BY MARY GRAUERHOLZ
Raising the living standards in one Denver
For more than 50 years, the South Lincoln Homes development, operated by the Denver Housing Authority (DHA), had the lifeless look that was so rampant in mid-20th century public housing: nondescript low-slung red brick buildings with cookie-cutter windows and thin strips of parched-looking grass in front, intersected by concrete sidewalks.
The units served a vital purpose—housing the city’s low-income residents. But the buildings did very little to inspire residents or anyone else who walked down the West 10th Avenue area. In those times, designing safe, healthy, beautiful community spaces was as absent from planners’ minds as renewable energy, low-water living, or sustainable architecture.
Around 2010, the light switched on and everything changed. Today the drab buildings have been replaced by vibrant structures with eye-catching architecture and thoughtful lighting. The reconstructed development, with renewable energy systems and facilities that draw residents together in community, is winning awards for innovation and forward-thinking leadership, and earning LEED Gold and Platinum certifications.
A community garden and bike sharing stations are just two ways that the Denver Housing Authority is changing the face of low-income housing.
Called Mariposa—Spanish for “butterfly”—the 15-acre transit-oriented development invites the mixed-income residents to thrive. They tend community gardens, play and exercise in a park, enjoy art, and engage in special features, such as a stairwell with an art installation that uses LED lighting to tell a Mayan story, which also encourages residents to use the stairs. Better access to the light rail stop adjacent to Mariposa gives the neighborhood another dynamic aspect and easier, more environmental commuting.
It took a trio of innovators to lead Mariposa and its residents—projected ultimately to number more than 1,000—to bring Mariposa to fruition: the DHA, which decided early on to take a risk, pushing the envelope on sustainability and inspiring its residents to transition to new living quarters; Mithun, a sustainable design firm in Seattle that integrated health aspects into the project and led the master plan design; and YR&G, a sustainability consulting firm headquartered in Denver, which headed the sustainable aspect. Mithun worked with 10 subconsultants, including Perspective3 in Denver.
When the DHA began planning the project, the aim was to improve the quality of life of residents. So when Mithun—including Erin Christensen Ishizaki, a Mithun partner who led the project’s redevelopment master plan—responded to the RFP for Mariposa, they began to look at residents’ health. Ishizaki and her colleagues found several areas in which health conditions were much poorer than for other Denver residents. For example, 51 percent of the children living in the DHA complex were living below the poverty line, compared to 21 percent in Denver overall. The crime rate was 248 out of 1,000, compared to an average of 69 out of 1,000 in Denver overall. “From an equity standpoint, it was hard to ignore,” Ishizaki says.
After Mithun got involved in the master plan, the firm used a Health Impact Assessment (HIA), which laid out community health indicators in a framework of sustainability performance. “That gave us an understanding of key health issues,” Ishizaki says. At that time, 2009, there were a few HIAs being used countrywide, but most looked at policy issues instead of design issues. In 2012, with one of Mariposa’s buildings completed, Mithun spearheaded the Mariposa Healthy Living Initiative, to integrate health into every aspect of the community’s design, construction, and operation. The Mariposa Healthy Living Toolkit, developed in 2012, continues to serve as a guide as health measures are folded into Mariposa’s design and construction.
Mithun was an inspiration for the DHA throughout the redevelopment project, says Ryan Tobin, the DHA’s director of Real Estate Development. By integrating health into smart, sustainable design, Mariposa has racked up some impressive numbers, including a 50 percent reduction in energy consumption compared to 2007, Tobin says. Mariposa has one of the largest solar arrays in housing developments throughout the country, he says, as well as a geothermal system. “Across the board,” Tobin adds, “we have low-flow toilets and a graywater reuse system.”
Mariposa’s individual buildings are achieving LEED Gold and Platinum certification. More impressive is its LEED Gold certification (Stage 2) for Neighborhood Development. “Very few places in the US, maybe just 150, have this designation,” says Karin Miller, sustainability manager at YR&G. Mariposa also won a 2012 Award for Smart Growth Achievement from the Environmental Protection Agency and a 2012 Affordable Green Neighborhoods grant award from USGBC, with support from the Bank of America Foundation. It was named one of the Top 10 US Neighborhoods by the American Planning Association, and received a 2010 HOPE VI grant, a federal grant program administered by HUD.
Earning the LEED Neighborhood Development certification for Mariposa was an especially big moment for YR&G, says Narada Golden, the current principal of YR&G’s New York office and YR&G principal in charge of the Mariposa development. “YR&G engaged the DHA, along with building and master plan design teams, to expand the definition of sustainability beyond energy,” Golden says, including factors such as health, wellness, and community empowerment. As Golden says, it adds up to “a sense of place at Mariposa.”
Ultimately, much of the success of a development project comes down to people; in this case it is Mariposa residents. “The biggest success is how well the DHA and the team were able to incorporate resident engagement in the process,” says Miller of YR&G.
Tobin sees how fully residents’ lives have changed, simply by observing daily life at Mariposa. Ridership at the light rail stop continues to increase, and organic community gardens draw enthusiastic residents. Donated space on the first floor hosts daycare centers and the nonprofit group Youth on Record, which creates music and conversation. Tobin sees residents living in community, working, and having fun.
“We’re creating places for kids to play, before- and after-school programs, art and literacy, a park with a swimming pool; it’s quite the neighborhood, with all the amenities.” Tobin looks at photos of the old South Lincoln Homes, and the new Mariposa. “I see vibrancy, safety, security, opportunity,” Tobin says. “It’s dramatically changed. It’s basically changed the way people look at their lives.”