Joining the Rails

The Union Station development is one of the biggest and most important projects for the city of Denver in decades, anchoring downtown with restaurants, retail, hotels, and transportation. The area spans over a half-mile square. Creating the public spaces that tie everything together is critical to its success. We talked to the landscape architects who took on the challenge and learned how they have created an evolving yet timeless landscape for us all to enjoy.

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WORDS: SARAH GOLDBLATT, AIA | IMAGES: RYAN DRAVITZ, SOM/RED SQUARE, HARGREAVES ASSOCIATES, AND GEORDIE WOOD

The newly renovated Denver Union Station (DUS) has been open for just a few months, yet it has already been affectionately dubbed as the city’s new living room. This lively space comes with a complementary series of sparkling public outdoor rooms, which are ideal for entertaining the populace, as well. And while the top-rated restaurants at DUS and its boutique hotel have taken center stage, getting there via its vast public realm is half the fun.

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With local support from Boulder landscape design firm, Eleven.Eleven, internationally renowned landscape architects Hargreaves Associates designed the outdoor space, which encompasses nearly eight acres of the 34-acre site. With its interactive fountains, tree-lined plazas, thematic gardens, and gracious pedestrian thoroughfares, Hargreaves has sensitively worked within the diverse contexts of the site including the historic Union Station, LoDo, a dramatic new train hall (designed by SOM), and the burgeoning Union Station neighborhood to create a welcoming destination and energized backdrop for public life and city-making. “We opted for elegant simplicity and timelessness,” said Hargreaves Senior Principal Mary Margaret Jones, lead landscape architect for the project. “The simplicity allows the public realm to become a stage for the life of the city.” Jones has been involved in award-winning projects across the globe including the 2000 Sydney Olympics Master Concept Design and Chrissy Field in San Francisco’s Presidio. She led the firm’s work for the London Olympics 2012 Parklands project and is leading the design for Destination Bayfront in Corpus Christi, Texas, as well as a new Central Park for Oklahoma City. 

mmSeeking more insight into the creative design process for these vital outdoor corridors and gathering spaces, Modern In Denver caught up with Jones (right). Read on to learn about her approach for this integrated public realm of the multimodal hub that is Denver Union Station.

WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE PROJECT?
What an amazing site! Not many cities have such a large, undeveloped area that is so integral to downtown. In this case, the energy of LoDo, the connection to the river, and the investments that have been made into public open space—in the context of all that, we felt it was an amazing opportunity. Add in the historic Union Station and a development team committed to mixed-use. It’s everything needed to truly make a real neighborhood. 

DENVER HAS A LONG-STANDING COMMITMENT TO PUBLIC PARKS AND SPACES. HOW DOES YOUR DESIGN DRAW INSPIRATION FROM THIS PRECEDENT?
The concept of a rich and diverse public realm definitely builds upon Denver’s strong tradition of civic places and commitment to open space within the urban environment. The Union Station public realm is fairly unique within the array of public spaces that exist in Denver in its agenda of transformation, context of mixed use and multi-modal transportation systems, and new architecture in juxtaposition with the historic Union Station. The design of the public realm creates a stage for all of this that is timeless, elegant, dynamic, and robust. 

HOW DOES YOUR DESIGN FACTOR IN DENVER’S CLIMATE, HISTORY, AND CULTURE?
Wynkoop Plaza is about the history of Union Station and its future. We wanted the materials to balance what feels right for the space in both its historical and contemporary contexts. That led us to the selection of robust colors of stone that would relate to the weight and richness that Union Station has and deserves. The stone colors also relate to the brick of LoDo. The plaza’s paving pattern utilizes linear bands of granite to emulate the rail lines and the long, linear movement of railcars coming into the station and leaving. The fountain jets progress sequentially along those lines, as well.

WHAT WAS THE IMPETUS FOR INCORPORATING WATER FEATURES?
The civic nature of Wynkoop Plaza is incredibly important, and it needs to be an attraction as well as a setting for this gateway to the new neighborhood and the historic Union Station. Interactive water features are the best activators of public spaces throughout the world and particularly where summers can get hot. Even if one chooses not to get wet, the air is cooled. They also catch the light, create a sparkle in the sun, and create white noise to mask the adjacent traffic. The fountain is lit to create a beautiful effect at night and adds to the lively nighttime character of LoDo.

HOW DOES YOUR DESIGN RESPOND TO THE MOVEMENT THROUGH THE SITE?
The site has no back but has cafes spilling out from Union Station—people coming from surrounding streets, from inside the hotel, through the train station, over the platform bridge, and from the wing buildings that flank the new plaza. We carefully studied these movements and designed the planters, trees, and fountains to respond to the anticipated movement. 

WHAT MIGHT VISITORS DISCOVER IN THE PUBLIC REALM OVER TIME?
The 17th Street Gardens are going to continue to evolve as the gardens and plant materials mature, so there will be discovery every year as the landscape matures. As the trees grow in Wynkoop Plaza in the north half, it will completely change the experience, and the way the fountains get used in the south half will be a delight with each visit. The jets are flush with the plaza paving, so when they are turned off, there will be new uses for the plaza that will continue to surprise visitors. ♦

 

 2011_09_21_PLAN THE THREE SPACES


Three different landscapes make up the public realm outside Union Station, but the colors, paving materials, plantings, and elements were cohesively designed. Landscape architect Mary Margaret Jones describes the character of the three landscapes you’ll see at Union Station: 

1. Wynkoop Plaza is the big plaza in front of Union Station and was once filled with parking lots. Its design is based on history, the rail lines, and a careful analysis of sun and shade. An interactive fountain is located in the south half of Wynkoop Plaza. The north half features a shady grove of trees and paving with some areas of planted gardens, but mostly paving, because it will be used for spill-out from cafes and restaurants. 

2. 17th Street Gardens link Union Station to Light Rail Plaza. The design is less about history and more about the natural environment. We designed a series of gardens that correspond to the rhythm of the skylights above the underground bus concourse. Each garden is comprised of shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers that provide seasonal interest along with varying textures, colors, and scents. There are alternating panels of decomposed granite and grass, along with lots of benches and seat walls to provide the right mix of respite and activity along 17th Street. 

3. Light Rail Plaza fans out from the 17th Street Gardens to embrace the light rail stop at the terminus of the site. It’s the most contemporary design and has teardrop-shaped planters that respond to the organic pedestrian movement in this area. The plaza design also relates to the three sculptural ventilation pieces above the underground bus concourse, which SOM designed.

 

 

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