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Showdown at Skyline

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

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.

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.

The design was the definition of mundane. It really seemed as though Johnson and Oberliesen had been inspired by nothing less than a visit to a Home Depot. It was so bad that the partnership itself acknowledged it, at least tacitly, when the plan was unceremoniously dumped and the next consultant was brought in, this time at the city's expense.

There was one real benefit of the Design Workshop plan. Because it was so inept and destructive, it alerted both the local and national preservation communities to the threat to Skyline Park.

Historic Denver has been involved, as has the local office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Historic Landmark Initiative of the National Park Service and the Cultural Landscape Foundation, both based in Washington, D.C., have independently identified Skyline, along with Civil War battlefields, as being among the most endangered landscapes in the country. The struggle has even fostered the creation of a citizens' group specifically meant to address the crisis: Friends of Skyline Park.

The second consultant brought on to rethink Skyline was Toronto's Ken Greenberg Consultants. If the Design Workshop concept was insensitive and boring, Greenberg's was insensitive and ridiculous.

Greenberg also proposed the total destruction of Skyline. In its place, he wanted to put in petting zoos and greenhouses. Greenberg even suggested an open-air performing-arts complex in the middle of noisy downtown. Yeah, that sounds like it would work -- for mimes, anyway.

One over-the-top element of Greenberg's recommendations was changing the name of the park to Tower Place, and he coined a slogan to go with it: "Experience Denver at Tower Place." It was so bad that even Darrin Stephens would have winced.

This second plan, like the first one, fell under its own weight and was scrapped.

This summer, a trio of consultants -- New York's Thomas Balsley Associates with Denver's David Owen Tryba Architects and Ron Straka Urban Design -- has come forward with three separate proposals for the redo of Skyline. The plans could be labeled "not bad," "bad" and "incredibly bad."

The first proposal, called Scheme A, is not bad, and the use of the word "scheme" seems perfect. In this concept, Skyline would be changed to some extent: Some of the grade would be raised; some pavement would be replaced with lawn; some planters would be replaced with kiosks or cafe terraces to serve the adjacent restaurants; and walkways would be cut through to Arapahoe Street. But none of these changes would affect Skyline's established style, and the park would essentially retain its original character.

Some preservationists have endorsed Scheme A as a meaningful compromise -- or perhaps as simply the best they could expect in the current political climate.

Scheme B, the second proposal, is bad. A few Halprin elements, such as a fountain or two, would be kept, but otherwise, the park would be entirely changed. Instead of the meandering walk with its picturesque views, there'd be a linear walk, and a lot of the paving would be replaced with sod and flower beds, which seems a particularly inappropriate thing to do this year. And, as in the rejected plans from Design Workshop and Ken Greenberg Associates, in most places the grade would be brought up to street level.

Even though Scheme B is technically no better than Scheme C, since Skyline is essentially lost in both, the incredibly bad Scheme C is worse, because it's also pretentious. In this plan, a lot of the park would become little more than a broad sidewalk along Arapahoe, with a narrow grass lawn against the office buildings. It basically would lose its identity as a park. There are some real comical things in Scheme C, too, especially a dated, Swiss-cheese patio cover in one of its alternate plans.

There are lots and lots of water-thirsty lawns and flower beds in Scheme C. And how about this? There's even -- no kidding -- a freestanding water wall. Gee, I wonder if the city built it, if it would ever be turned on?

In addition to the three schemes done by Balsley Associates, the city asked Halprin himself to address the redesign. The architect suggests what could be called "Scheme A lite." He creates all the things the city says it wants -- a sidewalk along Arapahoe, a walkway through the planters, kiosks and cafe terraces -- and he does it all without destroying the original park.

 

In a letter sent this past spring to the Friends of Skyline Park, Halprin expressed his view that Skyline needs to receive ongoing care and maintenance. His thoughts on making changes to the park can best be summed up with his closing lines: "City doctors," he wrote, "should also consider the Hippocratic oath. First, do no harm."

On Wednesday, September 5, at the Westin Tabor Center Hotel, the Denver Parks and Recreation Advisory Board will hold a public hearing on Skyline's fate, starting at 6 p.m. The board is set to consider the three Balsley plans and the one by Halprin and to hear public comment on each.

The advisory board will later make its recommendations to James Mejia, head of Denver's Department of Parks and Recreation, who will make the final decision on Skyline's future.

Inasmuch as past behavior is an indication of future performance, this could spell the end for Skyline Park, and the city will lose yet another great example of historic modern architecture. After all, Mejia was appointed by Mayor Wellington Webb and can thus be expected to do the mayor's bidding. And the Webb administration has made a habit of disregarding important architecture, as the sorry litany of losses such as the Boettcher School, Zeckendorf Plaza, the Denver Post building, Currigan Hall and the TerraCentre amply demonstrate. In all of these cases, action was taken without regard for preservation.

But you know what?

There is something other than preservation that could save Skyline: money. Not only is the parks department running out of it, but so is the city as a whole, including the government and many of those downtown interests that belong to the Denver Partnership. So perhaps all is not lost.

Skyline's future is unknown, but there is one thing I can predict with absolute certainty: We're not going to see that water wall anytime soon.

Click below to read related stories:

Down and Out in Downtown Denver
Written in Stone
The More Things Change...


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