Down for the Count
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.
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.
So how did this all go down? Here's the story. Earlier this year Holl, who teamed up with Denver's klipp architects, won the closed competition to design the courthouse portion of the Justice Center complex, which also includes a jail and a parking structure. Holl beat out the likes of Richard Meier and Lord Norman Foster, two of the most renowned architects in the world. (It makes me shudder to think how bad Denver would look had one of them been pushed out by bureaucrats.) The positioning of the three structures was predetermined by David Owen Tryba Architects, acting as the master urban-design architect. The Tryba plan also dictated certain features, such as the courthouse having a tower element that would line up with the cupola on the City and County Building and the dome of the State Capitol, both located directly east of the proposed courthouse. My own view is that this requirement seems to favor a neo-traditional approach, which is not what Holl proposed, and is not what klipp, Holl's successor on the project, will do.
In September, Holl made a presentation of his progress on the schematic design, which was at 50 percent completion. The building that emerged was elegant, sophisticated and clever. It even took green issues into account. Holl lassoed the problem of the required tower and turned it into a utility stack that was placed at the center of the site, but not at the center of the building. This tower, clad in translucent materials so that it would glow at night, wouldn't have looked traditional at all.
The building itself is conceived as two intersecting wings flanking the tower, one five stories tall and the other four. The five-story wing meanders from north to south, following the diagonal line of Tremont Place, thus connecting the building to downtown; the four-story wing runs parallel to the regular street grid. The ground floor of both wings would have been recessed, with a reverse ziggurat arrangement on certain sides so that each upper floor slightly cantilevers over the one below it. The exterior walls are made of glass, with expressionist-style sunscreens in a terra cotta red. This color would have matched up with that of the sandstone paving in the main entry plaza facing West Colfax Avenue and in a smaller one to the south. In the interior, hallways would wrap around the outside of the wings, allowing the waiting areas to have views. The courtrooms would have been lined in bleached wood paneling. The floors throughout would have been done in a crushed-stone aggregate of the terrazzo type.
The roof was to be covered with sedum -- a dry land succulent -- that would have done double duty, both insulating the building and providing the principal plant material for a rooftop garden, which would have sported unbelievable postcard views of the mountains, the Civic Center and downtown.
But Mejia didn't like it from the start, nor did his fellow travelers, Guillermo Vidal, director of the city's Department of Public Works, and Charles DesMoineaux from Jacobs Facilities. The three coordinated their responses. In a sharply worded letter to Brian Klipp back on August 17 -- weeks before the Holl presentation -- Mejia objected, among other things, to the building's "geometry" (its curves and cantilevers) and to the interior materials, confusing the terrazzo-like surfaces Holl suggested with cast concrete. It wasn't my understanding that Mejia, a freelance bureaucrat, had been hired to make aesthetic calls -- or, worse yet, to second-guess the guy who was.
Elaborate and condescending e-mails were sent to the Holl/klipp team from Vidal and DesMoineaux, requiring elaborate responses. In one sad if hilarious exchange, DesMoineaux labels Holl's work as deficient, with a reply from Holl's Chris McVoy saying it wasn't, and then DesMoineaux responding back defensively, wondering if McVoy was calling his professional abilities into question. Then there were the wildly different cost estimates, with Holl admitting that his design was about $3 million over budget, or less than 3 percent over, while the city's estimates were $30 million over, because their equations included expensive materials that Holl hadn't called for.
On September 13, a week after his presentation, Holl took his last shot and wrote a plaintive letter to Hickenlooper, asking him to intervene and replace the city's team, whom he refers to as the project managers, because he felt that they were endangering the quality of the project. (Holl apparently bought the hype about Hickenlooper being interested in architecture.)
But no, with the letter and subsequent teleconference with Hizzoner, Holl was out. And the administration circled the wagons, badmouthing Holl to the press. The worst offender was former city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt -- a Denver Post columnist and the informal public-information officer for the Hickenlooper administration on this issue -- writing on October 15 that Holl's splitting town was actually good news for the city. Talk about serving chicken shit and calling it chicken salad!
The terrible situation Holl describes in his letter to the mayor surrounding the design of the Justice Center courthouse is still true. Unlike a lot of people, I think klipp is capable of doing a first-rate building, but the question is: How is klipp going to come up with something excellent when the people running the project only understand mediocrity?
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