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Building Blocks

What, if anything, should the city of Denver do to prevent the construction of ugly buildings?

With Denver's construction boom showing no sign of letting up, neighborhood activists and some property owners are advocating the creation of design review boards with the power to dictate the design of new buildings in different parts of town. Lower Downtown and Cherry Creek already have such boards, and there are calls for design review in upper downtown, in the Central Platte Valley and on East Colfax.

However, Denver officials are resisting the idea. They say design review boards can become public circuses, where every neighborhood resident can play the part of an architecture critic.

"I think design review boards are only as good as the people on them," says Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton. "They should be used in special places in the city--Cherry Creek, LoDo and downtown."

But the idea of neighborhood-based design review seems to be catching on in more and more districts around the city. And with thousands of acres opening up for development in the Central Platte Valley, at Lowry Air Force Base and Stapleton Airport and near Denver International Airport, the issue of design standards in Denver will probably become more controversial.

Design review most recently became an issue in the Central Platte Valley, where the Trillium Corporation is busy planning the Commons, a 65-acre mixed-use neighborhood that will include apartments, townhomes, offices and retail. Last year Trillium proposed creating a design review board that would oversee development throughout the area, including property not owned by Trillium. However, the city objected to that proposal, and instead Trillium signed off on a plan that simply calls for the city planning office to review proposed designs.

"The city really doesn't want to get involved in the design process," says Larry Grace, Trillium's executive vice president. "They want the developer to make judgments about design."

While the city will take a hands-off attitude toward development in the valley, Trillium says it plans to carefully regulate design on the property it owns. Grace says the company will create a private design review board to oversee development on its property behind Union Station. Trillium is following the example of the Denver Technological Center, which has long had a rigorous design-review process.

"We'll probably be more critical of design than the city would be," says Grace, adding that Trillium plans to require that all new buildings be pedestrian-oriented, have retail space on the ground floor and be made of brick or stone rather than reflective glass.

Grace expects to see the first project in Trillium's new neighborhood--a 500-unit apartment complex along Cherry Creek--break ground by April. The company is also planning a 125,000-square-foot office building that could be under construction by next year. Both of those projects will undergo review by a board of architects and designers appointed by Trillium.

"We're probably the strongest proponents of anybody for design review," says Grace.

The call for stricter design review has been prompted in part by the Adam's Mark Hotel's replacement building for the former I.M. Pei-designed paraboloid on the 16th Street Mall. Critics say the two-story granite monolith has all the appeal of a mausoleum and shows the inability of city officials to stand up to developers pushing big projects.

"The Denver planning office is vulnerable to political pressures that create abominations like the Adam's Mark," says Denver planning consultant Brad Segal. "A design review board might actually insulate the city from political pressures."

Segal says the Adam's Mark--which enjoyed a $25 million subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority--hurt the rest of downtown because of a poor design that includes a driveway fronting the 16th Street Mall and a blank wall of granite along Tremont Place. He notes that DURA also gave $24 million to the Denver Pavilions entertainment complex now under construction just across Tremont, but he says the Adam's Mark's design could actually harm the Pavilions.

"To build that wall across the street from a $100 million entertainment center makes no sense at all," Segal says. "What we've created is a hotel campus that has no relation to the rest of downtown."

In 1995 the city pressured Fred Kummer, the St. Louis owner of the Adam's Mark chain, to change the hotel's design. Not only did Kummer refuse, he publicly threatened to cancel the whole project if the city didn't back down. City Hall bureaucrats finally ran up the white flag after coming under pressure from downtown boosters who desperately wanted a 1,200-room hotel to serve the convention center.

Denver officials make no secret of their dislike for the Adam's Mark design. They say the city held up the project for more than ten months trying to get Kummer to change the design and finally felt they had to choose between having a poorly designed hotel or an empty block on the 16th Street Mall.

"We're not pleased with the outcome from a design standpoint at all," says Tyler Gibbs, the city's director of urban design.

Gibbs says the city decided to give in to Adam's Mark after concluding that the hotel would help revive the upper end of the mall. The city also felt that losing the hotel might jeopardize the Pavilions project, which was still trying to arrange financing. According to Gibbs, Kummer was the most difficult developer he's ever had to work with.

"I haven't encountered anybody else who was that obstinate on design issues," he says, adding that most developers are willing to cooperate with his office.

While everyone is opposed to ugly buildings in theory, finding a way to foster good architecture has proven more difficult. Denver's most powerful design review board is in LoDo. That board, which is charged with protecting the historic integrity of Denver's oldest neighborhood, has held rancorous public hearings over proposed projects. With the power to regulate everything from the color of bricks to the number of balconies in a building, the LoDo board has often clashed with developers.

Moulton says the LoDo design review board has worked hard to resolve the sometimes bitter conflicts over projects in that neighborhood. However, she says the board needs to have more specific guidelines so that developers will know what to expect. "In the absence of [guidelines], you make yourselves vulnerable to criticism," she says.

Segal believes LoDo is an example of how design review can lead to architectural excellence. He says LoDo is quickly emerging as one of Denver's best-designed neighborhoods, and the review board can take credit for that. "I think public oversight does result in better design," he says. "We've seen that in LoDo."

Many other cities around the country have implemented design standards for new projects. Kathleen Brooker, president of Historic Denver Inc., worked for many years in Lowell, Massachusetts, and says that that city has been successful in overseeing construction in a historic area with 3,000 nineteenth-century buildings.

"I'm a fan of design review," says Brooker. "If you set a design standard, people can reach it."

But Moulton draws the line at having a design review board in every neighborhood. She says one such review board in north Denver was virtually telling neighbors how they could paint their homes and so had to be disbanded. Instead of dozens of different boards all over the city, Moulton advocates letting her staff work on design review in conjunction with the Denver planning board.

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