Building Hope

I find conferences, both day and multi-day, to be either totally engrossing or average. This is not to the fault of the conference planners or speakers, but rather to the similarities of “hot” topics which are spoken onRMCS-logo-header.

Yesterday, I attended the Rocky Mountain City Summit put on by the Downtown Denver Partnership. This daylong seminar (in which I only attended half of due to a tight deadline on an RFP) was of the totally engrossing type. Leaders from across the Rocky Mountain region coalesced in a dark room at the Sheraton to discuss city building, placemaking, urban biking, walkability and any other buzzword that floats around common architecture/planner/politician/developer language.

Coming from a background of both architecture and planning, these sorts of events are what motivate me personally and push me forward, IF the event is motivating. I had heard great things about this event, so my expectations were high. It did not fall short.

As expected Mayor Michael B. Hancock opened the day. David Kenney of The Kenney Group introduced him. One remark that Kenney made was “make friends that are smarter than you and steal their ideas.” This got quite a few laughs but also spoke to the magnitude of relationships in the room and how true this might actBill Stricklandually be. We now live in a society where sharing is accepted, welcomed and encouraged when it comes to big ideas and changing the places we live.

The keynote was by far one of the most inspiring I have ever seen. If you are not familiar with Bill Strickland, I urge you to research him and his work. He is not an architect. He is not a planner. Yet he has molded the lives of poverty-stricken children in the Pittsburgh area with the simple idea that environment drives behavior. The most poignant statement he made was “people are born into the world as assets, not liabilities.” He has used this as the ethos to drive the development of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation that has built schools that educate these low-income children in a way that provides them with the hope to climb out of poverty and see the sunlight in the world everyday.

His idea of developing places that nurture and foster a safe environment for kids to learn and provide them with skills that will give them hope is one that needs to be spread to great lengths across this country and across this world. In fact, Strickland’s company is doing that. He is planning to open an education center in Chicago and Israel.

This idea transcends the very nature of what we are supposed to do as professionals and speaks to how we should care for everyone as a society. Those that are in need and suffering from poverty-stricken living conditions have the hope inside them. They just need a place and someone who cares to unlock it.

This session nearly brought me to tears as it was, but then something really inspiring happened during the break. Three individuals came forward and announced they would support the formation of one of these education centers in Denver. Let it be noted that there were already boots on the ground searching out a place and the resources to start one in Denver, but the individuals who came forward are powerful leaders within the community. They have the skills and the networks to get this done. I am proud to say, one of those people was a Denver architect.

After sitting in a room listening to great minds speak about initiatives, design and policies changing our cities, it has instilled a great lesson in me. While political systems move slowly and change can take years, there are efforts to be made at an individual level. It just takes one man, who was saved from poverty, to build a center that gives hope. We all have the ability to give hope. We just need to decide how we want to use that ability.

It Takes a Village…

city skyline_mosenthalA few weeks ago I attended a Downtown Denver Partnership event profiling several large-scale development projects in and around Downtown Denver.   Titled “Downtown Development Takes Off: 
Creating a World Class City,” the event was formatted as a presentation/discussion with moderator Brad Buchanan from RNL and presenters Ed Schiel of Integrated Properties, Tommy Nigro from Stonebridge Companies, Jim McGibney from First Century Development, LLC, and Duane Risse, CFO  and VP of Administrative Services for the Community College of Denver.  Subsequent projects presented were, in the order of presenter, 16th and Market, the Renaissance by the Marriott, the IMA Headquarters, and the CCD Student Learning and Engagement Building.  Each presenter was tasked to present “information on their upcoming projects and explain how these projects will enhance and impact our center city and surrounding areas.”

In the event you aren’t familiar with the DDP, it’s a non-profit business organization “that creatively plans, manages and develops Downtown Denver as the unique, diverse, vibrant and economically healthy urban core of the Rocky Mountain region.” After exploring many different organizations relevant for a young Denver architect to commit rare “free” time to, I have personally found my involvement with the DDP to be extremely worthwhile due to its strong, diverse programming and long-term investment/dedication to improving Downtown Denver.

This event was no exception.  While observing the differences in outlook and approach between developers and architects is already of great interest to me, my biggest take-away from this event was the brief presentation given by Jim McGibney of First Century Development.   Rather than talk at length about the many amenities and design features of the IMA building (which, to paint a quick picture, is an under-construction five story commercial office building set to open near Union Station in late 2013), Mr. McGibney showed slide after slide of names of people and companies that had collaborated and contributed to this single project.  From government and transit officials to architects and designers to developers, engineers, facilities managers, neighborhood and community organizations and non-profits, Mr. McGibney’s presentation effectively illustrated two important realities of an urban development project:

(1) It does, indeed, take a village to create a successful large-scale urban development project.

(2) By engaging a village in building a successful urban development project, hundreds to thousands of jobs are created or supported, directly impacting Denver’s economic health and growth in a more tangible way than one might initially think.

While I cringe when I see large-scale suburban developments, big box stores, and parking lots the size of football fields continue to encroach on the pastoral lands that mark the interstitial spaces between my travels from Denver to nearby cities, I feel more optimistic and supportive of the continued development and in-fill of Downtown Denver.  Smart urban growth and the continued densification of downtown continues to make Denver one of the most sought-after, attractive cities for people between the ages of 25 and 35 in the United States—a promising idea for continued economic, social, and cultural growth in Colorado.  I’m going to take a leap and say that this demographic is not moving to Colorado because of the great access to Walmart and TJ Maxx.  I predict they are moving here because as our Downtown continues to grow as does its appeal and reputation as a more cosmopolitan, world-class city…that happens to be driving-distance to some of the most amazing natural amenities one might hope for.