University Technical Assistance Program Brings Rural Community Projects to Life

University Technical Assistance Program Brings Rural Community Projects to Life

November 30, 2023

Established in the 1960s, the University Technical Assistance Program (UTAP), previously known as the Colorado Center for Community Development (CCCD), at CU Denver is one of only a few remaining university-run design centers in the United States that connects rural communities to provide technical skills and funding assistance to bring community project dreams to life. In partnership with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), UTAP offers resources and access required for public improvement projects that rural communities may not otherwise be able to attain. UTAP hires students to serve on their design teams to build proposals for important projects around the state of Colorado.

Get to Know UTAP at CU Denver

Rural communities often face challenges with finding funding to support important projects. UTAP’s designers not only provide guidance and project assistance, but also provide student-led design ideation, project management, and community engagements. UTAP projects are led by three supervisors, Northeastern Regional Field Supervisor Jennifer Kovarik, Western Slope Field Supervisor Christopher Endreson, and Southeastern Regional Field Supervisor Jeffrey Wood.

“For rural communities, the UTAP program has enabled the residents to dare to dream,” said UTAP Coordinator and Field Supervisor Jeffrey Wood. “Things like recreation centers, community centers, community parks and trails, and more pressing needs like new police and fire facilities, proper town halls, courthouses, and the like are very hard to fund, and in the abstract, the fundraising goal itself can be difficult to ascertain. We come in and listen to the needs of the community.”

UTAP in Action

Six people from the Northeast team break ground on the Kersey Town Hall.
UTAP designers with the Northeast team break ground on Kersey Town Hall.

Students working for UTAP gain a breadth of hands-on experiences while collaborating between disciplines in the College of Architecture and Planning at CU Denver.

Jenn Clegg participated in UTAP for 18 months, while she completed her Master of Architecture (M.Arch) degree in 2022. “Participating in UTAP while being a student at CU Denver was of interest to me for several reasons,” said Clegg. “The program provided an opportunity to work under licensed professionals and be immersed in actual design projects, while still operating within the familiar framework of the university setting. The knowledge and experiences gained at UTAP are not available in a typical studio course, and the program acts as a valuable transition from school to professional practice. There was also the added benefit of getting to work with fellow students who share common experiences and goals, and as each team consists of students from all CAP departments, it provided an opportunity to make friends and connections outside my specific program.”

Community involvement and support throughout the life of each project is UTAP’s driving force. From evaluating community access and use of spaces to recommending architectural styles that honor the community’s past and future to assessing ways to incentivize people to use spaces and structures to evaluating the local infrastructure, landmarks, and points of pride and so much more, UTAP’s commitment to the communities of Colorado is truly unique.

Three recent projects that show the range of UTAP’s work and emphasize the power of community engagement and student contributions are the Silver Cliff Town Hall, Sterling Heritage Park, and Boggsville.

Silver Cliff Town Square

Silver Cliff Town Square proposal rendering.
Silver Cliff Town Square Conceptual Rendering

Silver Cliff, Colorado has a rich history as a former silver mining town that saw a decrease in its population when residents began moving to bigger cities in the 19th century. Growing once again and looking for ways to help reinvigorate the town as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts and stargazers, the town tasked UTAP with developing a new town center to provide residents and visitors with space for parking, lodging, a new town hall, and a mixed-use development.

To maintain the architectural traditions of the mining culture of boomtowns like Silver Cliff, UTAP designers used familiar Old West elements like false fronts with high parapets, covered sidewalks, and open storefronts and materials including brick, wood siding, and rusting steel, all of which are widely used today.

The designers were asked to create a pedestrian-friendly town center to host festivals and musical performances. The site is located near Highway 96, which provides easy access to a new hotel, parking, and future commercial enterprise and recreation space.

“Over the course of several months, we met with many residents to ascertain how they envisioned what a new downtown Silver Cliff might look like,” said Wood. “How would it function, how would the architectural style honor their past (mining and ranching for the most part), and how could they get a passerby to stop and spend time and perhaps money to bolster their tax revenues?”

UTAP presented the Silver Cliff Town Square at a public event in Silver Cliff on Saturday, November 12, 2022. At the time of the presentation, a hotel chain had shown interest in the development. Town officials shared their interest in attracting small businesses to the area, as opposed to big box stores. Now, the town is looking for investors and development groups to bring UTAP’s proposals to life.

The Silver Cliff Town Center team included M.Arch students Justin Trammell, Kally Mott, Fernanda Arangua, Stephanie Rogers, Graham Oden, Sarah Salazar, Todd Jones, and MLA students Michelle Lazarz and Aletha Spang, and led by UTAP Field Supervisor Jeffrey Wood.   

Sterling Heritage Park

Sterling Heritage Park, completed in August 2022

The City of Sterling, CO selected UTAP to develop conceptual plans for an urban park. Located in the historic central business district in Sterling at an important intersection of Main and 4th Streets, the design team created plans for a public plaza. The project included site and contextual analysis, the creation of several design alternatives inspired by Logan County, a community engagement meeting during the winter of 2019 that helped refine the architectural program, and final presentations of the preferred design to the community and key stakeholders.  

The final plan included a welcoming public space with a fire pit, custom shade structure, comfortable seating, and a small stage. An important element of the design was the inclusion of a donor wall, recognizing those who made important contributions to the re-investment and revitalization efforts for Downtown Sterling.

The City of Sterling celebrated the grand opening of Heritage Park in August 2022 and recognized UTAP’s contributions to the development of the project. This project team, led by Jennifer Kovarik consisted of two Landscape Architecture interns, Kendrick Wyman and Chelsea Gieryic.


Michelle Lazarz leads a community engagement activity, gathering feedback from four survey participants.
Michelle Lazarz leads a community engagement activity, gathering feedback from four survey participants.

Among Colorado’s early agricultural and trade centers, Boggsville, located along the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, is on the National Register of History Places. Established in 1866, Boggsville served as the hub of the community until a railroad station opened two miles away in Las Animas. Now, Boggsville is home to two historic adobe structures, The Boggs House and The Prowers House, and serves as an archaeological monitoring site.

The Boggsville site is in the Shortgrass Prairie, an ecoregion where the plant life can survive tough, dry conditions, and requires solutions for water conservation. The UTAP designers recommended a simple, fully xeric, native plant palette capable of self-seeding, and an on-site wetland to attract the large migrant bird populations and local and traveling bird watchers.

The UTAP designers created a proposal to help to attract visitors. The proposal also emphasized the importance of protecting the archaeological site and its historical integrity. The UTAP designers provided plans for a visitor center, designated RV and tent campsites, and other visitor amenities.

The team also conducted digital surveys with people living in the region around Boggsville. To get a sense of visitor perception and expectations, UTAP attended the annual Boggsville Day celebration hosted on the site. A digital survey was distributed by the UTAP designers via QR code and paper copies to get input from visitors. At the event, the team engaged in meaningful conversations with longtime residents as well as first-time visitors. Through their research, the team learned that the history of the site, access to nature walks, information about the site’s archaeology, architecture, and ecology, and educational opportunities for children were of interest to many participants.

This project team consisted of Michelle Lazarz (MLA), Justin Trammell (M.Arch), and Jake Dudley (MURP) and was led by UTAP Field Supervisor Jeffrey Wood. Preliminary contributions were made to this project by Tayler Heffelfinger (M.Arch), Daniel Levy (MLA), Graham Oden (M.Arch), and Jade Orr (PhD).

The Student Experience as UTAP Designers

Photo Collage. Top left is a group of UTAP designers standing by a mountain in the snow. Top right is a night time downtown cityscape. The second image on the right is a mountain landscape. The bottom left is the large Trinidad welcome sign. The bottom middle is a group of people on a mountain silhouetted by the sunset. The bottom right image is a group of people wading in a lake.

UTAP empowers rural communities to think about and voice their needs and wants for the future. It also empowers students to apply what they learn in their classes and studios to experiential work to help friends and neighbors from all around Colorado take on important projects they may never have imagined were possible.

“Getting to travel around the state for the various projects was such a great experience, while also being fun,” said Clegg, who is now an instructor with the Department of Architecture at CU Denver and also works at a local architecture firm. “I learned so much on the site visits and in the meetings with community leaders and members. Almost everyone we met was personally vested in our work and wanted to support us in any way they could. UTAP acts as a sort of bridge between education and professional practice, and the program was a great opportunity to test out some ideas and refine my personal design process along the way.”

UTAP also challenges students to get to know local and regional communities by attending town meetings and making public presentations for project proposals.

“It prepared me to speak in front of town and city officials. We’re oftentimes in meetings with these leaders and have an open dialogue about their needs for the community,” said M.Arch student Sophia Ostendorf. “My supervisor, Jeffrey Wood, has been a great mentor and the things I’m learning at UTAP supplement the things I’m learning in studio and my other classes.”

Michelle Lazarz making a presentation for Crestone community members.
Michelle Lazarz presents the Crestone Community and Youth Center proposal to the Crestone community.

UTAP is the perfect employer for students looking for an opportunity to be involved in an array of projects with various disciplines at CU Denver. The program also impacts the sustainability and future endeavors of its clients.

“While we are students, the amount and quality of work we provide, for the minimal (subsidized) cost, is a bargain. UTAP helps increase equitable access to design and engagement services, and often gives communities the opportunity to take the first step towards determining feasibility and support, or lack thereof, for a local public project,” said current MLA student Michelle Lazarz. “The final reports we provide are also an essential tool if they want to take the next step of applying for grants to hopefully get the projects built!”