Updating Civic Center, The Sequel

Cross-section image of the proposed Colorado History Museum and underground space linking it to the Carnegie Library.

And first, the news: The Colorado Historical Society would like to move into Civic Center, specifically on the pad of grass just south of the former Carnegie Library (now the McNichols Building), across 14th Avenue Parkway from the Denver Art Museum. Not only that, they’d like to build a facility with significant underground curatorial and exhibition space so that above-ground events in the park could continue. (Think the Louvre in Paris, where much the collections are housed in underground galleries.)

Too bad it took the presenters at today’s Civic Center Park Stakeholders Meeting an hour before they finally said just that. Until then, the collected “stakeholders” just heard about the plan and the museum looking for a “new museum option.” At one point Chris Frampton of the Civic Center Conservancy got close to actually giving away the big secret, but no dice. It wasn’t until we’d heard about the park, it’s history, the Civic Center Master Plan approved by City Council in October 2005, and the feasibility study for the “plan” that we actually heard what the hell the plan was.

Of course, all the presenters assumed everyone in the room knew exactly what was going on, since they’d all been involved in the Civic Center discussion these past three years. But if you were new to the issue – or even just wandered in off the street into a public meeting – you were pretty much lost. I follow the issue fairly closely and even I wasn’t exactly sure what “plan” they were discussing.

But there it is: The museum wants to move into the park and let the state courts expand the Colorado Justice Center to take over the entire block – 13th Avenue to 14th Avenue and Broadway to Lincoln -- that the two currently share. Don’t worry: No plans are out yet, no drawings, no design. All Trammel Crow Company and David Owen Tryba Architects – under hire from the museum – have done is develop a massing plan from which to create the project budget. And the whole thing will not exceed any of the view planes or other zoning regulations in the historic district. At least, that’s what Bill Mosher of Trammel Crow kept reminding the audience time and time again.

Similarly, the other presenters kept reminding the assembled guests that the discussions about Civic Center had been so open and transparent for years. That they’d hosted numerous public meetings. That everyone’s comments had been welcomed and heard. It wasn’t until late in the meeting that Parks director Kim Bailey mentioned the giant Civic Center Conservancy/Daniel Libeskind snafu of last summer. The private citizens’ group that was supposed to be taking the lead on financing the upgrade of the park had paid the architect $75,000 ($85,000 depending on differing reports) to create a vision for reactivating the park. But when he removed the giant cloak of secrecy that had surrounded the effort and unveiled the proposal on August 30, 2006, it was immediately and soundly whomped by the public. Of course, Bailey’s remarks were the equivalent of high spin, with her explaining how the process had helped us learn our real priorities and give us new insights.

Frederick MacMonnies 1907 plan for Civic Center, with a mirror building of the then still-to-be-built Carnegie Library .

This time around, the whole atmosphere of the proposal unveiling was much more humble. In fact, CCC was allowed a few brief remarks and then sent off like a shamed child. Besides, this option might have a real chance of garnering public support and actually happening. After all, a building has been intended for the proposed location since the very inception of Civic Center. (Click here to read my history of Civic Center.)

It also calls for the rehabilitation of the Carnegie Library, with plans including public restrooms, a restaurant, space for cultural groups and potentially doing away with the parking lot and replacing that with a public terrace. All of which sounds delightful – as long as the restaurant isn’t some overpriced place filled with subpar food, as most city facilities are. But that’s jumping ahead.

So where do things go from here? According to Mosher, here’s the time frame:

* Between now and Spring 08 they get public input and get the City and State to all agree to project. * Design starts in Spring 08 * Construction on the new museum starts in 09 * Move in happens in 2011

After that, they’ll start demoing the current Justice Center (not to be confused with the new jail and courts already being built on the other side of Civic Center), with a proposed opening date of 2014.

So how will the whole thing be paid for? The City’s proposed infrastructure bond would address four of the Civic Center Master Plan’s top priorities:

1. Restore the Greek Amphitheater 2. Rehab the park walkways 3. Restore the tree groves 4. Improve pedestrian crossings

The new museum building and Carnegie Library overhaul would be covered by Certificates of Participation, which are sold to investors and authorized by the legislature. -- Amy Haimerl