A complicated stakeholder group and a cadre of firms, including Arthouse Design, linked together in Denver to transform the 14th Street corridor from a dingy commuter raceway to a vibrant business district.
The Downtown Denver Partnership, a local Colorado business improvement group, knew that 14th street would soon present an even bigger problem. The skyscraper-lined street runs one-way heading out of town, bordering both the downtown area and a rough patch. It had become a sort of weekday “5:30 Grand Prix” as commuters would try to exit the downtown as quickly as possible. For pedestrians, the street was narrow and unpleasant to traverse.
However, there were several high-profile businesses planning a move into the area, to include a Four Seasons Hotel, a high-end apartment complex and new restaurants, totaling $2.5 billion in investment. The Downtown Denver Partnership wanted to create an improvement district on 14th that spanned an entire 12-block length.
Meanwhile, the city had earmarked funds for new paving and infrastructure changes, approaching 14th Street business and building owners, developers and landowners with a strong suggestion to participate in fundraising—as well as decision making—at a predetermined contribution amount.
Several years before the project officially started, StudioInsite, a landscape architecture and planning firm and longtime collaborator of Arthouse Design called them into the fold. They were assembled on a team with all manner of businesses, from a concrete manufacturer to planning and lighting agencies. That team was asked to come up with ideas on how to improve 14th Street—each of the companies working with the clients on theme, brand, purpose, traffic, budgets and the public's expectations.
The large stakeholder pool functioned as a focus group for the design team. They needed to make sure the stakeholders, design team, residents in the district and the city leaders were going to see their concerns met, while creating a solution that branded and supported a vibrant new district on an over one-hundred-year-old street.
“We were right downtown at that time, so I took my scooter, my point-and-shoot and rode up and down the street taking photos,” remembers Marty Gregg, Principal at Arthouse Design in Denver. “We took notable or historic things found on the street and incorporated them into a set of banners and vertical signage.” The height of the buildings on the street informed the decision to make the signage vertically-oriented and tall. This initial strategy worked—the sketches and photographs garnered a very warm response from the notably cool group and Arthouse was officially brought on to the project.
In these early meetings, as Arthouse was creating, testing and presenting to the clients, a few critical concepts surfaced: the idea of “gateways” on each block, signage with both a vehicular and pedestrian orientation and the concept of 14th being an “ambassador” street.
The concept of the street acting as an ambassador was simple; an ambassador is friendly, deft at understanding the needs of others, leading visitors into a safe and pleasant experience. Also, 14th borders the main downtown area, close to the bustling pedestrian heart of the city on 16th and financial businesses on 17th, so it was often a first introduction to the downtown center.
The “gateways” would serve as wayfinding to direct visitors to features in town such as entertainment and civic venues, while the other two sides of each of the monuments display pedestrian maps and highlight points of interest or art elements from each of the twelve blocks.
The 14th Street identity Arthouse planned to develop would wrap the signage, reminding visitors of their location. They divided the street into districts: historic, arts, civic and business. At first, there was talk of creating visual identities for each district, but the idea complicated the project unnecessarily, as the difference in districts was obvious to the casual observer.
While the concept was straightforward to the design team, the project wasn’t without challenges. The first challenge was the large client stakeholder group that had helped finance the project—some of whom were resistant to change, others who wanted the signage to be advertising. Another significant trial was the aged infrastructure.
The client meetings addressed matters from infrastructure to traffic and business needs. What quickly emerged was a discussion centered on wayfinding, branding, identity and guiding the public in a friendly, welcoming, way in keeping with the look of a major city in an entertainment district. The client group consisted mostly of developers who owned everything from restaurants to parking lots, many of whom were not accustomed to the wayfinding design process, but whose buy-in was required at every step of the way.
The solution to the tough crowd was rooted in a basic skill; the designers began to draw in front of them. “As soon as we got the softest bit of approval, we would scamper home to the studio and build a model. The better response we’d get, the bigger the models got. It generated excitement,” recalls Gregg. “We’d done many models before, but with these teams and developer, we really needed to show [our ideas in three dimensions]. We built hundreds of models. We did hundreds of drawings.” It was all about achieving a comfort level for the clients, for them to understand the process and feel comfortable enough to ask questions.
And it was worth the effort: “It took on a life of its own. I was really happy to see as we were showing designs—all the things we were going to do—the stakeholders started to get more excited about it, realizing ‘wow we’re going to be able to put bars and cafés on the street; there’s going to be a vibrancy that isn’t there now and won’t be until the sidewalks are wider, traffic slows and add lights and wayfinding’,” states Gregg.
When it came to the infrastructure, in the arts and historic district especially, there were some very interesting aging elements the design and fabrication teams had to contend with. One of the old power company buildings in Denver sits right on 14th in the center of the project. It was originally a steam factory—there are tunnels linking the building to others up and down the street—so buildings could be heated with steam. The old tunnels still exist, unfilled, alongside lines for water, fiber optics and sewer under the hundred-year-old streets.
The big monument signs have a base consisting of a caisson and a pipe that go eight feet down into the ground, surrounded by concrete, so the result was amended placement of a couple of them. “We had to move a few of the monuments 18 inches one way or another, but the street is long and the primary monuments are far apart enough that it isn’t noticeable—that didn’t keep me from lying awake at night worrying, though,” laments Gregg.
Rubber, Meet Road
While StudioInsite was working on the streetscape—the planters, crosswalks, public parking areas, trash enclosures and new lighting poles, Arthouse created the wayfinding and identity for the project. They designed the pieces with the knowledge that they would have to hold their own in a multi-story urban environment because the Denver streetscape has large and inconsistent architectural elements on every block.
The first part of the solution ArtHouse created was a set of 12, 22-foot-tall illuminated monuments with a vertical “stripe” of light. They were built from aluminum and acrylic with a steel and granite base and fitted with vinyl graphics. These created a line of recognizable light elements that run the length of the street, fashioning a boundary.
The original idea of “gateways” with mirrored monuments on either side of the street wasn’t feasible, so they designed a set of four ten-foot-tall “pedestrian” kiosks that were part of the signage and wayfinding family but were substantially more affordable. ArtHouse also designed several themed banner families to tie the district together between the monuments. These continued the block-by-block theme and gave the district a splash of color on the street. Each block also included identifying granite seating reinforcing the family aesthetic.
The design team treated the monuments as three-sided pieces with one elevation facing oncoming traffic. That face was limited to wayfinding messages and 14th district identity. The second side faces the sidewalk, containing pedestrian maps and messaging. The third side of the monuments each feature an image from the block the monument occupies. The outcome of this was that each monument becomes a “valentine” to the block it sits on.
The stakeholder group embraced the “valentine” concept, applauding the “Denver-centric” solution for its warm authenticity. One of the valentines is a favorite of the Arthouse staff, it showcases the work of muralist Alan True. On 14th there’s an ancient AT&T building, with a lobby that’s set back and dimly lit—but inside, as Marty Gregg says, it’s “the Sistine chapel of Alan True’s work.” The walls, covered in murals from the 1940s depicting commerce and agriculture, inspired the Arthouse team. The family of the artist, while hesitant at first to give permission for use of the artwork, was convinced once they saw renderings.
There was a lot of talk about manufacturing the monuments as enclosed fixtures that could be fastened into the base. The final result is similar, except they aren’t sealed from the elements. The concern was that seals could open and cause leakage or staining, so instead of creating gaskets, they created open seams so the fixtures can breathe.
The design team specified powerful, snow and water-resistant LED up-lighting in the base, which gives the wayfinding that signature “beacon.” They used the same fixtures that the city uses at the courthouse and capital buildings—a move that built confidence with the client group and allowed tight control of color temperature.
Thanks to the 14th Street revitalization project, the traffic has slowed, it’s no longer a “speedway” out of downtown. New hotels, restaurants, specialty and coffee shops have cropped up and thrived in an environment, that thanks to the wayfinding elements, is more nighttime-friendly. The area is now a destination and a few years later, the price-per-square-foot is rising. Tourists have been spotted taking selfies with the signage and it’s even getting tough to find a parking spot.
For the Arthouse team, this means the project was a resounding success for all involved. And, they had a critical takeaway as a design team: “Computers as a tool help us communicate and show things in context, but I’m still surprised how well a scale or full-size mock-up can put a large group of diverse individuals on the same page. Communicating, drawing and building models are all things we are good at and skills we learned a long time ago—but I think we give ourselves permission to do it sooner now,” says Gregg.
Project Name: “Denver’s Ambassador Street,” 14th Street Revitalization
Client: Downtown Denver Partnership
Location: Denver, CO
Open Date: 2014
Graphics Budget: $850,000
Project Budget: $20,000,000
Experiential Graphic Design: ArtHouse Design—Martin Gregg, Elizabeth Rosa, Clara Carpenter, Megan Charles, Nathan Young, Patrick Kennedy
Landscape Architect: StudioInsite
Planning: studioInsite, ArtHouse Design
Fabrication: Da Vinci Signs
Collaborators: SSG MEP Inc, Parsons Brinkerhoff
Photos: Jackie Shumaker