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Sunset for Skyline

This is the end: Denver's famous architectural jewel, Skyline Park, is slated for destruction.
Anthony Camera

It's hard to believe, especially considering the budget shortfalls the city is facing, that the Webb administration just committed $3 million to demolish Skyline Park and replace it with...another park! What makes this situation so incredible is it's happening at the same time that city-employee furloughs and layoffs are being contemplated. When the Denver Public Library is considering closing some of its branches. When selling or taking second mortgages on police and fire stations is being discussed.

It's that bad.

Skyline Park, completed in the 1970s, runs along Arapahoe Street between 15th and 18th streets, intersecting with the 16th Street Mall at the historic D&F Tower. The park was designed by Lawrence Halprin -- one of the greatest and most highly respected landscape designers to have worked in the second half of the twentieth century -- when he was at the height of his considerable creative powers. Thus Skyline may be objectively evaluated as a significant asset in the city's architectural equity. It is a signature work by a giant in the field, and, as I hardly need to tell you, dear readers, Denver doesn't have too many of those.

This high-quality design, rare anywhere in the country, is why preservationists have worked so long and hard, if ineffectively, to save Skyline. Not only have local preservationists, such as Historic Denver, Colorado Preservation Inc. and Friends of Skyline Park, taken up the battle, but so have national groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service's Historic Landmark Initiative and the Cultural Landscape Foundation. In fact, both the Park Service and the Landscape Foundation independently identified Halprin's designs -- Skyline included -- as being among the most threatened landscapes in the country.

But objective criteria be damned! Much to the perpetual chagrin of the preservation community around here, it's the bottom line that has ruled in Denver since Mayor Wellington Webb was elected. There's only one reason the city is so hell-bent on demolishing Skyline Park: Webb is doing the bidding of the big financial interests in town -- in this case, the property owners who border the park.

It's been the same since Webb's first year in office. In 1991 he stood by and allowed Children's Hospital to block Denver landmark status for architect Burnham Hoyt's Boettcher School, a modern masterpiece that was already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Webb also wanted to destroy another famous Hoyt design in Denver -- Red Rocks Amphitheatre -- but an outraged citizenry stopped that. Ironically, Webb just installed a grandiose Visitor Center/memorial there.)

In a comical postscript, when Children's announced a couple of years ago that it was moving to the Fitzsimons campus in Aurora, Webb's then-press secretary, Andrew Hudson, whined in a broadly distributed e-mail that this was the thanks the mayor got after allowing the hospital to tear Boettcher down. (Really, that's the way they think in the Webb administration: no regrets about the loss of an important landmark, only about the loss of a moneymaker like Children's.)

Webb went on to endorse what can only be called a war on downtown's historic modern architecture. The city provided public money and political influence to pull off an astoundingly destructive campaign, the result of which has been the absolute diminishment of the city's character. There was I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza, which was all but lost in its conversion to the hideously ugly Adam's Mark Hotel. Then Temple Buell's Denver Post Building went to rubble to make space for another not-yet-built hotel. The Terracentre Tower by Alfred Williams for Seracuse/Lawlor was imploded to make room for the convention-center expansion. Soon after, Currigan Hall, by James Ream for William Muchow, was taken out for that same now-under-construction monstrosity.

Demolition hasn't started on Skyline yet, so it could still be stopped, though of course it won't be. Like those Republicans in the Statehouse who rammed through a last-minute redistricting plan, the Webbsters are starting the Skyline redo with little time to spare -- essentially precluding the participation of the soon-to-be elected new mayor and the mostly new city council. (Perhaps the two mayoral candidates -- John Hickenlooper and Don Mares, a businessman and an auditor, as it happens -- would like to comment on the idea of spending millions to demolish Skyline when the city itself is clearly going broke. This kind of political debate is the only chance left to save the park.)

Skyline's troubles began a few years ago and were always more sociological than aesthetic, though it's been politically correct to cover up that fact. The park is public space, but more than that, it's the only public space along the entire length of the 16th Street Mall. Living in a free society means that public spaces are open to everyone, including those scary-looking teens who hang out at Skyline. And that was -- and is -- the problem.  

Restaurants adjacent to the park, such as Palomino and the now long-gone Zenith, were the first businesses to complain about the park, since these kids clashed figuratively, if not literally, with the affluent clientele of the tony eateries. The ridiculous aspect of this situation is the idea that changing the design of the park will run off those scruffy punks, which is what many involved in the process believe. I guarantee that the youths will be hanging out at the new park just as soon as it is finished, because short of police harassment, there's no reason they wouldn't.

But if the campaign to bring down Skyline began with the irrational idea that Halprin's design, and not the realities of urban life, was what brought the kids there, it was given an added boost by those who hated the park because it was modernist -- particularly those who adhered to the theories of the new urbanists, whom I like to call n'urbs.

Skyline was the perfect foil for the revenge of the n'urbs. Those unsavory youths provided an opening for the promotion of new-urbanist ideas, especially the one that says "Good architecture makes a bad neighbor," an ideology that lowers everything to a very mediocre level. Just look at the Englewood CityCenter, a showcase for new-urbanist architecture, or, as it might be called, n'architecture.

In 1999, the first of the n'urby Skyline plans was unveiled; "mediocre" would be a kind description. Todd Johnson and Sue Oberliesen, working for the local firm of Design Workshop, had cobbled together a plan to flatten the park -- which sinks below grade in some places and rises above it in others -- making it like a tabletop right at street level. The idea behind this was that the current active topography gave thugs a chance to hide out in the park, at the bottom of ramps or behind planters. But their plan would not have been very effective in getting rid of those annoying young people at Skyline, as revealed by the flat park that runs along 13th Avenue by the Denver Art Museum expansion site. You know the one: It's where all those homeless guys used to sit around on benches smoking dope in plain view of the passing traffic.

Design Workshop's plan, in which the dramatic planters, stairs and fountains at Skyline would be replaced with alternating areas of grass and brick pavers, was so bad that even the park's detractors, notably the Denver Partnership, dropped it like a hot potato. Still, a lot of the ideas in it were held tight in the hearts of the n'urbs, who took the underlying philosophy of the plan not so much as facts but as matters of faith. "Everyone knows," they'd say, "even first-year design students, that parks should not descend below grade, that there should not be thickets of plantings blocking views, and that there should never be berms or walls defining the margins."

These matters of n'urb faith are easy to debunk with two little words: Central Park. That's right: New York's Central Park is one of the greatest parks in the world by any measure, yet it runs below grade in places, has berms and thickets of plantings blocking views and is mostly contained within walls and fences. These are all definite n'urb no-nos. But maybe the n'urbs are right, in a way. Maybe everyone does know these things, even those hapless first-year design students, which would explain why parks as good as Central Park aren't being designed anymore.

After the Design Workshop's scheme was dropped, another n'urb was brought on board in 2001. Toronto-based consultant Ken Greenberg also wanted to level out the park, but instead of lawns and patios, as in the previous concept, he filled the site with a giddy mix of mini-zoos and outdoor theaters. It was hilarious -- and totally out of touch with the reality of the site: Imagine watching a play or a concert in a park that's smack dab downtown and intersected at every block by a noisy thoroughfare. Greenberg's proposal was almost immediately thrown off the table, again thanks to inappropriateness and obvious ineptness.

Which brings us to the third designer, Thomas Balsley of New York, whose plan is set to be implemented as early as this week. Balsley is a neo-modernist, not a n'urb, but he intends to annihilate Skyline, though he will preserve two of the three fountains and some of the planters. Not only that, but Balsley wants part of his park to descend below grade (take that, n'urbs). Even with those touches, Halprin's Skyline Park will soon be nothing more than a fond memory and a documentary file of photos and drawings stored at the National Archives (the park really is that good).  

So Webb's historic-preservation trail of tears began at Boettcher School and will end with the destruction of Skyline Park. La commedia è finita. I guess there is a silver lining: Webb will be gone for good in a couple months and will never again have the chance to preside over the erasure of another part of downtown's historic modernist architectural heritage. What little of it is left, I mean.


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