It's Not Easy Being Green
The Rocky Mountain Progressive Network has undergone some changes in recent months -- and, no, it hasn't recruited Ward Churchill as its new spokesman. To gain a larger national presence, its name has been changed to Progressnow.org; it's hired the technophile behind Howard Dean's much-lauded Internet campaign to launch the new electronic crusade; and executive director (and former Westword intern) Michael Huttner ditched his law firm to run the organization full-time. But the biggest change was moving into the network's new digs on the second floor of the Alliance Center, a hugely ambitious project in LoDo that will soon house 23 progressive-leaning nonprofits.
The $5.25 million center is operated under the umbrella of the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, a nonprofit founded last year by John Powers. As a longtime boardmember of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, the former rancher from Rifle often envisioned a "multi-tenant non-profit center" where local public-interest groups could pool resources and collaborate on projects. "Our society's problems are so big at this point that it requires everybody to address them at the same time," Powers says. "We can't remain factionalized."
Last June, he took the first step by purchasing the historic Otero building, at 1536 Wynkoop Street, from the Tattered Cover Book Store and the Wynkoop Brewing Co.; half a dozen nonprofits had already set up shop there. That's not surprising, because the building was part of a project developed by Mayor John Hickenlooper and Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis. Powers used a significant chunk of his own money as a down payment and put his own home up as collateral to gain a construction loan for the $700,000 needed to renovate the 38,000 square feet into affordable, below-market office space.
After months of construction, his brainchild finally came to fruition last week, as crews put the final touches on the center and a variety of tenants -- including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Colorado Common Cause, Historic Denver, the Center for Native Ecosystems and the Latina Initiative -- moved in or resettled. Each of the building's five floors contains a shared conference room, copier and commons area. The bottom level features bike storage, showers, and a cafe supplied with healthy-snack vending machines. In addition, tenants have services at their disposal that they wouldn't be able to afford individually: high-speed Internet, centralized telecommunications, and access to two full-time information-technology specialists who provide assistance with computer networks, technology training and website development.
But for Huttner, the best amenity was the opportunity for interaction with like-minded advocacy groups. "Progressnow.org is a multi-issue progressive organization," he says. "So we have a nexus with all the different nonprofits in here. Which is great for us, because if we need environmental information, we can go upstairs to the Colorado Environmental Coalition. For health, the Colorado Health Initiative just moved in on the first floor, and we can go down and talk to them."
For the second phase of the $20 million project, Powers plans to construct a 50,000-square-foot, six-story office building on an adjacent lot. The new wing, designed as a studio project by architecture students at the University of Colorado at Denver, will house thirty more groups as well as incorporate a small conference facility, parking, residences and a rooftop garden. Powers and project manager Dennis Fleming are also examining the possibility of purchasing the Colorado Saddlery Co. building next door, which would offer space for housing, more nonprofits and a retail bazaar of eco-friendly goods and services.
This co-op-style model has been established in cities such as San Francisco and Cleveland, but the Alliance venture is one of the first in the nation to combine a significant level of eco-friendly green building construction with a high-concept plan, one that Powers hopes will split costs while fostering cooperation among leaseholders.
Powers knows how numerous applicants often stake their survival on the same branch of the money tree during annual funding battles. "It's quite common, actually, to have two organizations send in requests for funding that were doing relatively similar work and in many cases not even know the other one existed," says Powers, who also sits on the board of a foundation that gives endowments. For years he argued that by pooling resources in a shared office space, groups could dramatically cut overhead costs. But for him, it's not just about pinching pennies; it's about sustainability. And not just environmental sustainability, either. He describes it as the type of long-term thinking that creates durable relationships that are more resilient than the kind based solely around quarterly reports or elections. He points to the strange political bedfellows that assembled around last fall's FasTracks initiative as an example.
Huttner agrees that the possibility of quality face-to-face interaction between employees and the public is one of the most appealing aspects of the building: "Sometimes with all the conference calls and e-mail lists, the human element is lost. But here, it's almost easier to meet in person."
Fleming hopes that the finished complex will be more of a gathering place than an enclave, and he calls the building "high-touch and high-tech." Certainly its proximity to Union Station and Market Street Station makes it an ideal location for the experiment -- and it's also across the street from the former U.S. Postal Service annex building, a seventy-foot-tall brick shoebox lined with loading docks that's being torn down to make way for the Environmental Protection Agency's new Region 8 headquarters.
Powers believes that area will become a showcase of green building design in a state where such objectives are sorely lacking. "I wanted it to be within twenty blocks of the State Capitol," he says. "So that if we did good things in the construction of the building, we could be a demonstration for legislators who could change building-code standards. As well, people that were promoting sustainability would have good access to the legislature. And then politicians, if they wanted to, could have access to those people in one place."
The paint isn't even dry, and already the U.S. Green Building Council has taken notice. The Alliance Center has been offered the spot as the "Legacy Project" for the environmentally responsible industry group's annual convention, which will be held in Denver in 2006. When Fleming excitedly relays this information, Powers puckers his graying mustache and looks around at the collection of moving boxes that currently take up the center's main office. "Well, that's very good," he says with less enthusiasm, perhaps, than Fleming was expecting.
Powers's mind is already racing over how he is going to raise the $12 million needed to construct the second building and millions more needed for a major retrofit of the older wing that will qualify the center for the Green Building Council's environmental certification. He plans to begin a fundraising campaign right away and is confident that donors will open their checkbooks once they see the progress that's already been made. If all goes according to plan, the Alliance Center could become a clearinghouse of free ideas and collaboration in the progressive front. Sustainable and convenient. Who knew?
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