Post Mortem

It used to be that real estate developers actually had to have plans to build something new before the Denver City Council would let them demolish a historic building. But at the council meeting February 23, Denver developer Bruce Berger didn't have to come up with even that much. He didn't bring any blueprints with him--just a twinkle in his eye and a big load of chutzpah. And that's all that was necessary to have the council--as predicted here in January--sell yet another of Denver's important cultural assets down the river. By its 9-3 vote last week, the council condemned to the wrecker's ball Temple Buell's marvelous 1950 art-moderne-style Denver Post building.

The councilmembers accomplished this by granting Berger a zoning change that gave him the right to tear down the building and replace it with a parking lot. Of course, leveling historic downtown properties to make way for parking lots was expressly prohibited under the B-5 zoning the building formerly enjoyed. That moratorium on new surface parking downtown was part of a foward-looking policy that Barbara Paul, regional director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, calls the "only concession" the Webb administration made to the preservation community in the sometimes rancorous negotiations over downtown development that raged for several years beginning in the early 1990s.

Paul was one of a small army of preservationists who came out last week to defend the Post building against Berger's dream of a parking lot. Joining her was Story Sweat, the chairman of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, who explained to the council that Denver has a national reputation as a center for mid-century modern architecture. Sweat also shared the news that the landmark commission had unanimously declared the building eligible for historic designation. This should have made a difference to the council, but it didn't.

Historic buildings define the established character of a city--and that's worth money. So it's ironic that the campaign to save the Post building has been lost just as historic preservation is proving to be a financial success. This has been true not just in LoDo, but in the heart of Denver--for example, at 17th and Champa streets, where no less than six historic buildings are now being rehabbed for a variety of uses. Plus there are those high resale values in several of the city's older residential areas. The beautiful old homes of the Capitol Hill, Cheesman Park, Congress Park, Country Club and Washington Park neighborhoods are the main attraction of these areas.

But despite the power and logic of their arguments, preservationists knew that saving the Post building was a long shot at best, and there was an air of resignation in the council chambers. Berger had said repeatedly that he wouldn't consider saving the building--not even the facade. End of discussion. It's a trick he no doubt learned from Fred Kummer, the St. Louis-based developer of the notorious Adam's Mark Hotel. In that case, Kummer refused to say yes to anything--except a huge subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority.

After watching Berger's parking-lot pitch to the council, it's apparent the man's not just a real estate developer, but a master illusionist as well. And, boy, can he work that smoke and those mirrors.

Here's what Berger revealed at the public hearing:
* He doesn't actually own the building yet (it's still the property of Los Angeles media conglomerate Times Mirror, Inc).

* He does have it under contract, but there's a precondition to the sale--that city council approve the zoning change, allowing surface parking.

* He doesn't really want to build a parking lot at all, despite the fact that it could be expected to generate more than $800,000 per year in revenue. Instead, he'd rather go forward with the construction of a 1,000-room hotel on the site to service the Colorado Convention Center across the street.

Not that there's any plan to construct such a hotel on the site--or any need for one. It's an acknowledged fact that only if voters endorse bonds to pay for a convention-center expansion will the city be able to support a downtown hotel of that size. Berger did promise in a letter sent to each councilmember that he would permit the inclusion of covenants that would limit future development of the site to hotel construction. But he really couldn't share the specifics of those covenants--which would expire in four years anyway--until he closed on the property, which, of course, he couldn't do until the council granted him the zoning change he wanted.

Whew!
To sum up Berger's testimony, the only thing the developer really promised the city council was that he'd replace the old Post building with a parking lot--and that if a hotel does eventually get built on the site, he'll be back for a big, fat public subsidy, most probably from DURA, whose officials Berger has already met with. After all, market forces can't be expected to work all by themselves in downtown Denver; then we'd get the adaptive reuse of historic buildings like we've seen at 17th and Champa streets. And isn't it funny that only demolition and new construction seem to need subsidies, as we saw when $25 million of public money helped erase I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza and make room for the awful Adam's Mark? Ah, the mysterious workings of the so-called free enterprise system.

Some may recall that it was the dream of a convention-center hotel that was the chief argument used to condemn Zeckendorf to the trash heap of history. This makes the old Post building the second historic structure that will be demolished to bail out the foundering center.

The lack of a large downtown hotel is said to explain the terrible economic track record of the convention center, a facility that since its completion in 1988 has never had a year when it's been booked at more than half of its capacity. But those boosters from the pie-in-the-sky club at the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as the pro-development cheerleaders at Downtown Denver, Inc., deny what this obviously means--that the convention center is twice as large as it needs to be. No, they say the problem is that it's just too darned small! So there's a proposal floating around to double the size of the already-too-big facility--which in turn would provide the justification for Berger's imaginary hotel.

By the way, the convention-center addition would be built on the scraped site of the Currigan Exhibition Hall, an ultra-sophisticated 1960s modernist building designed by the legendary architect Bill Muchow. Should that come to pass, it would make three important downtown buildings obliterated to bail out the convention center, not counting the entire neighborhood that was bulldozed to build the scaleless monstrosity in the first place. Luckily, it's unlikely that this will happen anytime soon. Only a starry-eyed dreamer could possibly believe that in the current political climate voters would endorse this kind of boondoggle by passing a bond issue to pay for it. Heck, even a new football stadium is far from a shoe-in--and the Broncos, unlike the downtown moneymen, actually have fans.

Apparently, though, so does Berger--at least on the city council. Shilling for the developer most stridently last week was cop-turned-councilman Ed Thomas. He was positively overcome with emotion as he saluted Berger's great accomplishments in the Golden Triangle, a list that apparently begins and ends with the construction of the Metropolitan Lofts on Acoma Street. Thomas, a man who gives smugness a bad name, even had the nerve to chide Historic Denver president Kathleen Brooker for not having come forward earlier to speak in favor of preserving the Post building.

"In my history on the council," Thomas ponderously intoned, "I've never had Historic Denver mention this building...prior to this particular owner." Thomas continued as though he were really asking the question "Why now, why with this proposal?" Wondering why preservationists speak up when an important building is threatened with demolition is like wondering why fire trucks show up when there's a fire. Gee, Ed, during your many years on the force, did the cops typically get involved before or after a crime was committed?

Brooker contained her anger--though she knew, as did many others at the hearing, that Councilman Thomas was on Berger's team. Thomas had even gone so far as to forward to Berger all the informational documents Historic Denver had sent to each councilmember. Brooker politely reminded Thomas that part of the B-5 process had been a building-by-building survey of downtown, paid for by the city. On that survey, copies of which were sent to the council, the Post building had been listed as eligible for landmark protection. Maybe Thomas could borrow back his copy from Berger?

Councilwoman Polly Flobeck was just as bad as Thomas. The ditzy former interior designer launched into her canned routine about how important historic buildings are to her, and how "conscientious" she is about caring for "beautiful old buildings." But none of the preservationists in the audience believed her, since she always votes against them on any contentious issue. One wonders whom Flobeck is trying to kid.

Like Thomas, Flobeck also took Brooker to task about the last-minute rush to save the building, an effort she said made her decision "difficult." Brooker was visibly incredulous at Flobeck's gall. "I think that it would be equally difficult [for Flobeck] if the council were considering a landmark designation," said Brooker in a deadpan. "There's a long tradition of the council not supporting landmark designation over owner objections." At that point, Flobeck responded--preposterously--that this had changed in recent years.

It would be a cheap shot to even mention Councilman Ted Hackworth's contribution. But what the heck. Giggling and bobbing his head, Hackworth actually said he liked the concept of a parking lot. Councilwoman Cathy Reynolds was also predictably disingenuous. Though she rightly criticized Times Mirror for neglecting the property over the eight years it had been for sale, she coyly added that she feared she'd be attacked for criticizing a company "that buys ink by the barrel." Was Reynolds pretending that she was worried about an editorial assault from the Los Angeles Times? Or was she pretending that Times Mirror still owned the Denver Post? Surely she knew the local daily, now owned by MediaNews Group, had endorsed demolition of its former home as early as last summer.

There were a few glimmers of intelligence from the dais last week. Councilman Dennis Gallagher, a longtime supporter of historic preservation, objected to Berger's zoning change, noting that the council had received no guarantee that anything other than a parking lot will ever be built on the site. That also explains Councilwoman Happy Haynes's refusal to go along with demolition.

But it was left to Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt to make the point that modern architecture is an important Denver legacy. She wondered out loud why salvaging the travertine and terra cotta on the Post building had not even been discussed. She also said what should have been obvious to the rest of the council--that her role as an elected official did not include protecting a private developer like Berger from financial risk. "My father always said a dollar is round," Barnes-Gelt noted, by way of explaining that if Berger doesn't want to take the risk of playing by the B-5 rules, someone else will.

Unfortunately, no one else will ever get the chance--and Berger will soon bring an asphalt parking lot and a stucco wall to the historic block at 15th and California streets. Before the old Post building is gone, go by and take one last look. Then kiss it goodbye.

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