In the heart of Denver lies a gold mine. At least that’s what the residents of Auraria, Ga., believed when they traveled across the Great Plains to Kansas Territory in 1858, three weeks before William Larimer platted the future “Denver City.”
The gold rush didn’t last long – Auraria was annexed into Denver less than two years after its founding – but the site just west of downtown Denver remained a center of commerce, hosting uses such as a gas station; a service and maintenance center for streetcars; facilities for food production, including biscuit manufacturing; and homes for some of the city’s residents.
Eventually, Denver officials saw a higher use for the 126-acre site and built the Auraria Higher Education Center in 1977. Today, it teems with the energy of more than 40,000 students enrolled in three institutions on the site, plus thousands more faculty, staff members and visitors. It’s estimated that 20 percent of all students pursuing public higher education in Colorado attend an institution at this downtown campus, which encompasses Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Colorado Denver.
But even 1977 is ancient history these days, and in the early part of the last decade city and campus administration began planning for expansion and renovation of the vibrant campus. In the past two years, three projects were launched – the Center for Student Success and the Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center for Metro State, and the Student Learning and Engagement Center for Community College of Denver. Our firm, CTL|Thompson, was called upon early on to lead a three-phase assessment, including research, soil and groundwater testing, and fieldwork to ready these sites for building construction.
The sites for all three projects were parking lots paved over in the 1970s, but given our knowledge of the area’s history, we knew we’d find evidence of the site’s colorful past hidden underneath the asphalt.
Thus, the first phase of our environmental site assessment and research started at the Denver Public Library and Auraria Campus Archive. We reviewed old maps, photographs and city directories. We interviewed officials with Auraria campus, who were tremendously helpful in ensuring we understood what we might find.
In the second phase, test pits were drilled with a drill rig and a backhoe to gather soil and groundwater data, allowing us to conduct analyses. Like the work done in the first phase, the results from this second phase ultimately helped with the presentation and formulation of a plan carried out in the final phase. The third, labor-intensive piece consisted of environmental oversight during earthwork. As excavation began, CTL was onsite to monitor and test soils and materials to mitigate any surprises during the building construction.
When Metro State’s Student Success building opened in early April, about 145,000 additional square feet of space was made available for classrooms and faculty offices. Gone is evidence of the 19th-century water pipes, early 20th-century bottles and cans, and phone books from the 1930s and ’40s, which were unearthed by crews and passed into the care of Auraria campus archivists, eager to build upon knowledge of the city’s past.
As engineers, we view every site as what it once was – and what it has the potential to be. Working on a brownfield site with hazardous materials doesn’t intimidate remediation specialists with a grasp of the task, knowing there is a distinct process to follow and that oversight agencies are willing to remediate and redevelop these infill areas. Together, regulatory agencies, environmental firms, developers and property owners can create thriving properties that add real value to the community.
We cannot eliminate every surprise, but a thorough investigation minimizes surprises as much as possible – and that’s exactly the outcome you want to see.
Matthew Wardlow is CTL|Thompson’s Environmental Division Manager. He has extensive experience in performing and environmental site assessments and field investigations, as well as evaluating and remediating brownfields (real or perceived contaminated properties) for purchase and redevelopment.