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Buell Public Media Center: New Era for Public Media in Arapahoe Square

Buell Public Media Center is the new, one-of-a-kind hub for Colorado’s leaders in public media and journalism. Courtesy Rocky Mountain Photography.


WORDS: Kevin Criss

What was once a neglected warehouse with a needle-strewn parking lot at the corner of 21st and Arapahoe streets in Denver is now Buell Public Media Center, the new, one-of-a-kind hub for Colorado’s leaders in public media and journalism.

When it opens next month, Buell Public Media Center will be home to Rocky Mountain Public Media, parent company of Rocky Mountain PBS, KUVO and sister station The Drop, as well as Rocky Mountain Public Media’s COLab, a shared working space for up to 90 local journalists from The Associated Press, The Colorado Independent, KGNU, Colorado Media Project, Colorado Press Association, The Colorado Sun, Chalkbeat, Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and Open Media Foundation.

The three-story, $35 million building is a tech-forward, eye-catching anchor in the evolving Arapahoe Square neighborhood.

The first floor of the 65,000-square-foot facility will feature a 125-seat Masterpiece Theater and a live-performance broadcast studio.

The first floor of the 65,000-square-foot facility will feature an expansive lobby, 125-seat Masterpiece Theater, green screen studio, a live-performance broadcast studio, a production studio, a children’s learning and programming center, classrooms, volunteer offices and conference rooms, community kitchen and event space, café with outdoor seating and private courtyard.

The second floor will be home to Rocky Mountain Public Media’s offices, KUVO and The Drop broadcast studios, KUVO offices, a lounge, members-only listening library, edit and production suites and the technological core needed for beaming media content to the world.

The third floor will be home to the COLab and a rooftop deck for private events, meetings and taking in the stellar views of the Denver skyline. Below grade is a 30,000-sf parking structure with 84 parking spaces.

A Vision for Something Greater

Amanda Mountain, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Public Media, had never designed a commercial real estate project in her life. But, to her this new venture meant the opportunity for something far more impactful for Colorado.

“The original impetus was to build a new space that would allow us to bring together our Denver-based staff who were spread out across two different locations,” says Mountain. “When I took over as CEO, I saw an additional opportunity to expand that vision to include public media as the center of local storytelling and journalism. So, we began to talk to potential partners who would be interested in contributing to this vision and through those conversations we arrived at what I would describe as a statewide center for public media.”

The location, originally brought to the table by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, was attractive to Rocky Mountain Public Media because of its location on the 5280 Loop, in the festival corridor and just a few blocks from Coors Field. The site provided the public visibility RMPM desired.

“There was an objective to increase accessibility and transparency of what we’re doing inside the building,” says Mountain. “Generally speaking, media facilities are concrete boxes and you don’t really know what’s happening inside. We did not want to take that tack. We love this neighborhood because it allows us to be more visible, where we will get more walk-in traffic, and where we could be, literally, transparent at the street level, bringing more windows into the space so that you can see media being made.”

2015 Mortenson and Tryba Join the Team

With their location secured, requests for proposals went out for an architecture firm and according to Mountain, Tryba Architects quickly rose to the top based on “their connection to the community and track record of building dynamic places of engagement.” Tryba helped determine and finalize Rocky Mountain Public Media’s programming needs, paying keen attention to its strict budgetary requirements.

Wells Partnership was brought on as owner’s representative and the teams entered into a design build agreement with Mortenson Construction. With Tryba’s supporting assets, Rocky Mountain Public Media kicked off its capital campaign, the lifeblood of the project.

The Buell Foundation, longtime partner of Rocky Mountain PBS, came on as lead sponsor with a $6 million investment and the rest of the $35 million was raised through traditional philanthropic support, property consolidation, land swaps and tax credits.

“It’s the largest fundraising project in Rocky Mountain Public Media history,” says Mountain. “In fact, this is only the second capital campaign in our 67-year history.”

The Design Phase

As the Tryba-Mortenson-Rocky Mountain Public Media team collaborated on design, the technical performance requirements of the space and need for visibility were center stage.

Located at Arapahoe and 21st streets, the neighborhood allows Rocky Mountain Public Media to be more visible, offering transparency at the street level, bringing more windows into the space so passersby can see media being made.

“A big concern for Tryba and Rocky Mountain Public Media was the integrator’s scope of work, which is everything that makes a TV and radio station function,” says Dave Espinosa, project executive with Mortenson. “There are many requirements unique to these facilities, such as high-rated walls for sound and acoustics, acoustical separations for the floors and all the requirements that come with the tech core itself where you have all the of the technology that is distributed to all the places around the building.”

“We’ve done performance spaces with similar requirements in terms of acoustics and sightlines, but just not the same degree of broadcast and recording overlay,” says Tryba’s John McIntyre, ANZIA, International Assoc. AIA. “There was also the vision for the building that was a response to (Rocky Mountain Public Media’s) values of being grounded and of its place while also projecting a sense of the future. We wanted to celebrate their programs and have them visible, accessible and a vital part of the local community.”

“What was really interesting was to create a building that feels very natural, comfortable and effortless and elegantly resolves the complicated interrelation between technology, building systems and spatial planning with this desire for community connection.”

External Expression Reflects the Mission

As the Mortenson crews wrap up the punch list and interior details are finetuned, Buell Public Media Center appears to have realized the ambitious vision of Mountain and her team.

Its overall scale, use of textured red brick and expansive courtyard moves seamlessly with the historic Paris Hotel building next door. The exterior skin’s metal panels, coupled with raw exposed iron beams on the interior, are clear nods to the neighborhood’s industrial past.

At the pedestrian level, walls of windows and wide, welcoming glass doors invite the public into the space and it feels more like a hotel entrance than a media center. The massive windows bathe the interior space in light and beautifully break up the massing. Along the 21st Street side where the Masterpiece Theater dominates, more large windows break up the massing, but these house 55-inch LED monitors that will beam live events, broadcasts and event schedules.

Along the Arapahoe-facing side, another expansive window welcomes pedestrians to stop and watch live concerts in the Performance Studio space. If visibility and transparency were the goals, the team delivered a show-stopper.

The grand lobby features a pleasant interweaving of industrial and contemporary finishes with cedar ceilings and two-story vertical wood slat wall panels adding warmth, beautiful hanging light fixtures, tan masonry walls, polished concrete floors and raw, exposed iron beams. It’s not overstated, but a level of elegance and sophistication not associated with a civic building.

Media’s New Way of Doing Business

“We believe the project has delivered significant value for RMPM and represents a real cultural shift,” says McIntyre. “It’s a different way of working, which I think is going to be really exciting for them as an organization.”

“I’m really proud of the team that came together to make this vision a reality,” says Mountain. “It has been a wild ride to get here in a relatively short period of time. Our team has just been so focused, so committed and that it’s even a reality for us to be moving in and be on budget is just a miracle. It’s a miracle created by these extraordinary people whose commitment far exceeds professional boundaries.”

And while the building itself is a success, what it means for the future of journalism in Colorado could be immense.

“It’s necessary,” says Susan Greene, editor at The Colorado Independent and former Denver Post columnist. “Many of us have spent much of our careers in newsrooms, so it will put us back in that creative environment where we have proximity to each other. News and collaboration grow out of that proximity. So, a coworking space, in addition to that sort of pre-existing spirit of collaboration, is a way to really change the way we do business.”

Published in the June 2020 issue of Building Dialogue.

Edited by Building Dialogue