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Razin' in the Sun

This is Historic Denver Week, which neatly overlaps with National Historic Preservation Week. And so on Thursday, Mayor Wellington Webb is scheduled to speak on the "importance of preserving, renovating and reusing Denver's historic structures." He will do so at the newly refurbished Holtze Executive Place on 17th Street.

No way you'll catch Webb near Zeckendorf Plaza, where Fred Kummer, president of the St. Louis-based HBE Corporation, is ready, as Kummer told one reporter, "to really start tearing the hell out of things."

Beginning with Denver's heart.
Last year at this time, historic preservationists were fighting a losing battle to save the hyperbolic paraboloid, the soaring shape at 16th Street and Court Place that had lifted Denver's spirits for decades. But Kummer coveted the Zeckendorf site for a $135 million expansion of his Adam's Mark Hotel, an expansion that would purportedly give Denver a major convention-center hotel--something city officials wanted in the worst way.

Which is how they got it.
And the public is paying the price. The city is not just losing a piece of history; it is financing its obliteration. On May 3 the Denver Urban Renewal Authority gave final approval to the bond deal that will give Kummer and company a $33 million subsidy. Kummer apparently has plenty of faith in his project: He bought one entire series of the bonds, for which DURA will pay him 12 percent interest--out of the money that the city won't be collecting in taxes on the property.

In exchange, though, Denver will have a big, shiny box of a hotel, instead of that run-down old plaza.

In an extraordinarily heartfelt--for a bureaucrat, at least--essay in the current Urban Design Forum newsletter, city planner Tyler Gibbs offers his assessment of "The Loss of Zeckendorf Plaza." The original plaza, he writes, "accomplished a physical and spiritual renewal beyond its architectural and urban design excellence. It transfigured the mundane vernacular of the department store box with the exuberance of the paraboloid, sacrificing pure function in order to reach to and celebrate the interaction of street and marketplace. The public skating rink was embraced as the heart of the complex in a healing gesture to the public history of the site."

And what healing gesture will Kummer make after he removes that heart? He'll install a row of ballerina statues created by a St. Louis sculptor, "public" art paid for with our money, stretching along the hotel's portico that will occupy formerly public space--the old skating rink.

"In Denver," writes Gibbs, "the loss of both a landmark and its potential for quality renewal is a disaster."

And this was a disaster of Denver's own making. Desperate to bring something, anything, to this downtrodden end of downtown, from the beginning the city gave Kummer every indication that it would help pave the way--perhaps literally--for his project. Although candidate Webb had vowed his support for the preservationists, the newly re-elected mayor was only too willing to agree that the paraboloid had to go, and city council followed suit. With that obstacle out of the way, Kummer kept demanding--and the city kept conceding. Kathleen Brooker, the director of Historic Denver, still mourns the loss of the paraboloid but also points out that the "goal of a landmark-quality replacement building wasn't met, either."

DURA never put up much of a fuss; nor did Gibbs's boss, planning director Jennifer Moulton (the former head of Historic Denver). And when one city department finally did complain--Denver's traffic engineer declined in January to approve the permit for the project, citing obstructions on the public right-of-way (dance, ballerina, dance!) --the city ignored him and instead announced that there had been "no objection to granting the subject permit."

"In this case neither our architects or our guidelines could do much more than help extend the debate for nine months, in the end falling far short of the desired result," writes Gibbs. "When review reaches the stage of weighing 'relative badness,' the point is lost...The acceptance of a project that did not meet the letter or spirit of the guidelines reflects the dissolution of the initial community consensus in the face of months of belligerence and stone-walling on the part of Fred Kummer."

And so, a few days from now, the walls of the paraboloid will come tumbling down and a shiny big box will start taking its place. Unless, that is, Kummer postpones "tearing the hell out of things" for a month or so and waits until the National Association for African American Heritage Preservation vacates his hotel; that group is scheduled to host its first annual conference there in June.

While an I.M. Pei-designed structure might not rate a footnote in African-American history, Kummer is well on his way to becoming an entire chapter. In 1994 he and HBE lost a racial-discrimination suit filed by two former employees of the Adam's Mark in St. Louis. In February of this year--on the same day the Denver City Attorney's office was polishing up the permit that allows HBE's "encroachment" on Court Place--a federal judge upheld the $5 million racial-discrimination judgment against HBE and ordered Kummer to hire a neutral third party to monitor the hotel's compliance with the laws, saying she wasn't sure Kummer would do it on his own.

Although Denver officials had known of Kummer's 1994 loss, that didn't stop the city from pushing for a DURA subsidy. In light of the judge's new ruling, though, Webb and Kummer came up with a thirteen-point checklist to make sure everything in Denver would remain on the up-and-up. Earlier this month, however, attorney Mary Celeste filed complaints with the EEOC on behalf of five local Adam's Mark employees--three of them black--claiming discrimination at Kummer's Denver hotel. And since then, at least three more people have joined in.

But all of this did not stop the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission from holding its January banquet at the Adam's Mark Hotel; and just two weeks ago the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver held its fiftieth anniversary celebration at the same venue.

If Webb really wanted to display Denver's commitment to preservation, he'd skip the Holtze and head those few blocks over to Zeckendorf--for a real look at history in the taking.

As Lewis Mumford wrote (and Gibbs quotes), "Architecture, like government, is about as good as a community deserves.

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