Showdown at Skyline

The future of a great public space hangs in the balance.

For the past few years, one of Denver's most urbane public spaces -- Skyline Park, by world-renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin -- has been continually endangered by various remodeling plans, some of which include the threat of demolition.

Let's put it this way: To even discuss the destruction of Skyline -- a modern masterpiece and one of Denver's most valuable architectural assets -- is a civic disgrace.

The park, which runs in a narrow strip along Arapahoe Street between 15th and 18th streets, is a signature Halprin design. Completed in the 1970s, it's a high-style period piece that represents the most forward-looking concepts of the day in landscape architecture. An unusual feature is the sense of enclosure that Halprin created; visitors are embraced by tall architectural elements and taller trees that define the garden space among the surrounding high-rises.

Skyline Park is one of Denver's architectural gems.
Brett Amole
Skyline Park is one of Denver's architectural gems.

The central axis of Skyline is a meandering walk that's recessed below grade in places and comes up to grade at street crossings. The walk widens into plazas here and there and is articulated by rough-finished aggregate walls, planter boxes and grand sets of stairs. There are also three fountains -- all modernist in style, but each with distinctive details.

The landmark D&F Tower stands at the intersection of the park and the 16th Street Mall. The tower -- an Italian Renaissance-revival-style building from the early twentieth century -- provides a fabulous counterpoint to Skyline's modernism. The whole place is almost magical.

Not only that, but the mostly hard-scaped park could serve as a model for future xeric public spaces, an urgent need in this time of drought.

So why, you may ask, is the park endangered?

It all began back in 1998, with the passage of a $40 million bond initiative for city-park improvements that included $2 million for the redo of Skyline, predicated on another $1 million to be put up by the Downtown Denver Partnership.

There was no question that the park could have used this relatively modest amount of money that was earmarked for rehab: Skyline has been neglected for decades by the parks department. The trees, including stately evergreens, were rarely watered, even before this summer's water restrictions. Like all city fountains, the three at Skyline are turned off this year, but last summer, only two of them were working. There are some cracks in the battered aggregate walls and more substantial cracking in the paving.

Gee, it sounds like the money set aside for Skyline would be just enough to correct these problems, with some left over to clean and spiff the place up. And when it was done, we'd have a refurbished Halprin gem.

Typically, though, that's not what the powers that be, either in city government or the private interests represented by the partnership, wanted. No, they wanted the park annihilated.

The reason that Skyline wound up in the crosshairs of those who would destroy it has more to do with sociology than with aesthetics. The problem with the park was initially said to be the roughneck teenagers who hang out there and drive off visitors, especially downtown residents. During several visits to the park over the past few months, I've noticed something different: a mix of those teenagers, side by side with downtown residents and office workers.

It makes sense that these kids would hang out in Skyline, considering that the park is the only green space adjacent to the 16th Street Mall, another teen hangout. What doesn't make sense is the idea that redesigning the park will make them go away. Yet people in the position to make a difference will make that claim with straight faces, as though it were an accepted fact.

I have a word for that: nonsense.

Redesigning Skyline won't change its social makeup, because the park's design has nothing to do with why certain people -- in this case, teenagers -- are there. Here's an analogy: Think about the Civic Center and some of the people who congregate in that park. Many are a lot more menacing than the Skyline kids. (In fact, some of the kids at Skyline are probably there because they're afraid of the Civic Center crowd.) Would anyone argue that the neo-classical style of Civic Center Park is what attracts such a threatening group? I don't think so.

Even though the fallacy that social change at Skyline could be brought about through design changes is easy to discredit, its acceptance by many central players in the process has been the catalyst for everything that's happened since the passage of the bond, when brainstorming -- if that's what you'd call it -- about the park began.

Three generations of consultants have looked at Skyline. And most of what they've come up with is embarrassing.

The first were Todd Johnson and Sue Oberliesen from Design Workshop. That local firm was hired with a grant from the Denver Partnership, part of the $1 million guarantee. In 1999, Design Workshop unveiled its unbelievably bad idea, in which Johnson and Oberliesen suggested flattening the park -- in more ways than one. Not only did they propose eliminating every Halprin architectural element, but they wanted to destroy the site plan, too, suggesting that the grade be brought up to street level. The tabletop flat strip would be alternately covered with brick pavers and sod.

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