The Bridge Game Finally Ends

For years, a half-dozen concrete bridges have spanned the streets of downtown Denver, the legacy of an ill-conceived 1960s urban-renewal project aimed at taking pedestrians off the sidewalk. Now the little-used "skybridges" are starting to come down, closing a chapter on one of downtown's more bizarre redevelopment efforts.

Two of the bridges were demolished last month, including one at 16th and Larimer streets and another at 17th and Larimer. The disappearance of the skybridges marks a turning point for downtown, as one of the vestiges of a bulldozing era vanishes and the area tries to reorient itself to the very people the bridges were meant to serve: pedestrians.

The two Larimer bridges, which were fenced off and starting to crumble, were probably the biggest eyesores. Condominium owners in the buildings connected by the bridges paid to have them removed.

"We finally got rid of them," says Steve Guillaume, manager and building engineer for the Windsor condominiums, at 1777 Larimer. "Now that they're gone, it's a big relief."

Guillaume had been looking for a way to get rid of the 17th and Larimer bridge for several years. The 40,000-pound bridge was in such bad shape it had started to disintegrate, and fencing had to be installed underneath it to prevent chunks of concrete from falling on the heads of passersby. The annual Parade of Lights had to be rerouted around the bridge, since some of the inflatable floats were unable to fit under it.

Guillaume's firm also manages the Larimer Place building at 16th and Larimer; residents of that complex wanted their skybridge out of the way as well. Guillaume found a company willing to take down both bridges for $30,000, and residents finally agreed to pay for the demolition after concluding that they wouldn't get any help from city agencies.

"The city is very happy they're gone, but they didn't want to pay for it," says Guillaume.

Downtown's small network of skybridges is a legacy of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority's Skyline project of the 1960s and early 1970s. That plan eventually leveled 27 square blocks of historic buildings, an area roughly the same size as today's lower downtown. Glass-and-steel high-rises took the place of dozens of nineteenth-century brick buildings.

As part of downtown's brave new world, officials decided they would try to create a pedestrian zone above the street. The idea called for public plazas at the second level of the new high-rise district, all of them linked by skybridges. In theory, visitors to downtown would park in a garage, take an elevator to the "plaza level," then dine and shop without ever setting foot on the street.

But pedestrians avoided the skybridges, and the public plazas soon turned into barren, windswept spaces that felt dangerous after dark. The idea of giving up on street life was soon abandoned, but the half-dozen bridges remained.

City officials and downtown boosters now readily concede that the skybridge idea was a mistake, but finding the money to get rid of the bridges hasn't been easy. Even though they were conceived by DURA, that agency hasn't been willing to pay to have them removed, leaving the problem in the hands of property owners.

The Downtown Denver Partnership, which represents property owners and retailers, advocates getting rid of the bridges. The partnership is about to embark on a multi-million-dollar renovation of 17th Street that calls for new streetlights, benches and newspaper boxes. However, taking down the final 17th Street bridge, which links the US West Tower to Independence Plaza between Arapahoe and Curtis streets, won't be part of that effort.

"That skywalk is the concern of the property owners," says Ben Kelly, spokesman for the partnership.

The owner of Independence Plaza, Amstar Group Ltd., wants to tear the bridge down, even though it will likely have to pay for the effort.

"I think it will be coming down," says Jim Cortney, asset manager for the company, who is talking to demolition companies and taking bids.

The remaining three bridges include two that stretch across Larimer and 19th streets from Sakura Square and another that links the 17th Street Plaza office tower to the Bank One building at 18th and Lawrence streets.

Residents of the Windsor condominiums are already working on a plan to turn the empty plaza that fronted their former skybridge into a covered picnic area, says Guillaume. And nobody seems to miss the old bridge.

"We've had a lot of positive response," adds Guillaume. "Everybody thinks it improves the appearance of the street."

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