Building for the Future

Peter Park is in the urban-planning game for good.

Park pulls a Blackberry from his coat pocket and checks his schedule. Most days are crammed with at least half a dozen meetings with department heads, planning staff or city building inspectors. He looks once more at Parktown buzzing along. At the bottom of the screen, a newspaper headline pops up that says "Citizens Are Calm and Content in Parktown."

"Not bad," he says, standing. "You can't ask for much more than that."

Urb appeal: Peter Park filled out the Hickenlooper 
cabinet a year ago.
Mark Manger
Urb appeal: Peter Park filled out the Hickenlooper cabinet a year ago.

Dealing with real citizens is an entirely different game. At the Mayor's Leadership Conference in early November, representatives of the approximately 300 registered neighborhood groups in Denver mingle with other residents in a noisy room in the Denver Water building, known also as "Gotham City Hall." Chief of Police Gerry Whitman is advising an elderly woman against allowing her car to idle unattended on cold mornings. She excuses herself and crosses the room to join the half-dozen citizens who surround Park in what looks like a mix between a huddle and a firing squad. The sound in the room is so bad that people have begun to speak in a near shout, but Park doesn't raise his voice. This forces those around him to tip their heads forward and point their ears toward his mouth like they're listening to a special report on an old-time radio.

"I'm not against developers," says David Miller, a West University Park resident who's been brainstorming "some real grassroots, militant tactics" to prevent new residential units from going up near his home. "I'm against the trash developers. Any Architecture 101 student can see that they're building some piece of trash up there. I'm talking about the character of the neighborhood.... I'm trying to figure out whose side people are on."

"Well," Park answers, "my tendency is not to look for creating more regulations..."

A woman jumps in: "In California, didn't they come up with a rule that said that you had to have all the tenants signed up that would actually live in the building? This way, developers at least wouldn't be able to build on spec."

"Yeah, yeah," Miller shakes his finger. "I like that. It could work around our spot."

"I think the best thing would be to meet with the homebuilders," Park says.

The neighbors look back incredulously.

"No, I'm serious," he says.

The woman shakes her head, "It doesn't work."

"The problem is, who are the purveyors of the quality of design?" Park points out. "When you rely on regulations to do that, I'll tell you -- the problem with regulations is they create the bottom-line mentality of what we can expect."

"Well, there has to be something we can do!" Miller answers. "Now, I don't want any bureaucratic excuses. You guys are supposed to impress us." He then relates his idea that neighbors park hideous old cars with signs derogatory to builders "in front of the buildings so nobody buys them."

"Do you think that will be effective?" Park asks.

"Well, I'd like to hear better ideas, something tangible," Miller responds. "You're the one that's supposed to be the visionary."

Historian Phil Goodstein is skeptical of any new planning initiatives. His book Denver in Our Time, designed to "do for Denver what Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States did for the country," takes issue with the idea that Denver must always grow and remake itself in the image of a bigger urban city; according to Goodstein, that notion is motivated by "extreme provincial insecurity" among the Queen City's elite. New urbanism is "one of the biggest farces," he says. "You're going to see something that you constantly see in city planning. Every city planner is always the pioneer. He's always the visionary. He's always creating breakthroughs. And the question is, who did this before? Who screwed this up?"

In the '60s and '70s, the perception was that most urban places were shabby, cramped places that needed to be cleared out. A 1964 watercolor depicts the vision that planners at the time had for Denver: a colorful, Jetsons-like pictorial of modern glass skyscrapers surrounded by a buzzing system of freeways. But to implement this ideal, all of lower downtown save Union Station would have to be leveled, and any street action would be extinguished. Generations earlier, Denver had been a model example of the City Beautiful movement, which produced an extensive park system that included Civic Center Park and numerous public amenities; in the '60s, it began demolishing dozens of buildings throughout downtown to make way for parking lots and office towers. The destruction might have pushed all the way to Cherry Creek if Dana Crawford hadn't bought the entire block of buildings that now make up Larimer Square and later pushed for protecting lower downtown as a historic district.

That's where Denver's future mayor got his start as a businessman, when he opened the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in 1988. Fifteen years later, in June 2003, he began filling out his new cabinet. Planning director Jennifer Moulton, who'd been with the city for a dozen years and Historic Denver before that, would soon die of a rare blood disorder, and Hickenlooper immediately formed a committee to seek out candidates who could successfully execute Blueprint Denver, the transportation and land-use plan spearheaded by Moulton.

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