Blind Justice

Is building a jail as an extension of Denver's Civic Center really the right thing to do?

From the moment I heard about it, during the last years of Mayor Wellington Webb's administration, I thought the idea of constructing a jail on the site of the Rocky Mountain News building just off of West Colfax Avenue was ridiculous -- and I said so on this page back on November 14, 2002.

Ridiculous or not, the concept of making a new jail an extension of the Civic Center is on the front burner again, and Webb's successor, John Hickenlooper, has put his full political weight -- and his formidable charisma -- behind getting the voters to pass a $364 million bond issue that would pay for it. The city has already bought the site, which is contiguous with the west end of the Civic Center, right by the U.S. Mint.

Is it just me, or does putting a 1,500-bed correctional facility -- a prison, really -- next to a federal Mint sound like a treatment for an Ocean's 13 script? (The stars -- George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the rest -- purposefully get arrested on petty charges around town so that they all wind up together in the jail. Then, through a series of fascinating and hair-raising adventures facilitated by a plethora of high-tech gadgets, they work their way through utility tunnels under the street and wind up in the Mint. It'll be boffo at the box office!) While the concept may work in Hollywood, I don't think it will fly in Denver. And my reservations have nothing to do with a fantastic threat to the Mint, but rather the genuine threat that such a facility represents to the cultural, architectural and artistic value of the Civic Center, Denver's premier urban space.

Building for the future: The Rocky Mountain News 
building would make way for a new Justice Center.
Mark Manger
Building for the future: The Rocky Mountain News building would make way for a new Justice Center.

In a built environment with as little to recommend it as metro Denver, the Civic Center is unbelievably valuable. It's an artistic and architectural treasure trove that illustrates the history of American taste over the last hundred years. A jail, no matter how well designed, will necessarily be windowless -- or at least display considerably less fenestration than an ordinary building. It would seem to pose a difficult, if not impossible, design challenge to make such a building a worthy component of our Civic Center.

Based on a neo-classical plan, the Civic Center is anchored by neo-classical buildings (appropriately enough) dating from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. This group includes the Colorado State Capitol, designed by nationally renowned architect Elijah E. Myers working with Denver's Frank Edbrooke, and the City and County Building, which was designed by a consortium of Denver architects. There are also mid-century modernist creations, like the Hoyt wing of the Central Library, by Burnham Hoyt, and the old Annex I, by Smith, Hegner and Moore. Important later buildings by international architecture stars include the Denver Art Museum (Gio Ponti), the main part of the Central Library (Michael Graves), and the Denver Art Museum's still-under-construction Hamilton Building (Daniel Libeskind).

Like the buildings, the public art in the Civic Center ranges from the late nineteenth to the early 21st centuries. There's the Pioneer Monument, by Frederick MacMonnies, the murals at the Greek Theater, by Allen Tupper True, the Bob Mangolds near the Voorhies Memorial, the Mark di Suvero at Acoma Plaza, and the recently installed Larry Kirkland at the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building, among many other pieces. Several sure-to-be-impressive sculptures are also slated for the grounds of Libeskind's Hamilton Building when it's completed next year.

With so many aesthetic attractions packed in a few blocks, the Civic Center is my favorite place in Denver, and one of the few where urban planning has been used for good instead of evil.

Until now. A proposed jail -- and one in a much better site -- failed before at the ballot box, but Hickenlooper seems to have his ducks in a row on this one. First, the jail is being marketed as only one element in a multi-part project that will include, among other things, court facilities and a headquarters for the Denver Sheriff's Department. Clearly, the Civic Center is an ideal spot for a courthouse extension as well as a sheriff's office, and adding those to the mix makes the proposal more palatable. That's why the project is being called the Justice Center, with the word "jail" conspicuous by its absence.

As far as I'm concerned, if the city needs new courtrooms, a sheriff's office and more jail cells, the city should build them. But I don't understand why the administration wants to make those jail cells part of the Civic Center instead of putting them somewhere in the hinterlands.

Yes, there's already a jail at the Civic Center -- but the small city facility at Denver Police Department headquarters is hardly comparable to what's being proposed now. The new jail would be more like the Hyatt Denver Convention Center Hotel, which will have 1,100 rooms when it's completed. And I know that experts from the Urban Land Institute swooped into town last year and selected the Rocky Mountain News property as the best site for a new jail -- but back in the '80s, the ULI also selected the current location of the Colorado Convention Center, rejecting Mayor Federico Pena's favorite locale, the then-almost-completely-empty Platte Valley. Think how much better it would have been to build the convention center in the Platte Valley, where there could be some space around it. Now imagine a jail in the wholly industrial area of West Sixth Avenue, which was one of several sites considered by the ULI. Doesn't that seem like a much better choice from the standpoint of urban design?

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