Will the makeover of Writer Square be for the better or the worse?
David Scott is a fixture at Writer Square. He's part of the architecture — almost as integral as the red bricks that grace just about every surface of this nearly thirty-year-old cluster of shops, condos and offices.
Scott is the last original retail tenant left in Writer Square, which occupies the block between Larimer Square and the 16th Street Pedestrian Mall. He opened Triage, his men's and women's fashion boutique, in a cozy nook here on July 14, 1982.
At the time, the neighborhood was a mess; the mall had just opened, but most of the area was still a wasteland of empty lots. Banks wouldn't give Scott a loan for his endeavor, so he funded it himself, drawn in by Writer Square's unusual design — it was the first "mixed-use" project in Denver — and his gamble paid off.
As a vibrant downtown blossomed around him, Writer Square remained a unique outpost, its quaint central alleyway and two corner plazas lined with a mismatch of storefronts — including the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Red Square Euro Bistro, Chez Cheese Gourmet Market and the Evil Bean Cafe — and a profusion of trees, statues, benches, oversized planters and massive flower baskets hanging from faux gas lamps. The block seemed to exist in its own time.
"I like the European feel, the garden atmosphere," Scott says. "What this design has done is created a sense of community. I feel like the open space in front of my store is like a front yard for the residents above me. They have a reason to come down here. That's the main thing that is different about Writer Square — the community it creates. I believe it's led to my success. It's about relationships."
And Scott, 54, is all about relationships. The impeccably dressed proprietor creates instant friendships whenever someone walks in the door, warmly welcoming strangers into his world of designer suits and elegant dresses. And when he steps into the plaza out front, he runs into his acquaintances — the resident from upstairs eager to introduce her new puppy, the worker from the office tower who unwinds on a bench every afternoon with a coffee and a book, the lawyer from a nearby firm striding by in a fetching lime-green blazer that just happened to come from Triage.
"You look great!" Scott calls out with a wink.
But lately, the view from Scott's storefront has been changing.
Last August, California-based ACF Property Management Inc. and Englewood-based GDA Real Estate Services LLC purchased Writer Square, and this past May they began removing nearly everything from the plazas and central pedestrian walkway: trees, statues, planters, benches, gas lamps and the hanging planters that Scott and other merchants helped pay for years ago. The new owners have proposed an ambitious new plan for Writer Square that city planners are expected to weigh in on soon.
The proposal, which originally included several twenty-foot-tall video-screen billboards and flashy LED screens, upset just about every resident, several store owners in the complex, and three city council members. While ACF and GDA now say they will scale back their sign plan, it's clear they have a very different concept for Writer Square than what has existed for 28 years, one they hope will bring in more traffic.
Scott loves to talk, but he's reluctant to address the proposed changes. "What I hope for is that with the help of the existing tenants, be it homeowners, retailers or businesses, the new ownership preserves in their design the sense of community that all of the entities share in Writer Square," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Let's hope the finished product serves us as well as it's served me in the last 28 years."
Then, he adds with a weary smile, "Change is hard."
One day in 1978, homebuilder George "Geoie" Writer got into his car, picked up his friend, architect Ron Rinker, and drove through the dreary parts of downtown Denver, looking for the perfect place to conduct a strange experiment.
They were lured by an offer they couldn't refuse. The Denver Urban Renewal Authority, as part of its Skyline Urban Renewal project, was offering downtown lots at a steal. But there was one catch: To get the best price, developers had to build projects that not only retained a considerable amount of open space, but also fused residential, retail and office components. Although Denver and many other cities had been founded on this layout in the 1800s, the tradition had died by the 1970s and become a novel concept.
Writer was an old hand at building residences. Since the 1960s, his company, Writer Corp., has filled metro-area suburbs with one housing project after another: Cherry Knolls, Dam West in south Denver, Castle Pines North, South Park in Littleton, Devils Thumb south of Boulder. But he'd never dabbled in office buildings or retail.
Any apprehensions he might have had evaporated when he and Rinker arrived at a weedy stretch of parking lots bounded by 15th, 16th, Larimer and Lawrence streets.
"There's no question — that's it." That's what Writer, who now lives in Santa Barbara, California, recalls saying. The site lay between the historic buildings of Larimer Square and the high-rises of downtown. "This is a chance to make a transition from the old to the new," he remembers thinking. He and his partners bought the block for about $1 million.
Writer Square emerged over the next three years. It included a ten-story, 120,000-foot office tower and 47 small, ground-floor retail units topped by 42 high-end condos. And just as Writer had envisioned, the square bridged the old and new parts of downtown — not just with its center walkway that connected Larimer Square to the 16th Street Mall, but architecturally. The development's red-hued bricks — a particular color Writer estimates he spent a hundred hours picking out — calls to mind the warehouses and Victorian architecture of the Lower Downtown warehouse district, while the steep-pitched, ribbed-metal roofs had a decidedly modern feel.
"I think this project gave [Rinker and me] a feel that we could really reach our full potential," Writer says by phone. The Colorado American Institute of Architects would go on to recognize Writer Square as one of the top in-state projects built in the 1980s, and in 2006, the development received the CAIA's "25 Year Award," for having withstood the test of time. And while Writer would eventually build 38 planned communities in and around Denver before he sold his company in 2001, this was the one that put him on the map, he says.
"There is not another project around like this, and there never will be another one like this," says Nick Jovene, former project manager for Writer Square, who now lives in one of the condominiums there. "Most developers were all for the almighty buck. Geoie was interested in having a project that people could enjoy."
Over the years, those who were associated with Writer Square became part of a club, Writer says, refusing to leave for cheaper leases elsewhere. And every August, even now, the condo residents throw a communal party and invite all the merchants.
That's why Writer continued to pay attention to his signature block even after selling it in 1996 for $23.5 million. It changed hands several more times over the years before ACF and GDA picked it up in August 2008 for $58.3 million.
"I don't know these developers, but I would think that if they made that kind of purchase in this kind of market...they must have a vision of what could be there," Writer says. "They must regard it as a trophy property. If they're doing deals of this kind in this market, they must know what they're doing."
ACF Property Management and GDA Real Estate Services aren't in the habit of explaining themselves to the press. As GDA owner Gary Dragul puts it, "We're shy."
In fact, when ACF was first contacted for this story, a representative at company headquarters in Studio City, California, responded, "We don't do that," and hung up.
But in early August, possibly in response to growing dissatisfaction over what was happening at the property, Dragul and ACF owner Alan Fox agreed to a lunch meeting at Writer Square. Unfortunately, the square is no longer very conducive to a get-together. The plan was to meet at Crepes 'N Crepes, a restaurant on the plaza adjacent to the 16th Street Mall, but upon arrival, Dragul and Fox discovered that the plaza had been transformed into a maze of chain-link fencing, yellow "caution" tape and heavy machinery. Workers had begun ripping up concrete and other landscape elements that morning, forcing Crepes 'N Crepes to close for the day.
The meeting was relocated to Cafe Colore, on the other side of Writer Square, where most of the streetscape work was already complete. But that space, newly stripped of trees, planters and other sources of shade, was a concrete oven under the noontime sun, so everyone huddled under a faded Campari umbrella on Cafe Colore's patio.
Fox founded ACF 41 years ago; the company owns and manages residential, commercial and retail properties throughout the western United States. Fox is also a poet: He helped create an award-winning quarterly poetry magazine called Rattle, of which he is the editor-in-chief and a regular contributor.
But when it comes to explaining his interest in Writer Square, Fox, who has a Bluetooth headset perched continuously in his ear, spares the flowery prose.
"Location," he says. "Its location is probably the best in Colorado" — especially since the Four Seasons luxury high-rise will soon be complete down the street.
His goal, he explains, is "to draw more people in from the 16th Street Mall by having an open plaza. We are going to do events, farmers' markets, perhaps art shows. The architect is doing it in such a way that once you are in the plaza, hopefully you will want to continue into the center of Writer Square." The $2 million facelift that has upset residents and retailers, he adds, will "bring it into the 21st century."
Over the years, Writer Square has at times faced high vacancy rates; some say the problem is Geoie Writer's unusual design. The central walkway has a kink in it, for example, so it's impossible to see one end from the other. In fact, some shopkeepers believe the design may have discouraged pedestrians from using the walkway to move between the mall and Larimer Square, leaving retailers along it in the lurch.
"We haven't had anything that would tell people what we are," says Dave Tewksbury, whose shop, Tewksbury and Company Premium Tobacconist, is located midway down the walkway. "People aren't going to walk down here unless they know we're here." He notes that in informal surveys of out-of-town customers, only a very small percentage just happened to be walking through the area.
"If I was the designer, I might have put a kink in it, too to make it more interesting and mysterious," says Dick Farley, Principal at Civitas, Inc., a Denver urban design firm. "But in way-finding and practical terms, it makes the interior not obvious, and I think that has attributed to a number of tenants not lasting forever in there."
It's one of the reasons that, as part of redoing the old and broken concrete in the plazas and walkway, the new owners have systematically been removing elements that might be considered impediments to pedestrian traffic flow.
A concept drawing prepared several months ago shows a future devoid of all decoration other than modern lampposts, guardrails, a low-lying fountain and two guys playing guitars on metal folding chairs. Last March, the owners even considered an underground retail space, a glass pyramid and a moat — an idea that Fox has since backed off on, saying it is "in the realm of future fantasy."
The changes have upset many locals.
"When we initially saw the plans in the storyboard format, it looked so sterile it scared the hell out of me," says Tewksbury. When the owners explained that they were going for a European-plaza-type feel, Tewksbury responded by showing them images of famous European piazzas — spaces that were dotted with benches, tables and landscaping.
An employee at one Writer Square business, who asked to remain anonymous, is more to the point: "It's lost its charm. What is this, Space Odyssey 2030?"
These retailers are holding out hope that many of the old elements will return once construction is complete — and Fox says that will be the case. "People are saying, 'Oh, no, it's going to be sterile.' Of course not," he says. The statues, owned by Writer Square tenant Knox Galleries, will return, he adds, showing off a new artist mock-up of a variety of modern-looking benches, lampposts and planters planned for the plazas.
These mock-ups helped allay Tewksbury's fears. "It really helped me turn my skepticism into optimism," he says. "Once I saw them, I said, 'This is beautiful!'"
But it's difficult to understand how, exactly, these elements will fit into a new and improved Writer Square. Because of the cost, the owners denied residents' requests for additional concept drawings or three-dimensional mock-ups of the finished plazas. They also passed up an offer by Jovene, Writer Square's former project manager, to act as a pro bono middleman between management and the residents and tenants, and would not allow Westword to speak with their landscape architect.
"I think Writer Square will be a lot nicer than when it began, but it is hard to conceptualize," says Fox. "I think the best representation will be when the work is done — and when it's done, it will be fabulous."
That may be the case, but John Fuller Sr., founder of Denver-based Fuller Real Estate, wonders why the owners seem so secretive about it. "We just don't understand the mystery around it. We hope it will come out good for everybody, but we don't know that," says Fuller, who lives across the street from Writer Square. "If we were redoing that property, we would sure as hell have better communication with our tenants. We would let them know exactly where we were going and where we were going to end up."
Indeed, communication hasn't been a strong point for ACF or GDA.
Retailers say they had little advance warning about the streetscape construction that has made it hard to do business over the spring and summer. And the first time most people at Writer Square heard about the pyramid proposal was when they read about it in the paper. To set the record straight, the owners held a meeting with merchants and residents in early April. There, Fox said the moat and pyramid were off the table and that he'd work on preserving some of the greenery.
"They kept telling us everything was going to be fine," says Dave Hannes, president of the Writer Square Condominium Association. While the two firms own the office tower, shopping center, plazas and walkway, they don't own the 42 residences above them, and the people who live there nervously watched the transformation below while largely keeping silent.
But then in late June, Hannes received a call from a resident of Larimer Place, the high-rise across the street. ACF and GDA had scheduled a meeting to discuss a comprehensive sign plan for Writer Square that they'd recently submitted to the city — but instead of arranging a meeting with Writer Square residents, who'd be most affected, they'd scheduled it with those who lived in Larimer Place.
When asked, the developers agreed to hold a second meeting at Writer Square in early July. There, residents learned that changes to the plazas and central walkway were just the beginning. Their sign plan proposed "a new concept in visual communication consisting of dynamic lighting, interactive signage, increased visibility and a refreshed plaza concept that will intrigue and involve visitors and residents alike," making Writer Square "an icon in the cityscape, attracting energy and activity from all directions."
The proposal included two 250-square-foot digital billboards on Writer Square's central clocktower and an even larger screen on the corner of 15th and Larimer. It also envisioned illuminated retail signs along the shopping center and LED "light bands" that would stretch around the corners at 16th and Larimer streets and 15th and Lawrence streets in a "Times Square-like fashion."
While several Writer Square merchants welcomed the plan, saying it would draw more business to the shopping center, the residents hated it.
"We realized we had an issue here," says Hannes. "The clocktower signs became the real focal point of concern." These signs would be on from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., changing images every six seconds. They would showcase Writer Square retailers and amenities — but strangely, because of the buildings around them, the screens would be largely blocked from view from the 16th Street Mall. The best view of them would be from the windows and patios of Writer Square residences — some of which were just a few dozen feet away.
By July 30, the city had received 38 letters regarding the proposal. Six retailers supported it, while Downtown Denver Partnership president Tamara Door only urged "continued discussions that will help create a vibrant, active public space."
The other 31 missives, including ones from city council members Carla Madison, Judy Montero and Doug Linkhart, opposed the plan. A 51-page letter prepared by the Writer Square Condominium Association's lawyer pointed out that the video screens would each be larger than the Pepsi Center's JumboTron.
"The billboard industry is trying to put up more billboards around town that are bigger and brighter and have moving messages," says Linkhart, who worries that if these signs are approved for Writer Square, they could happen anywhere in the city. "They've already succeeded in Glendale; they have billboards you can see for many miles."
Residents of the Barclay Towers condominiums, just down the street, submitted three pages of signatures from homeowners against the plan, and the president of Larimer Place wrote in a separate letter, "To say that our residents were shocked would be an understatement." One commenter declared, "This is not Las Vegas!" and several Writer Square residents threatened to move if the plan went through.
Joe Vostrejs, general manager of Larimer Associates, which oversees Larimer Square, is especially worried about the video screen that will face their block. "This is Denver's historic block, the birthplace of Denver. We go to a great deal of trouble to maintain it in pristine, historical condition, and when you start putting Times Square-type panels next to these small-scale historic buildings and you have them changing colors on a regular basis, it changes the way you perceive these buildings, and it diminishes the historic context."
Dragul and Fox got the message. "We will not go forward with the signs on the clocktower, period," Fox says now — though he still hopes to move forward on the video screen pointing into Larimer Square and the LED light bands.
Planning staff is expected to weigh in on the proposal soon. Then the planning board will hold a public hearing on September 2 before forwarding a final recommendation to the city's zoning administrator.
One person who concedes it might be time for a change at Writer Square is its creator and namesake. "I do think that you could bring the project into the 21st century and make it really exciting and better than it was before," says Writer. At the same time, he warns, "you can't change its basic bones.... Writer Square, any way you look at it, is a little jewelbox-type project. It is not trying to be the biggest, most important thing on the block. If they're trying to create that type of statement, they're going in the wrong direction."
Fox insists that Writer Square will continue to be a "boutique-y, one-of-a-kind place" — one that will be more user-friendly and attractive than it had been before. "It will be different," he says. "I don't think it would be appropriate to say anything will be lost."
Cafe Colore manager Amy Martin certainly hopes so. That's what she's been telling regulars who've been asking about what happened to the planters, the flower baskets, the benches and statues. But it's difficult to remain optimistic.
"I know there is an end product, but it's hard to see that end product when you're in the middle of the project," she says. "Up until all of this started, it was just so small and traditional-feeling. Now it looks real bare, wide open and stark. It's going from traditional to modern, and it feels like Writer Square should be historic.
"It's not Independence Plaza or the Tabor Center," she adds. "It doesn't need to roll with the times. It's kind of this timeless space that people feel is going to the wolves."
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