Then the Nativ ran afoul of LoDo neighbors concerned about the new mural that covers much of the side of the building facing the 16th Street Mall, as well as two smaller signs on the same wall for the Stereo Lounge in the basement and the hotel itself.
The hotel's owners had commissioned Michael Ortiz and Jonathan Lamb of Like Minded Productions, a Denver-based outfit whose work can be found all over the city, to create the massive "Power Lines" mural, a work whose color represents the elements and the energy of seasons in Colorado. They got approval for the mural from Denver Arts + Venues, which signs off on art projects in the city, and then the artistic duo spent nearly four weeks completing the piece. "This one really took a community to make happen," says Ortiz, who thanks Judd Meininger, Matter Design Studio, even Illegal Pete's.
But some community members weren't thrilled by the mural's very modern look in the middle of the Lower Downtown Historic District, which was created back in 1988.
"Generally speaking, any building in the LoDo Historic District requires approval for alterations on the exterior, including signs," explains Andrea Burns, communications director for Denver Community Planning & Development. “The public art was reviewed by Denver Arts + Venues as well as the zoning administrator, but the portion with the hotel's name is considered a sign and requires a separate application to the LDDRB," she adds. "Public art murals can't include advertising."
At the end of June, an inspector with the Lower Downtown Design Review Board told hotel owners Richmond Meyer and Michael Alexander that although the mural had been approved, the two signs had not: They would need to file applications for both with LDDRB.
The LDDRB's role is to not only protect historic buildings, but preserve the appearance of the neighborhood. "If you spend much time in LoDo," Burns points out, you’ll notice all the signs fit a certain pattern, which reinforces the historic kind of aesthetic of the district."
Nativ's owners say they thought that the approval of the mural covered the signs. Now they're waiting for their architect to determine the exact percentage of the wall that the signs occupy, to see if they can squeak past city zoning regulations. If not, they may have to return to the drawing board.
This isn't the first time that street art has caused controversy in LoDo. William Matthews, an artist of national renown, wanted to paint a giant mural on the side of the building that housed his studio and eponymous gallery. But the project was in limbo for months before it was approved by the Lower Downtown Design Review Board in 1998; Matthews had permission from building owner Don Andrews, but didn't realize that was just the start of the approval process.
Matthews had given far more thought to what he wanted to put on that wall than how difficult it might be to cut through the bureaucratic red tape. During a year of planning, he went through a whole series of images before deciding on "A Fine Old Martin," featuring the countenance of cowboy poet/singer Gary MacMahon as the seasoned cowpoke strumming on a 1932 Martin 000-28 guitar. Matthews owns the actual instrument, which he bought from bluegrass musician Charles Sawtelle. "We're not doing this in a halfhearted way; I think it's a strong solution," he said at the time. "I wanted to add some kind of a regional spice to the lower downtown area, and I didn't want to do anything that was corny or tired or provocative. I wanted something with a wonderful, gentle feel about it, for people to feel welcomed when they come around the corner and there it is."
Today the painting's seventeen-year-old fade has only added to its charm. "This type of mural gives downtown a signature," says mural specialist and self-proclaimed "wall-dog" Chris Krieg, who collaborated with Matthews on the piece.
The worn, torn, wild West signature of Matthews's "Cowboy" is across the street from "Power Lines." But Matthews himself has moved on; he now has a studio/gallery, Great Basin Studio, in the RiNo neighborhood. One of the occupants of his former studio building in LoDo? A dispensary.