Post Mortem

It used to be that real estate developers actually had to have plans to build something new before the Denver City Council would let them demolish a historic building. But at the council meeting February 23, Denver developer Bruce Berger didn't have to come up with even that much. He didn't bring any blueprints with him--just a twinkle in his eye and a big load of chutzpah. And that's all that was necessary to have the council--as predicted here in January--sell yet another of Denver's important cultural assets down the river. By its 9-3 vote last week, the council condemned to the wrecker's ball Temple Buell's marvelous 1950 art-moderne-style Denver Post building.

The councilmembers accomplished this by granting Berger a zoning change that gave him the right to tear down the building and replace it with a parking lot. Of course, leveling historic downtown properties to make way for parking lots was expressly prohibited under the B-5 zoning the building formerly enjoyed. That moratorium on new surface parking downtown was part of a foward-looking policy that Barbara Paul, regional director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, calls the "only concession" the Webb administration made to the preservation community in the sometimes rancorous negotiations over downtown development that raged for several years beginning in the early 1990s.

Paul was one of a small army of preservationists who came out last week to defend the Post building against Berger's dream of a parking lot. Joining her was Story Sweat, the chairman of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, who explained to the council that Denver has a national reputation as a center for mid-century modern architecture. Sweat also shared the news that the landmark commission had unanimously declared the building eligible for historic designation. This should have made a difference to the council, but it didn't.

Historic buildings define the established character of a city--and that's worth money. So it's ironic that the campaign to save the Post building has been lost just as historic preservation is proving to be a financial success. This has been true not just in LoDo, but in the heart of Denver--for example, at 17th and Champa streets, where no less than six historic buildings are now being rehabbed for a variety of uses. Plus there are those high resale values in several of the city's older residential areas. The beautiful old homes of the Capitol Hill, Cheesman Park, Congress Park, Country Club and Washington Park neighborhoods are the main attraction of these areas.

But despite the power and logic of their arguments, preservationists knew that saving the Post building was a long shot at best, and there was an air of resignation in the council chambers. Berger had said repeatedly that he wouldn't consider saving the building--not even the facade. End of discussion. It's a trick he no doubt learned from Fred Kummer, the St. Louis-based developer of the notorious Adam's Mark Hotel. In that case, Kummer refused to say yes to anything--except a huge subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority.

After watching Berger's parking-lot pitch to the council, it's apparent the man's not just a real estate developer, but a master illusionist as well. And, boy, can he work that smoke and those mirrors.

Here's what Berger revealed at the public hearing:
* He doesn't actually own the building yet (it's still the property of Los Angeles media conglomerate Times Mirror, Inc).

* He does have it under contract, but there's a precondition to the sale--that city council approve the zoning change, allowing surface parking.

* He doesn't really want to build a parking lot at all, despite the fact that it could be expected to generate more than $800,000 per year in revenue. Instead, he'd rather go forward with the construction of a 1,000-room hotel on the site to service the Colorado Convention Center across the street.

Not that there's any plan to construct such a hotel on the site--or any need for one. It's an acknowledged fact that only if voters endorse bonds to pay for a convention-center expansion will the city be able to support a downtown hotel of that size. Berger did promise in a letter sent to each councilmember that he would permit the inclusion of covenants that would limit future development of the site to hotel construction. But he really couldn't share the specifics of those covenants--which would expire in four years anyway--until he closed on the property, which, of course, he couldn't do until the council granted him the zoning change he wanted.

To sum up Berger's testimony, the only thing the developer really promised the city council was that he'd replace the old Post building with a parking lot--and that if a hotel does eventually get built on the site, he'll be back for a big, fat public subsidy, most probably from DURA, whose officials Berger has already met with. After all, market forces can't be expected to work all by themselves in downtown Denver; then we'd get the adaptive reuse of historic buildings like we've seen at 17th and Champa streets. And isn't it funny that only demolition and new construction seem to need subsidies, as we saw when $25 million of public money helped erase I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza and make room for the awful Adam's Mark? Ah, the mysterious workings of the so-called free enterprise system.

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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