When a historic church was granted rights to develop a section of Arapahoe Street in downtown Golden, Colorado, they called a well-known landscape architect to brainstorm. Considering multiple options over several years, the church was unwavering in their goal to create a space that would build community and serve as the heart of the city. Aligning with Golden’s 2030 plan to make the city more green, walkable and social, the landscape architect helped to envision a plaza that has since become a popular town square.
Elements include abundant landscaping, cafe seating, custom lighting and woodwork, a water feature, accessible ramps and terraced steps – including built-in infrastructure for future use as an amphitheater – and an expanded parking deck that has helped to address a city-wide need not only for parking but also for event space. The project turned an extremely steep and barely functional street into an active pedestrian thoroughfare, connecting the adjacent Colorado School of Mines and residential neighborhoods with the Washington Street retail district and Clear Creek’s active recreation hub a few blocks away.
A lively, lushly landscaped public space in downtown Golden, Colorado, has recently opened to accommodate festivals, art and farmers markets, chili cook-offs and community celebrations while providing additional connectivity and parking for the busy city center.
When an historic church was granted rights to develop a section of Arapahoe Street in downtown Golden, Colorado, they called a well-known landscape architect to brainstorm. Considering multiple options over several years, the church was unwavering in their goal to create a space that would build community and serve as the heart of the city. They’d once considered using the space for a new church sanctuary, but by aligning with Golden’s 2030 plan to make the city more green, walkable and social, the landscape architect helped to envision an outdoor plaza that has since become a popular town square.
The project has energized the downtown area, creating much needed pedestrian connection between the Colorado School of Mines, downtown Golden’s popular retail district, and the abundant recreation opportunities along Clear Creek. It also serves to connect a small campus of buildings owned by the 150-year-old church, offering expanded outdoor space for events, including outdoor services, concerts, and receptions.
In its original form, the inaccessible street was too steep to function as a gathering space. But the hillside perch offered vistas of the Rocky Mountain foothills, and a valuable location at the heart of the city. Taking inspiration from iconic public spaces such as Rome’s Spanish Steps and Barcelona’s Parc Guell, the landscape architect saw the site’s steep topography as an opportunity to physically adapt the space to enhance relationships between neighbors and communities that had felt disconnected.
To achieve the vision, the former right-of-way was transformed into a large central plaza nestled between terraces and grand steps, intertwined with the historic tree canopy along with new foliage and colorful plantings of native grasses and seasonal flowers. Integrated ramps make all levels of the terraced park accessible, while custom benches, seating areas, lighting and brick and stone patterns – recalling Golden’s mining camp history – serve to animate the space.
The church has served as a founding pillar of Golden since its earliest days – a position that motivated its continued mission to build and connect the community with this new plaza. New outdoor seating supports an existing, popular cafe on the site. A new parking facility is also part of the project, alleviating some of Golden’s parking challenges with an upper deck that transforms into event space, accommodating up to eighty 10×10 tents.
The parking deck is conveniently positioned between the church and an existing hotel, offering additional event space for their use as well. The deck is often utilized for art festivals and other local events such as “Bike Golden” that celebrates the city’s outdoor recreation with food trucks and brewery stalls; it’s also been the site of multiple weddings and the local police department’s annual ball.
The terraced steps are landscaped with native grasses and flowers, including echinacea, that ensure each season enjoys a natural display of red – inspired by the Spanish Steps’ famous azaleas. The same steps are fitted with connections that will eventually support the addition of removable bleachers, which can be safely placed above the plantings and used for future performances in an amphitheater setting. Storage facilities built into the parking deck also support this future use.
A water feature flows down the steps, mimicking a natural spring that once existed on this site. Young elm trees were intentionally selected for the tall ceiling that will be established as they grow, creating a volume of space for the plaza below. Poles supporting canvas canopies and tivoli lights also contribute to this ceiling.
Local artisans were selected to design and build custom light fixtures for the outdoor cafe area, fitting old, hollowed tree trunks with internal metal columns and lampshades constructed of Corten steel that weathers into an earthy copper-colored patina. The pieces are now considered iconic to the Golden downtown and give a nod to the natural landscape of the town while recognizing the local talent in the community.
Other local craftsmen created picnic tables and a long bench using wood sourced nearby. The bench brings a warm component to the plaza, which features brick and concrete pavers and poured concrete walls and ramps. Above the bench, a biblical quote – “Seek the Peace of the City” – is engraved into the concrete, honoring the church as the host of this now popular gathering spot.
The stairway park has provided a convenient route and the necessary link between Golden’s renowned School of Mines campus and the city’s downtown area where none has existed before and has become a natural part of the rich fabric of the historic city, a destination for both quiet enjoyment and community celebration.
The landscape architect’s long-term vision for this site and the streets that radiate beyond it is what ultimately convinced the city of Golden to approve the church’s development plans. Future plans include proposed street and sidewalk improvements between the School of Mines and the local high school. Plans also include transforming an old hardware store and parking lot into a theater and a grand park.
The additions provided by the church’s donation have already caused a roaring uptick in local community experiences. For example, a deeply rooted tradition in Golden is to hold a parade every Friday during the month of December. As Christmas nears, the last parade includes tens of thousands of residents and visitors processing along the parade route with candles – a dramatic sight that now terminates at the new plaza. By choosing to prioritize community, the church has made a statement on what makes Golden, Golden.
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