City is the Classroom

May 5, 2009

Mark Gelernter, dean of the College of Architecture and Planning, says Coloradans have a love of wide-open spaces and a disdain for sprawl. Where some might see hypocrisy, Gelernter sees opportunity. “Our job is to create urban areas that are both efficient and livable. That’s sustainable urbanism.”

That is the spirit behind plans for much-needed academic and research space downtown. “We want to have a compact area that wraps around squares or courtyards. This creates lively, livable outdoor spaces that welcome people. Look at Larimer Square. The buildings are near the sidewalk, closer together. This creates a public space with energy. It uses the land better and is more pedestrian friendly,” Gelernter says. “This is how the best cities have been built for 5,000 years.”

UC Denver’s footprint is heaviest on the north side of the Auraria Campus around the North Classroom building. Nearby, an addition to the science building is under construction. Plans for Auraria expansion envision a consolidated UC Denver neighborhood in the area on some of the land now used for Metro State sports teams. Mixed uses, including commercial and housing units, will serve to connect Auraria to Lower Downtown.

UC Denver already has built inroads into the city proper. Classrooms, labs, studios and offices occupy three buildings along Lawrence Street between Speer Boulevard and 15th Street. But Speer remains a barrier to comfortable pedestrian use.

As you should expect from experts in urban sustainability, the College of Architecture and Planning has ideas for artfully bridging Speer.

One plan calls for a new College of Architecture and Planning building on one of the islands in Speer, with a multi-story bridge spanning the southbound Speer traffic lanes. “We’ve designed the proposed bridge to capture car-generated wind and to use solar power,” Gelernter says. “It will be the gateway into downtown. We’d like it to announce University of Colorado Denver.” It also may serve to calm traffic, as will street-level landscaping.

Buildings use one-half of the energy in the United States and three-quarters of the electricity, according to Gelernter. New UC Denver buildings will be designed to conserve energy. The master plan calls for roofs and parking decks with greenery and photovoltaic panels. Landscaping will be low-water and will assist in reducing cooling costs. A trolley along Larimer Street also is on the drawing board.

The plans are in early stages of review and there currently is no money allocated. At least half the cost of the buildings must be raised from private donations. Public-private partnerships also are a possibility.

“We have to limit sprawl. It creates more gasoline usage, air pollution and water runoff,” Gelernter says. “We need to incorporate history and the designs that are still vibrant today, like Larimer Square, Rome, Paris and London.”