Blind Justice

From the moment I heard about it, during the last years of Mayor Wellington Webb's administration, I thought the idea of constructing a jail on the site of the Rocky Mountain News building just off of West Colfax Avenue was ridiculous -- and I said so on this page back on November 14, 2002.

Ridiculous or not, the concept of making a new jail an extension of the Civic Center is on the front burner again, and Webb's successor, John Hickenlooper, has put his full political weight -- and his formidable charisma -- behind getting the voters to pass a $364 million bond issue that would pay for it. The city has already bought the site, which is contiguous with the west end of the Civic Center, right by the U.S. Mint.

Is it just me, or does putting a 1,500-bed correctional facility -- a prison, really -- next to a federal Mint sound like a treatment for an Ocean's 13 script? (The stars -- George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the rest -- purposefully get arrested on petty charges around town so that they all wind up together in the jail. Then, through a series of fascinating and hair-raising adventures facilitated by a plethora of high-tech gadgets, they work their way through utility tunnels under the street and wind up in the Mint. It'll be boffo at the box office!) While the concept may work in Hollywood, I don't think it will fly in Denver. And my reservations have nothing to do with a fantastic threat to the Mint, but rather the genuine threat that such a facility represents to the cultural, architectural and artistic value of the Civic Center, Denver's premier urban space.

In a built environment with as little to recommend it as metro Denver, the Civic Center is unbelievably valuable. It's an artistic and architectural treasure trove that illustrates the history of American taste over the last hundred years. A jail, no matter how well designed, will necessarily be windowless -- or at least display considerably less fenestration than an ordinary building. It would seem to pose a difficult, if not impossible, design challenge to make such a building a worthy component of our Civic Center.

Based on a neo-classical plan, the Civic Center is anchored by neo-classical buildings (appropriately enough) dating from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. This group includes the Colorado State Capitol, designed by nationally renowned architect Elijah E. Myers working with Denver's Frank Edbrooke, and the City and County Building, which was designed by a consortium of Denver architects. There are also mid-century modernist creations, like the Hoyt wing of the Central Library, by Burnham Hoyt, and the old Annex I, by Smith, Hegner and Moore. Important later buildings by international architecture stars include the Denver Art Museum (Gio Ponti), the main part of the Central Library (Michael Graves), and the Denver Art Museum's still-under-construction Hamilton Building (Daniel Libeskind).

Like the buildings, the public art in the Civic Center ranges from the late nineteenth to the early 21st centuries. There's the Pioneer Monument, by Frederick MacMonnies, the murals at the Greek Theater, by Allen Tupper True, the Bob Mangolds near the Voorhies Memorial, the Mark di Suvero at Acoma Plaza, and the recently installed Larry Kirkland at the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building, among many other pieces. Several sure-to-be-impressive sculptures are also slated for the grounds of Libeskind's Hamilton Building when it's completed next year.

With so many aesthetic attractions packed in a few blocks, the Civic Center is my favorite place in Denver, and one of the few where urban planning has been used for good instead of evil.

Until now. A proposed jail -- and one in a much better site -- failed before at the ballot box, but Hickenlooper seems to have his ducks in a row on this one. First, the jail is being marketed as only one element in a multi-part project that will include, among other things, court facilities and a headquarters for the Denver Sheriff's Department. Clearly, the Civic Center is an ideal spot for a courthouse extension as well as a sheriff's office, and adding those to the mix makes the proposal more palatable. That's why the project is being called the Justice Center, with the word "jail" conspicuous by its absence.

As far as I'm concerned, if the city needs new courtrooms, a sheriff's office and more jail cells, the city should build them. But I don't understand why the administration wants to make those jail cells part of the Civic Center instead of putting them somewhere in the hinterlands.

Yes, there's already a jail at the Civic Center -- but the small city facility at Denver Police Department headquarters is hardly comparable to what's being proposed now. The new jail would be more like the Hyatt Denver Convention Center Hotel, which will have 1,100 rooms when it's completed. And I know that experts from the Urban Land Institute swooped into town last year and selected the Rocky Mountain News property as the best site for a new jail -- but back in the '80s, the ULI also selected the current location of the Colorado Convention Center, rejecting Mayor Federico Pena's favorite locale, the then-almost-completely-empty Platte Valley. Think how much better it would have been to build the convention center in the Platte Valley, where there could be some space around it. Now imagine a jail in the wholly industrial area of West Sixth Avenue, which was one of several sites considered by the ULI. Doesn't that seem like a much better choice from the standpoint of urban design?

Those alleged experts at the ULI don't know what they're doing -- and they proved it here in Denver, twice.

I'm sure that pointing this out now is like whistling in the wind, because everyone who's anyone seems to be pushing for a jail in the Civic Center. Not only is it the mayor's baby, but the members of Denver City Council are unanimous in their support. The board of the Golden Triangle's neighborhood association was nearly unanimous in its approval; the vote went twelve to one. For heaven's sake, even Alvertis Simmons came out in favor of the jail. (Of course, this was a couple of weeks before the activist was arrested outside the Colorado Convention Center on a warrant out of Aurora, so maybe he's changed his mind about jail expansion.) Most important, the jail has the blessing of both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News (which, of course, is collecting a nice chunk of change from the city in the deal).

If the Justice Center proposal passes at the polls on May 3, we'll need to make the best of a bad situation by ensuring that the building makes an architectural statement as compelling as that of other Civic Center monuments. The administration is promising a landmark-quality complex -- but can the Hickenlooper administration pull that off? I'm worried that it can't.

Here's why: Hickenlooper tapped James Mejia to head up the Justice Center task force, and Mejia has a track record that indicates he's not interested in taking aesthetic considerations into account. Denver's parks and parkways include an incomparable collection of plants, many of them within sophisticated landscape designs, and Mejia, who served as Webb's head of the Department of Parks and Recreation, wound up presiding over this collection when it was threatened by the drought of the century. In 2002, Mejia put in place a draconian water-savings program that cut off moisture to the landscaping, a decision he made with no accounting for the actual needs of the plants. There could have been a logically deduced, scientifically based water-conservation scheme, but I guess Mejia thought it was just easier to turn off the spigots. This bold, if ill-considered, move killed thousands of trees and bushes and permanently damaged thousands more. With the plants missing, those original landscape designs have been diminished.

In a related move, Mejia shut off the city's fountains, even though they used up very little water and even circulated it. As a consequence of this move, the fountains are tens of thousands of dollars -- if not hundreds of thousands of dollars -- away from ever working again, since their soft parts have disintegrated through disuse.

But the best evidence that Mejia was entirely the wrong choice to head up the process of building a new component of the Civic Center is his role in regard to another part of the city's architectural equity, Lawrence Halprin's Skyline Park. As parks chief, Mejia presided over the destruction of Skyline Park, a masterpiece of landscape design that was replaced by some sod and pavers last year. There's plenty of blame to go around on that one, but Mejia was in a unique position to save the park, and he didn't. Looking at the new Skyline, I can't imagine anyone would say that it's an improvement over the old one.

At this point, seasoned observers of the urban-design process might wonder where Peter Park, the Hickenlooper administration's director of planning, is in all of this. As far as I can tell, he's nowhere. Park has had virtually no presence in any public discussions about the planned Justice Center. This is the same nonexistent approach he took with the Denver Newspaper Agency Building, another addition to the Civic Center that's already under construction. Just think how the late Jennifer Moulton, Park's predecessor, would have handled these projects. She would have been a major player in the decision-making process, as she was with Libeskind's Hamilton Building and David Owen Tryba's Webb Building, two elements on the Civic Center that came to pass under her watch. Park has a national reputation as a proponent of the so-called new urbanism, so perhaps the reason he's not interested is that the Civic Center is such a fine example of old urbanism.

At this point, the best hope for the future of the Civic Center would be for the Justice Center proposal to fail at the ballot box. That would force the Hickenlooper administration to go back to the drawing board and come up with something a little more thoughtful.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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