Down for the Count

The greater Civic Center has delivered a one-two punch to the mayor's ambitions.

Mayor John Hickenlooper's predecessors made that whole mayoral-legacy business look like a snap.

Federico Peña can be credited with many important things, including shoving the idea of a lower-downtown historic district down the throats of property owners, thus saving the neighborhood from being scraped for surface parking. And he became personally involved with saving the Mayan Theatre, too. But in addition to preserving old things, Peña brought a lot of new things to town, including Coors Field, the Colorado Convention Center, the Denver Central Library extension and, of course, Denver International Airport.

Wellington Webb, who followed Peña, did even better with new construction -- though much worse with preservation: He facilitated the Pepsi Center, Invesco Field at Mile High, the CCC extension, the Hyatt Regency Denver across the street, the Wellington Webb Building, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House and, his coup de grace, the Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum.

Steven Holl's design for Denver's never-to-be-built 
Steven Holl's design for Denver's never-to-be-built courthouse.

Hickenlooper decided that he wanted to make lasting contributions to Denver as well, and his additions would be made in the most prominent place in town: in and around the Civic Center. However, two of Hick's future dreams for the area have turned into nightmares over the past couple of months.

The first disturbance came in September, when superstar architect Daniel Libeskind, just weeks before his new Hamilton was to open, shot himself -- and the mayor -- in the foot by unveiling his ridiculous ideas for "enlivening" the Civic Center. To say that Libeskind's proposal has gone over like a lead balloon would be charitable. When his concepts were presented to the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission a couple of weeks ago, commissioner Elizabeth Schlosser put the whole thing in perspective by pointing out that if Libeskind's proposals were carried out, the Civic Center was likely to be struck from the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, there are already plans to nominate the Civic Center to Colorado's Most Endangered Places list, which is produced by Colorado Preservation Inc., and to a similar list compiled by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Maybe that's why the mayor has distanced himself from the whole thing.

The second disaster involved another superstar architect, Steven Holl. On October 2, during the very week that the Hamilton opened, Holl's contract to design the courthouse portion of the Justice Center project was terminated. So there will never be a building by the New York architect on the site, even though Holl's firm was selected as part of a competition and his design was well on its way to final form. In this case, the mayor -- or, more properly, his underlings -- screwed things up with no help whatsoever from Holl. But the citizens of Denver are the losers, because Holl's proposed building was incredibly imaginative -- which is astounding, since it came out of a bureaucratic process that was anything but.

In both cases, Hickenlooper was ill-served by those he put in charge. In the case of the Civic Center, it's the Civic Center Conservancy, a bunch of people who have few credentials when it comes to dealing with the city's most important set of historic buildings, art and landscapes. And it's essentially the same names and faces who are associated with the Justice Center fiasco, notably project manager "Calamity" James Mejia, who is also a member of the Civic Center Conservancy.

Mejia's public life began only a few years ago, when he was a member of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. When discussions were under way to build a school of the arts, Mejia pulled the race card to suggest that the school had discriminatory entrance policies. The allegations weren't true, of course, but it did get his name in the papers.

Then Mejia was appointed by Webb to be interim director of Denver's Parks and Recreation Department, and in that capacity turned off the city's public fountains. Left in disuse for several years, the mechanical elements of the fountains deteriorated. Mejia's decision will eventually cost the city more than $1 million.

Shutting down the fountains was a response to the drought, as was Mejia's decision to cut the system's water use by half. The results were to be expected: Thousands of trees and bushes died. With no expertise in the cultivation of plants, Mejia apparently didn't realize that if you don't water them, they die. (The rumor that Mejia may wind up at the helm of the Denver Botanic Gardens makes my blood run cold. Earth to the DBG: The guy doesn't know that plants need water!) Then, as if that weren't enough, Mejia was the key player in the destruction of Lawrence Halprin's Skyline Park, which has been replaced with sod. (Which, of course, takes water.)

At the time of Skyline's demolition, I pointed out that it was amazing how much damage a single person like Mejia could do. But as low as my expectations of him were, I didn't expect Mejia to cost us a world-class public building. And don't forget, the city still had to pay the architect almost three-quarters of a million dollars for work that will never be implemented. Oh, and there's the several-month delay in the design process, which will cost money, too. I'll never understand why Hickenlooper put Mejia in charge of the Justice Center.

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