Signed, Sealed, Delivered

With the grand opening of the much-anticipated Denver Pavilions adjacent to the Adam's Mark Hotel addition that was completed last year, it's now official: The three blocks that line the south side of the 16th Street Mall between Court Place and Welton Street now make up what is surely the ugliest part of downtown Denver.

Except, perhaps, for the back of the same two projects along 15th Street.
It's too early to tell if the Denver Pavilions, developed by Bill Denton's Los Angeles-based Entertainment Development Group, will take off as a retail center--but Denver is in a boom cycle, and it seems that only with inept management will the place fail to flourish. The Adam's Mark Hotel, owned by Fred Kummer's HBE of St. Louis, has already been declared a commercial success. There are those who have welcomed both developments because they achieved the city's goal of bringing financial life back to that end of the 16th Street Mall.

But there's no reason to believe that the two projects wouldn't have been equally successful had intelligence and taste guided their designs instead of whatever it was that did.

A good deal of the responsibility for the lost civic opportunities at the monstrous Adam's Mark addition and the silly Denver Pavilions must be assigned to Susan Powers, former director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. The two ghastly projects are Powers's greatest and most high-profile achievements, since they're the largest commercial projects erected downtown in the 1990s, which tells its own story about the neighborhood's decline as a business center.

DURA made substantial contributions of public money to both projects, with $35 million going to the Adam's Mark and $24 million to the Pavilions. (The total cost of the Adam's Mark Hotel redo was $135 million, while the Denver Pavilions project cost $107 million.)

In the case of the dreadful Adam's Mark, DURA violated its own guidelines by funding a proposal that endangered a "landmark, or a potential landmark." Formerly occupying the block on which the Adam's Mark addition now sits was a portion of the 1950s Zeckendorf Plaza, an early and significant multi-building complex designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei. The Zeckendorf Plaza's single still-standing Pei element, the tower (which is now a part of the Adam's Mark Hotel), has itself been negatively affected by insensitive remodeling at the tower's main entrance, and its mechanical penthouse, so perfect in its original proportions, is now being crudely altered.

The story is somewhat different in the case of the Pavilions. The historic buildings that once stood where the Pavilions have been erected, including the 1920s Denver Theater, by William Norman Bowman, and the 1960s World Savings, by Alan Gass, were long ago torn down, mostly for the never-built Centerstone shopping-mall project of the 1980s. By the time ground was broken for the Pavilions last year, contractors Hensel Phelps and J.A. Walker were handed a level, vacant site that had served as a parking lot and, briefly, as the setting for a downtown flea market.

In the early '90s, the site on which the Denver Pavilions now sits was correctly perceived as a blight on the 16th Street Mall. Downtown workers launched a failed petition drive to have the two square blocks converted into city parkland, but developers were already eyeing the area, and the proposed park never stood a chance.

In 1995, while developers for the awful Adam's Mark Hotel and the trite Denver Pavilions were angling for DURA money, Powers, in a presentation to Denver's City Club on April 25, wondered aloud why no one seemed to object to DURA's funding the Denver Pavilions while so many had opposed the Adam's Mark deal. Was she serious? Gosh, let's see: On one site there was a nationally significant complex designed by a world-renowned architect; on the other was vacant land. But even though there were no historic buildings threatened, as there were at Zeckendorf, the public interest was still subverted when it came to the Pavilions, since Powers allowed public money earmarked for public art to be diverted to pay for part of the shopping mall's mammoth sign.

Like the city of Denver and the state of Colorado, DURA has a "one percent for art" program. But since DURA money is thrown at private projects instead of public ones, there are special problems with the agency's funding of art. For example, left to their own devices, won't craven and opportunistic developers try to use the public money meant for public art to pay for other things, like signs? In an attempt to prevent such potential abuses, paying for signs or other forms of advertising is proscribed in the DURA guidelines.

But as administered by Powers, DURA presided over the funding of the Denver Pavilions sign and even got the city planning office on board, as evidenced by a July 23 letter to the editor of the Rocky Mountain News that was penned by Director of Urban Design Tyler Gibbs, which sidestepped the issue of whether the sign was public art by instead defending it on the grounds that it would be difficult to see. "One will have to make a real effort to view the Denver Pavilions sign," Gibbs wrote. On this one point, at least, he is right. To see the sign, viewers must enter the Denver Pavilions, which means that not only is it not art, but it's not all that public, either.

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