Deluxe cell towers in the sky: The first-, fourth- and 
    third-place winners in  T-Mobile's design competition 
    (from left).
Deluxe cell towers in the sky: The first-, fourth- and third-place winners in T-Mobile's design competition (from left).

Off Limits

Although it's still spring, northwest Denver is already harvesting a bumper crop of bickering. Seeds of dissension have been sown all over the neighborhood, in plots linking entities as diverse as community gardens, Wal-Mart, T-Mobile and...Clay Aiken?

Last Friday night, Laura Altschul, T-Mobile director of national siting policy, sat shaking her head in the LoDo offices of the American Institute of Architects Colorado. After fighting with Highland residents last year over a cell-phone tower proposed for the alley at 32nd Avenue and Zuni Street -- and ultimately losing its case in the city's zoning department -- the service-challenged provider decided to play nice with the neighbors. So T-Mobile agreed to co-host a design competition with the AIAC, giving locals the opportunity to create a tower they'd be willing to live with rather than the fifty-foot-high, three-foot-in-diameter metal tube that the company had originally envisioned.

Fifty people entered the competition, which promised a top prize of $5,000 and a free T-Mobile phone (which is basically useless in Colorado outside of the Front Range). But there was no guarantee the winning design would be built.

"T-Mobile was very proud to be able to sponsor this type of collaborative approach to finding designs that come from the community, as long as they meet our technical needs for construction. We're hoping to roll this out country-wide," Altschul says. "We'll take a look at the top five and see if any are feasible to incorporate even in a modified fashion into any of our designs. Of course, the other piece is whether the design review boards and zoning staff think any of these are applicable under current codes."

Judging alongside such architectural landmarks as Westword's own Kenny Be, Altschul was stunned by some of the creations. "She's a pragmatist, because it's her job to find economic ways to do tower installation," explains Denver urban designer Rich Carstens, who helped organize the competition. "She might have been a little bit overwhelmed at the level of design these projects took. But the designers weren't really told that they had to be economical; they were simply told to use their minds."

The five judges determined that Peter Burr and Matt Faichnie of Colorado Springs had put their minds to the best use, and this past Monday the duo collected their cash and phones at the Will Bruder lecture at the University of Colorado. Their "Transform Perception," a towering structure covered in perforated Teflon fabric, was "based conceptually on the chrysalis," Carstens says. "The tower was a caterpillar, and now it's turning into a butterfly."

CU professor Michael Hughes placed second with "Bus Stop," combining a cell-phone tower and bus stop in a design that earned him $2,000 and a free cell phone. Third place was a tie, with Architecture Denver's Katya Altmann, Matt Lawton, Josh Larimer, Rosie Fivian and Steve Chucovich sharing honors -- and $600 -- with Daniel Aizenman. "Those Pesky Poles," Mark Doering's takeoff on Coors Field's foul-ball poles, took fourth.

But Doering's design might have been the most appropriate for the site, since people are crying foul all over northwest Denver these days.

Since developer Chuck Perry announced that he planned to include a Wal-Mart in the Highland Garden Village retail project he's building on the old home of Elitch Gardens, he and the nation's biggest retailer have been targets of the same sort of manure flung at T-Mobile. So far, though, no happy design competitions have been announced to appease the neighbors, and StopElitchWalMart signs are sprouting in yards throughout the area.

The distaste for Wal-Mart is so intense that it's spilled over into a community garden in the triangle formed by 29th Avenue, Clay Street and Speer Boulevard. Over the past six years, Ray Defa and a group of residents transformed a weed-filled property assigned to the Denver Department of Public Works into a xeriscaped perennial garden. But on December 5, the city's Parks and Recreation Department cut the plants to the ground -- for the second time.

"A couple of years ago, Parks and Rec mowed down all the perennial flowers," Defa says. "They just whacked them down. They said it was weeds, and we told them they were perennials. They went away for two years, and then in July of last year, the horticulturalist for the northwest district called and said if we didn't maintain it, they were going to trim it."

After the plants disappeared altogether, Defa had a talk with Denver City Councilwoman Judy Montero, and the city agreed to replant the park.

"We had some changeover in staff, and what happened is the staff that took over that area wasn't aware that there was a neighborhood connection," explains Tiffany Moehring, spokeswoman for Parks and Rec (a job once held by Montero). "There was a general maintenance concern, and we had received a couple citizen concerns. It was a xeriscape garden, so it was designed by the neighbors so it wouldn't take a lot of maintenance, but the area did need some attention. After they cleaned it out, we got a call from Ray, and we were extremely apologetic. Had we had known a neighborhood group was involved, we would have managed it very differently."

Defa and company gave the department a list of the massacred plants with the assumption that come spring, everything would be replaced. Then they discovered that the neighborhood's arch-nemesis, Wal-Mart, would be part of the reclamation, since the plot was slated as a National Youth Service Day project and Wal-Mart helps support that effort.

"When I found out one of their co-sponsors was Wal-Mart, we couldn't be a part of it," says Defa. "I told them, 'Don't put a Wal-Mart banner at the site unless you want protesters.'" Citing the connection, Defa and the other gardeners refused to help with the planting.

But Moehring denies that Wal-Mart was ever involved with the northwest Denver project. "That's complete misinformation," she says. "The money they gave to us went to Montbello, and it went to buy paint. Wal-Mart gave us $500. We didn't even highlight Wal-Mart in our promotional materials."

As for the garden project, she adds, its sponsor was Clay Aiken. Yes, that Clay Aiken. The American Idol also-ran has set up a charitable foundation, and it gave local boy Richard Lorie a $2,000 "Able to Serve" award earmarked for Hands on Denver, the volunteer organization within the Parks and Rec department.

So while adults sat out on April 17, a bunch of kids helped replant the community garden. How it will continue to grow is uncertain, though: The city has asked the neighbors to sign a maintenance agreement, but Defa is hesitant to do so.

"We told them we'd revisit it after the garden was mature again, but we're not going to spend another four years getting it to where it was after six years," he says. "It was at a point that a little trash pickup and weed pulling was all it took, but now it will take a lot of maintenance."

Pass or fail: On May 3, the Colorado Board of Education is set to issue CSAP reading results for the state's third-graders -- but administrators of schools where a poor performance could lead to charter designation won't be the only ones nervously waiting to see their marks. So will editorial staffers at the Denver Post, who, starting that same day, will be judged on a regular basis by a stern taskmaster: editor Greg Moore.

In an April 23 e-mail addressed to his colleagues, Moore (who is out of town and unavailable for comment) announced that, in response to requests for feedback, "I plan to inaugurate a quick review of the Post every day...more for conversational purposes, but also as a guide to what I would like to see encouraged as well as rooted out. This is solely my view of our daily efforts." In a parenthetical aside, he added, "I suspect others will have different views, and they may occasionally be right."

Only occasionally? Like the blind pig that finds an acorn once in a great while?

"I hope to do these e-mails every day that I am in town," Moore continued. "I am not looking to start personal debates. People should not get euphoric or despondent based on what I say. I don't want anyone to take any specific criticism personally. Take lessons from it, sure. My intent is to be constructive. But this will be a meaningless exercise unless I am specific."

As for the format of these messages, Moore noted that they "will start out with a grade for the day's paper. Be aware I can be hard about this. Then I will address what I liked and didn't like. This will not be a list based on everything that was in the paper. But it will cover a wide range."

If the Post gets too many F's on Moore's report card, will it become a charter newspaper?


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