Looking to Auraria's future while studying the lessons of its past

Few events in the life of a city are as relentlessly cheerful as a groundbreaking for a new school building. It's a time for back-slapping congratulations and lofty, forward-looking speeches; for misty-eyed reminiscences about the eternal struggle to advance educational ideals; for bold declarations about the opportunities and challenges facing the students of tomorrow.

Best of all, it's a chance to see well-tailored politicians and administrators don shiny hard hats, plunge pristine shovels into a ceremonial mound of dirt, as if threatening to actually break a sweat — and then freeze, tight-grinned, in a kind of onerous half-crouch, to oblige the flashing cameras seeking to record this peculiar, history-making moment.

See also:
- Auraria campus expansion: See plans for new athletic fields and more
- Auraria as it used to be: Photos from a long-gone neighborhood
- Auraria neighborhood "doomed," predicted 1975 campus impact study

As public theater, the University of Colorado Denver's groundbreaking for a new edifice a few weeks ago offered all the essential rituals. The $65 million student-services building, which will also house lecture halls featuring what UCD chancellor Don Elliman describes as "a tremendous amount of technology," is a particular point of Buffalo pride. It's the biggest construction project in the school's forty-year history — and also the first building devoted exclusively to UCD students on the bustling Auraria campus, which also hosts the Community College of Denver and Metropolitan State University of Denver in its maze of shared classrooms and study areas.

The new building also promises to be a strategic bit of branding by the university. It's located on the edge of campus, replacing a parking lot at the corner of Larimer Street and Speer Boulevard — not far from the spot where Denver began, and where 25,000 motorists streaming by every day will see the prominent CU logo.

"More than just branding, it's a wonderful location, an entry point into Auraria and into Denver," Elliman told Westword shortly before the ceremony. "We're thrilled. It allows us to consolidate our student services and to make the student experience much more pleasant, much more efficient. For students to register today at University of Colorado Denver, they have to go to five or six different buildings. It's going to be one-stop shopping."

At the groundbreaking, there was much chatter about one-stop shopping among the assembled university regents and honchos, city officials and downtown business drummers. A video presented various faculty and students talking about the new building as a "gateway" and as an urgently needed space on the campus, which was designed to accommodate 15,000 students when it opened in 1977 and now serves nearly three times that number.

CU president Bruce Benson, who's been involved in the growth of Auraria in various capacities over the years — even serving as chair of Metro State's board of trustees, back when Metro was content to refer to itself as a college — reflected on the rough-and-tumble early days of UCD, when classrooms were scattered downtown and pregnant women were discouraged from taking courses involving the use of toxic laboratory and computer equipment.

"We've come a long way since the Tramway Building across Speer," he said, "which was known as UCLA — the University of Colorado between Lawrence and Arapahoe."

Other speakers noted that UCD's undergraduate population has grown by 50 percent in the last decade and that it now confers more graduate degrees than any other institution in the state. Denver mayor Michael Hancock, UCD grad and honored guest, feigned shock when someone mentioned the annual budget of the CU system as a whole.

"I had no idea y'all had three billion dollars," he said. "Next time, instead of a plaque, can you forgive my student loan?"

During his mayoral campaign, Hancock added, he often cited the Auraria campus as an example of successful economic development in the heart of the city: "If we activated and brought the intellectual capital of this campus to integrate itself into the city, that becomes the greatest economic opportunity that we have."

Ironically, the current boom in higher education has been, at least in part, the result of a failing economy. Collegians have waited out the grim job market of the past few years by staying on campus longer, and layoffs have sent older workers back to school to retool. Tough times can be good for academia, and this is a particularly dynamic period of growth for Auraria. Construction projects are sprouting across the complex; UCD's new building is only the latest in a series of expensive new flagships launched by the three institutions as they stake out their respective "neighborhoods" on the campus.

Last year, the Community College of Denver broke ground on its own one-stop shop, a $40 million, four-story, 87,000-square-foot structure known as the Confluence Building that will house CCD's admissions, registration, financial aid and academic-advising services, as well as a cafe and classrooms; the building is expected to be finished this summer. Last spring, Metro opened its own $62 million Student Success Building, a sprawling and airy 145,000-square-foot conglomeration of administrative offices and classrooms for MSU's exclusive use. The project was paid for entirely by student fees; nearby is a SpringHill Suites Hotel that houses Metro's Hospitality Learning Center, the result of a public-private partnership deal with Marriott that provides the hotelier a prime location downtown while offering future hotel executives a hands-on education.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast