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Bridges to Nowhere

Emblems of a bulldozing era, downtown's skybridges become a sore point.

A half-dozen concrete bridges span the streets of downtown Denver, eerily lacking the one thing they were designed for: pedestrians. The bridges are the legacy of a 1960s urban renewal project that came up with the bizarre goal of getting pedestrians off the streets, but almost no one uses them, and some have even started to crumble. Several of the bridges are actually fenced off and impossible to cross. Many downtown residents want to see the bridges come down, but getting rid of them promises to be harder than putting them up ever was.

The bridges connect buildings that were part of the Skyline Urban Renewal Project. That undertaking was hatched in the mid-1960s by Denver's civic leaders, who leveled a huge chunk of historic Denver to make way for the faceless high-rises that line 17th and 18th streets. Linking all these projects with pedestrian bridges became an integral part of downtown's brave new world.

"It was a nutty idea," says Z.L. Pearson, president of the Larimer Place Condominium Owners Association. "They're as useless as tits on a boar."

Pearson and his fellow Larimer Place residents have to look at one of the bridges that joins their high-rise with Writer Square across Larimer Street. And look is all they can do: That bridge is gated and inaccessible.

"It's basically unused and an eyesore," says Pearson. "It impairs the view down Larimer Street. I'm sure most of the residents want it taken down."

Many of the major Skyline projects have bridges: Two stretch across Larimer and 19th streets from Sakura Square; another links the 17th Street Plaza office tower to the Bank One building at 18th and Lawrence; a bridge spans 17th to join the US West tower to Independence Plaza; and a crumbling bridge at 17th and Larimer links the Barclay tower to the Windsor condominiums.

About half the bridges are blocked off to the public; the one linking the Barclay and the Windsor is in the worst shape. Steve Guillaume, manager and building engineer for the Windsor condominiums, says a lack of expansion joints has caused the bridge to begin crumbling.

"That's why there's fencing underneath it, to hold the concrete that's fallen off," he says. The residents of both buildings want the bridge removed, he adds, but haven't been able to come up with $25,000 to take it down. They're now hoping to find someone--perhaps a golf course owner--who might need a bridge and would be willing to help pay for its removal.

"We even have somebody here who owns a crane company that would donate the crane," Guillaume adds.

A few years ago the residents approached the City of Denver for help in removing the bridge, but the city wasn't interested. "I think the city should get involved," Guillaume says. "It would make downtown better to get rid of them. They required us to put them up, so I don't see why they couldn't help us get rid of them."

The sky bridges are a highly visible reminder of an era that reshaped downtown Denver. The Skyline project razed scores of historic buildings to make way for Denver's 1970s high-rise boom, but bitter feelings over the project still haunt the city.

When the Skyline project was conceived in the mid-1960s, Larimer Street had a national reputation as one of the most colorful skid rows in the United States. While this delighted Jack Kerouac, who wrote about lower downtown in his classic novel On the Road, it horrified Denver's elite, who were embarrassed to have a row of notorious bars (including one nicknamed "Bucket of Blood") right on the doorstep of the 17th Street financial district.

The Denver Urban Renewal Authority inaugurated the Skyline project in 1968, eventually demolishing 27 square blocks of old Denver, an area roughly the size of today's lower downtown. Authorities leveled five blocks of Larimer, the oldest commercial street in Denver, sparing only the block that became Larimer Square.

Most of the buildings that took the place of the nineteenth-century brick and stone buildings have all the character of military bunkers. They have few retail storefronts, instead replacing those with bare walls and entrances to parking garages. Pedestrians avoid these projects, which accounts for the sterility of long stretches of 18th Street and several blocks of Larimer.

Pedestrians never found their way to the bridges, either. Originally the Skyline project envisioned a series of above-ground plazas and shopping centers linked by the bridges. The handful of plazas that were built under Skyline guidelines are mostly windswept and deserted, and few pedestrians are even aware they exist. Marvin Hatami, a Denver architect who helped plan the skywalks in the 1960s, says the concept of creating a second-level city for pedestrians was never followed through.

"It was a bastardization of an idea," he says. "The idea got watered down to just connecting the buildings with bridges."

City policy now discourages construction of bridges over the street, says Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton. "The skybridges were an early-Seventies idea that time has shown was not a particularly good one," she adds. Some cold-weather cities like Minneapolis have linked major downtown buildings with enclosed skywalks, but Moulton says that's not a good idea for Denver. "The concept was to separate cars from pedestrians. Minneapolis did this, but we don't have that type of weather."

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