Academic Rigor Mural
A mural adorning the wall of CU Denver's CityCenter at 14th and Lawrence streets explains the new urban center's mission in rhythmic fashion.

A Lynx link: New CityCenter connects CU Denver with community

Downtown resource builds partnerships, opens university’s ‘front door’

September 13, 2018

Nolbert Chavez knows what it must be like living in a fishbowl. Director of the recently launched University of Colorado Denver CityCenter, Chavez’s office, surrounded on all but one side by glass, practically sits on the Lawrence Street sidewalk, a steady stream of pedestrians passing by.

Nolbert Chavez at desk
Nolbert Chavez took the reins of one of CU Denver’s newest ventures: CityCenter, a “transparent” office aimed at joining CU and the city in solving critical urban problems.

Distracting? A bit, he said. Appropriate? Absolutely, said CU Denver’s chief of external initiatives and former state lawmaker.

“You feel completely connected to the city,” Chavez said, glancing out of the floor-to-ceiling window of his main-level office at 14th and Lawrence streets. “The space is illuminated, and it’s welcoming,” he said of the symbolic design that offers the city a transparent “front door” to CU and him a daily dose of friendly waves.

An official CityCenter grand opening, slated for Oct. 10, will host dignitaries, donors and alumni.

CityCenter Staff Trio
From left to right: Maria Delgado, PhD, faculty director; Jessi Zemetra, program manager; and Nolbert Chavez, director, stand in front of the CityCenter’s front door. The symbolic glass door serves as the physical opening to CU Denver’s new portal for the Denver-metro community.

Linking CU and the city

The brainchild of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (MPA, ’95), the new CU Denver CityCenter is loosely modeled after other urban centers around the country, such as New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Policy (CUSP). Its mission aligns with Chancellor Dorothy Horrell’s aim of enhancing the role of Colorado’s only public urban research university within the community.

“Our goal is to connect our students and faculty to the city that we are a part of in meaningful ways,” said Chavez, who will lead the center with Program Manager Jessi Zemetra and Faculty Director Maria Delgado, PhD. By serving as a bridge, CityCenter will build CU/city partnerships that benefit everyone, he said.

Tackling urban problems with academic rigor

“We can engage our students in real-world activities, which gives them experience beyond what they might experience in the classroom,” he said. “And we can deploy the expertise, research and scholarship of our faculty to urban issues.”

By partnering with city governments, nonprofits and business leaders through projects and programs such as the Hometown Colorado Initiative (HCI), now housed in the CityCenter, the university hopes to help shape the Mile High city’s future by tackling the critical urban and suburban issues it faces, from transportation to homelessness.

Pointing to past projects such as: analyzing the Denver Day Works homeless program for the city, conducting a housing analysis for Arvada, and mediating a contentious park proposal to fruition for Lakewood, Zemetra said CU is already in the city, providing an objective perspective and innovative techniques.

Viewing the city as a classroom

With the city as their classroom, CU Denver faculty and students reap unique  benefits, said Delgado, a lecturer in the College of Architecture and Planning.

“Our goal is to connect our students and faculty to the city that we are a part of in meaningful ways.”

– Nolbert Chavez, CityCenter director

“It provides faculty opportunities to develop relevant, impactful research and teaching moments,” Delgado said. “And by connecting communities to classrooms, students engage in local issues, helping to find solutions that enrich Coloradans’ quality of life.”

Chavez said the response to CityCenter from metro-area city leaders has been extremely positive, and he called on all university members to take advantage of the new resource. “The more we are involved in their efforts and their community engagement, the better we can help strengthen their current partnerships and build new ones.”