The Denver Post – ALEX SCOVILLE
Amber Maestas is alert as she sits in the square, modern-style, waiting room chair. The 26-year-old Westminster resident is nervous, yes, but it’s a joyous set of nerves. She’s waiting to share good news with her case manager, Michael Amador: She got a job.
The offer from Walmart is one big step in many that Maestas has taken with help from the Adams County Human Services Department. Soon after she and her three children moved to Westminster from Denver, they lost their apartment and became homeless.
“It’s a lot to go through right now, so I’m just trying to build back up,” she said.
With the county’s help Maestas tuned up her resume and found affordable child care for her 2-year-old, which makes it “a lot easier” to work, Maestas said. She’s received a lot of support from the county and appreciates the amenities found at the new county human services center.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, they really upgraded,’” Maestas said, recalling her first visit.
The 315,000-square-foot Pete Mirelez Human Services Center opened to the public Sept. 11 after four years of development. More than a dozen programs and nearly 800 employees previously spread across five buildings moved in over 10 days. There’s also a Community Partners Suite that houses staff members of six organizations, including the Adams County Housing Authority.
The building, funded entirely by the Cultural Facilities Sales Tax, is polished and filled with well-researched details — highlighting the best client-service aspects of a hotel lobby, a futuristic DMV, a pediatrician’s office and a slick fast-casual restaurant. Nods to the property’s historic past as apple and cherry orchards abound. The sparkling floors display an abstract root pattern, different programs and floors are marked by colorful murals featuring tree imagery, and the modern furniture and towering windows are accented with exposed wood.
The building’s finer touches are emblematic of the human service department’s ethos, said deputy director Brian Kenna.
“We tried to create a space here that reflects what we believe people can become, not necessarily what circumstance brings to us,” he said.
The building blends form and function. It was designed to meet needs expressed by staff members. For example, by learning which programs held the most meetings, where the majority of clients live and how many people access specific services each day, Kenna and other department heads identified such design elements as the size of each office and the number of check-in windows.
One of the biggest client-oriented design decisions is also the most simple: all programs and services are on the ground level. No one is checking in with a receptionist on the third floor for an appointment on the sixth floor. The check-in counter is front and center upon entry and clients turn left or right to services in the building’s ground-floor wings. The vibrant murals act as way finders. “Look for the red tree” is much friendlier than “go to suite 5-B.” There are waiting areas designed specifically for families featuring colorful couches, toys and TVs playing “Arthur.”
Grouping various social service agencies in one building is a boon to residents who rely on public transportation. For example, clients enrolled in the workforce program who commuted by bus previously relied on a single route that ran once an hour. When they were referred to other programs — located in other buildings across town — they often failed to show up because it was too time-consuming to get to other sites on public transportation, officials said.
The Pete Mirelez Human Services Center not only is home to many needed services, it’s right off I-25 and around the corner from the Wagon Road Park-n-Ride. A new light rail stop will open across the highway. Instead of traipsing across the county for another appointment, a client walks down the hall.
The center also aims to ease access to services by going paperless. Clients check in digitally from home or from a hub of computers in the lobby, all set to the Colorado PEAK website. Visitors can easily access and update their account, request appointments, and fill out applications.
The building also was designed with future growth in mind, director of public information Jim Siedlecki said. There is space to add staff members to serve a county population of 500,000 that is projected to grow to 750,000 by 2040.
The building is a huge upgrade for county employees, too. Staff areas have skylights and large windows that let natural light flood in. Workers’ cubicles feature a modern design and sound-masking walls that preserve client privacy. There’s a full cafeteria with a commercial kitchen, a roomy dining area and a fitness space that includes showers and a yoga room.
“We really started from a pretty low bar” at the old buildings, Kenna said. “I think we succeeded and more.”
Beyond improving services for clients and the environment for staff, Kenna is proud that the new human services building makes a statement. People all too often link low-income families with “lesser” buildings, he said. Kenna sees the opposite: The county’s neediest residents deserve and benefit from spaces that represent the opportunity and aid that is available to them, he said.
“If we provide the special space for all our citizens, it enhances everything, it brings the society forward,” Kenna said.