pool), Aria is going beyond the standard to bring about a holistic approach to living. If you were to visit Aria today, you would see the attention to detail that makes this project so special. Community spaces are abundant, stormwater systems have been crafted into one-of-a-kind landscaping features, the properties are surrounded by a jungle of native plantings and programming the new construction with the surrounding neighborhood is a cornerstone of this development.

With Regis University neighboring this project, there has been discussion of making room in Aria’s plans to include student housing opportunities for their growing student population. For those already established residents living within a stone’s throw of Aria, an investment has been placed in community-building programs surrounding food, transportation and overall neighborhood health. Working with UrbiCulture, a portion of the site will be transformed into 18 raised beds to generate food for what will eventually become a “pay what you can” marketplace at Elm & 52nd Avenue.  This garden will begin at 10,000 SF and eventually grow to 1 acre. At that point, the garden will be large enough to produce food for purchase by local restaurants. That money will then be reinvested to community education programs on urban agriculture.



Beyond agriculture, the project team (Urban Ventures LLC and Perry Rose LLC) is also considering plans for a bike program to put the local community in touch with accessible alternative transportation. Quality of life, and balance, are a continued focus in the on-site retail options. Where Aria originally had plans for retail on site, they are now making a concerted effort to bring in businesses centered on fitness, natural foods and overall wellness.

So what’s next for the project? By spring or summer of 2014, 9 additional townhomes will fill out the project site. Most of 2014 will see continued townhome development. Commercial space will likely be open and available by 2015 and final build-out of the site should commence by 2017.  To get a more comprehensive view of Aria Denver, take a virtual tour of the project here!

1800 Larimer – A Street Point-of-View

Much has been made in various forums about the impact and character of the design of the new 1800 Larimer on the Downtown Denver skyline.  With its unique facade treatment, it’s quickly landed in the love-it-or-hate-it conversations of downtown enthusiasts.  Today, however, I drove by the building for the first time since construction barricades were removed to reveal the street presence of the building.


You should know that I am not typically compelled to stop my car (I know – should have been using B-Cycle!) to take pictures of anything.  But I was so impressed with the relationship of 1800 Larimer to the street environment that I did just that.  Say what you will about the impact on the skyline, but the biggest social and psychological impact of almost any building on the general population is the way in which it engages the “floor” of the city.  I found 1800 Larimer to exhibit an elegant transparency and welcoming vibe at the building’s main entry – quite a feat considering the less-than-hospitable nature of the majority of buildings facing Larimer Street between 20th and 17th.  The new experience along this block was a pleasant and unexpected surprise.  Taken without the benefit of the sun, the pictures probably don’t do it justice – so I recommend that you get down to Larimer Street and experience it for yourself.



Connecting the Justice Center to Downtown

One of the comments on the previous Justice Center post (hey Jeff!) made a point about the connection of the complex to Downtown – or the lack thereof.  As it happens, the City – through a separate effort – has plans to improve the connection to the Justice Center along Tremont Street.   A new triangular plaza on the north side of Colfax will provide a transition to the Justice Center plaza, strengthening both the pedestrian link to Downtown and the visual relationship of the complex to the Trinity Methodist Church at the northern terminus of Tremont Place.  (Images courtesy of studioINSITE LLC.)



16th Street Mall Concepts

As a follow-up to the public meeting of a couple weeks ago, the consultant team for the 16th Street Mall urban design plan is preparing to bring current concepts to the public in open houses next Wednesday and Thursday.  Three broad concepts are currently on the table.  These concepts have considered – among other things – the history of the Mall and its materials, the observed manner in which people use the Mall, and the value judgments of a number of constituents of the Mall – including retailers, downtown residents, accessibility advocates, police, RTD, and the BID.

The concepts outline three alternatives for the future of the Mall.  These range from little intervention to consideration of a broader downtown context.  It should be noted that the technical details and block-by-block plans have not been developed at this point – with the intent to gather public input before taking a preferred concept to detailed development.  The options include the following:

(please note, all images are courtesy ZGF Architects and in each case the north side of the street is to the left)

Option 1. 


This concept maintains the existing design of the Mall framework, maintaining the median space between the shuttle lanes through the central portion of the Mall.  Efforts would be made to organize furnishings and vendor operations to improve the overall use of the Mall, as well as to mitigate existing accessibility issues, but the design of the street would be largely unchanged.

Option 2.


The intent of Option 2 is to enhance the use and social opportunities of the Mall through a reorganization of circulation and amenities.  In this concept, the central portion of the Mall would be reconfigured to the assymetric section currently found on both the east and west ends of the Mall – locating the west-bound shuttle lane within the current median (this would not impact the existing trees or lights, as the width of the median is adequate to accommodate the shuttles).

This option would allow restaurant patios on the north side of the street to expand nearly to the existing flow line of the street, while the existing west-bound lane would be used primarily for pedestrian movement.  In cases where restaurant patios are not found, vendor carts and other amenities would located in the north walkway – with pedestrian circulation shifting to the north (as illustrated in the secend Option 3 diagram below).  In addition, a third row of trees is suggested, providing additional shade to the Mall.

The design team has studied the effect of this concept on the paving pattern, and believes that the historic pattern can accommodate the scheme.

Option 3.


Option 3 takes the previous option to a whole new level, suggesting the relocation of the west-bound shuttle to 15th Street.  The concept does all of the things that Option 2 does, while also allowing for the potential accommodation of bicycles on the Mall.  Further, it places a focus on 15th Street – a place that is almost forgotten when it comes to walkability and retail viability.

Additional information is available on the Downtown Denver Partnership’s website.

It’s an exciting time for the 16th Street Mall, and it’s our time as a community to have a say in its future.  So get on out to the open houses next week or attend future public meetings!  You can also become a friend of the Mall of Facebook and give input that way.  Whatever the medium, just make yourself heard!

We’ve Got Where the Buffalo Roam Covered – Now, How ‘Bout the People?

I was alerted this morning to some interesting news coming out of New York.   It seems the acclaimed plaza of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in NYC is about to undergo a transformation – from a design by one internationally-known landscape architect (Martha Schwartz) to a new design by another internationally-known landscape architect (Michael Van Valkenberg).  You can read some info here…

This news raises some questions in my mind about the attention to the design of outdoor spaces in dear old Downtown Denver.  The fact that the current design is being scrapped is surprising – not surprising, however, is that the new space is being designed by an equally-iconic landscape architect as the previous and in a forum that is highly-public.  Given the context, history, and high profile of the plaza and a demanding public, “high design” is a must.  In my visits to New York, I’ve made it a point to visit the Javits plaza on more than one occassion, primarily because it is an iconic, photo-worthy space.  I’ve also made a point to visit the myriad of pocket parks, public squares, building plazas, and city parks scattered throughout Manhattan and the neighboring boroughs – because they are, in themselves, destinations.  And because the public understands not only the value of open space but also the value of dialogue about the quality of open spaces.


current javits plaza design

When I think about Denver, though, it seems that open space as destination is mostly missing from our vocabulary. Where is that ethic of design-expectation in Denver’s parks and plazas?  Where are our high-profile public spaces that demand public dialogue?  Off the top of my head I can think of three – the 16th Street Mall, Skyline Park, and Civic Center Park… each of which is a heritage project around which public dialogue is primarily focused on preservation issues.  Where is the groundswell to provide new spaces of varied size and character in our urban environments, or to improve those inoccuous spaces that exist today?

We live in a city that receives upwards of 300 days of sunshine every year.  As Coloradoans, we give tremendous value to the opportunities that the outdoors give us to walk, to stroll, to recreate.  But it seems to me that our high expectations for great open spaces generally fall as building height or density rise.

As a community, we have fairly active dialogue about architecture – and as public expectations have risen in recent years around the value of “good” architecture, “good” architecture has followed.  It’s time now for those public expectations to extend to outdoor spaces.  If we want Downtown Denver residents, employees and visitors to enjoy our city, we should be giving them enjoyable places to experience what is arguably the best aspect of our city – the Colorado outdoors.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Downtown Denver Partnership’s Leadership Program tackled this issue last year (you can find the final report on their website).

A Visit to Writer Square, Part 3

This one made gave me a chuckle. 

Where once there was a planter at the corner of Larimer and 16th, there is now a raised terrace (outside the entrance to the Overland Sheepskin Co.).  Seems it’d be a great location for a coffee cart and some seating… or a similar social space.  In fact, there is a sign within the terrace advertising just such activities.  However, access is a bit of an issue…

terrace     locked-out

A Visit to Writer Square, Part 2

Site lighting can be a tricky thing.  Too much of it or too little of it can make a place inhospitable or uncomfortable, sterile or scary.  Often, the most successful lighting of outdoor spaces is the lighting that is not noticed at all –providing a level of comfort while not being in your face.  At other times, light fixtures can be used as an interesting site element – providing sufficient lighting when needed, and visual interest when the sun is shining. 

Back in the day (you know, way back in the spring of 2009), lighting of the outdoor spaces of Writer Square was provided by referential gas lamp style fixtures, installed on a fairly regimented grid across the block.  During the warmer months overflowing baskets of flowers hung from the light posts, lending color and interest to the different spaces.  The grid, however, seemed to have as its origin a line directly along the visual axis of the central corridor connecting the north and south plazas.  Because of this alignment, walking through the already-tight corridor was made perceptively tighter.  With the adherence to the lighting grid, many of the lights are located very close to building walls and interfere with restaurant patios.  And while the flowers were beautiful, I found myself dodging the fixtures so that my thick mane of hair wouldn’t be attacked by overzealous petunias.

 DNC32     light_grid

In the redevelopment of the outdoor spaces of Writer Square, the referential lighting has (largely) been replaced by a contemporary fixture – triangular and columnar, with visual porosity through the lens area.  This fixture recalls the triangular footprint of the light fixtures along the Mall – a nice reference to an iconic design.  It appears that the lights have been placed on the same grid, at the same locations, as the previous poles.  (The image above on the right highlights the locations of the lights within the current design of the site.) 

While it is understandable that the new fixtures would be located at the same place as the old (due to the cost to relocate electrical service, for instance), the effect of the new fixture is to make the lighting appear more prominent.  Where the former fixture had a large luminaire atop a narrow pole, the new columnar fixture is 2 to 3 times as wide as the previous post – creating 2 to 3 times the mass in the pedestrian’s frame of view.  And when viewed along the axis of movement through the central corridor, divides an already-narrow space.

 lighting_axis     lighting_tree     lighting_benches

In certain cases, it appears that the sanctity of the lighting grid trumped all else.  For instance, one light along Larimer Street was located so close to an existing tree that it appears somebody had to physically lift a large limb in order to get the pole in place (yes, the branch is resting on the light fixture).  In another case, a light serves as the focal point of a secluded seating area – and I’m not sure about you, but if I’m sitting in a secluded area I don’t think I want to be illuminated as if on stage…

I always found the lighting of Writer Square to be comfortable in the evenings, and the new fixture replaces in kind the lighting levels provided by the former pole.  But the spaces today are far brighter at night than in the original design, thanks to relatively new technology that allows lights to be placed in handrails.  In the previous post, the proliferation of handrails on the stairs of the 16th Street plaza was mentioned – but these do not represent even half of the handrails located throughout the site.  And every handrail is equipped with an LED light.  The effect is to overwhelm the space with light – and higher light levels do not necessarily equate to higher comfort levels. 


The redesign of the Square was an opportunity to rethink the lighting of a public space.  A mentor explained to me long ago that lighting should be used to light the edges of a space rather than the movement corridors – so as to illuminate the shadows (and the scary things they may hold) and not the pedestrian.  Opportunities abound within Writer Square to use ambient light from retail storefronts to light the edges of the outdoor spaces.  Certainly, some level of additional lighting is both necessary and desirable, and the use of light fixtures as visual site interest has much merit.  It seems, however, that lighting as an element of interest in this case has perhaps been too-highly regarded.

A Visit to Writer Square, Part 1

Me and Writer Square – we go way back. Prior to figuring out my career path in life, I worked at the former Champion Brewing Company on Larimer Square. During many a shift slinging warm beer on that unwieldy patio, I parked my car in the Writer Square parking structure – and twice lost car stereos to needy thieves in said structure. I bought Mother’s Day cards in the old card shop, read the Westword over sushi-lunches at Sushi Han, and picked up the occasional latte from the Starbucks.

But one thing I never did, in those years waiting tables or later during grad school at UCD, was spend any time in the outdoor plaza space. I never dined on the restaurant patios, never sat on a planter wall, never rested on a bench. Writer Square, to me, was always a short-cut to the 16th Street Mall or a convenient place to park… not a place to be.

During 2009, Writer Square underwent a transformation. The changes are broad, and have been met with many opinions, both favorable and not. This post is the first part in one blogger’s view of the changes. And while it is not my intent to “pick on” one specific space, it is seldom that we get an opportunity to critique a re-imagined plaza space in Downtown Denver.

In part one, we discuss the 16th Street Plaza.

While I was never a big fan of the design of the large planters that populated the 16th Street plaza in the original design, they did prove to be quite functional. Not only did they provide space for shade trees and colorful annual plantings; they also served as transition elements to reduce the perceived impact of the grade changes that occur within the block. The planters also defined movement corridors and gave opportunity for rest within the large plaza space. With the changes to the Square, the planters are gone – replaced by a large stair and water feature as the centerpiece of the northern plaza.

Water and stairs are long-standing design tools for creating usable space. The sound of water is soothing, and broad stairs provide both pathways for movement and places for seating. With the redesign of Writer Square, both are used in an apparent attempt to create a social space at the core of the north plaza. However, there are some inherent issues that stand in the way:

The stairs. The northern plaza of Writer Square is, in large part, a connector from the 16th Street Mall to Larimer Square, and the majority of people using the space walk diagonally through the plaza. The orientation of the stairs, however, is orthogonal to the street grid – in conflict with the diagonal pattern of movement that pedestrians expect. This wouldn’t be so bad if the stairs were clear of obstacles; however, the proliferation and orientation of handrails along the stairs serves as both a physical and visual barrier to clear pedestrian movement. To further exacerbate this, rows of benches and planter pots between the stairs and the Mall provide further additional barriers and visual clutter to the 16th Street plaza.

steps_upper     steps_lower     fountain

The fountain. The idea of bringing water into the plaza is certainly an intriguing one. When appropriately considered, water provides interest to a space and a reason to stop and stay. However, water is most successful when it is accessible. And while you can certainly walk up to the water feature in this space, accommodation has not been made to engage with the water. The sloping walls discourage people from sitting on the edge of the water feature, and the orthogonal placement of the basin to the street (rather than to movement patterns) makes the fountain an impediment to movement rather than an object to engage.

The materials. In short, the plaza has been visually-muted. Gone are the raised planters with brick caps, as is the grid of paver bands that gave some richness to the ground plane of the plaza – all replaced by a monolithic concrete surface. The historically-referential benches and light poles have been removed, with silver/gray contemporary fixtures installed in their place. Small planter pots are provided throughout the space, but these will never be able to support the growth of shade trees or greenery that the former raised planters provided. The plaza is, well, gray.

The exception is the fountain, which appears to be constructed of black granite. However, the scale of the object and materials lacks “weight” – where the fountain should stand as the centerpiece of the plaza, it feels small and insignificant.

A noticeably successful addition to the space are the tables placed in the upper portion of the plaza between the (fantastic) barbeque vendor and Starbucks. In multiple trips to the Square during sunny lunch times, the tables have been well used – while the stairs and adjacent bench seating have been almost completely unoccupied.


The true measure of the success of a space is not found in opinions about its visual design, but in the nature of the way people use the space. The Writer Square 16th Street plaza should be a place that people are comfortable moving through and resting in – and, given its location, could be a space full of energy and vitality. Only time will tell if the updates can provide a dynamic social space at an important downtown pedestrian crossroads.

Next up in our visit to Writer Square:  lighting.