Building For the Future

A map of downtown Denver covers the entire wall behind David Owen Tryba's desk. Squiggly lines and arrows fill in blank spaces; historic churches and commercial buildings are highlighted in red. Jumping out of his chair, Tryba paces in front of the map, sweeping his hands over the triangle of land between the Platte River and Colfax Avenue like a general eyeing his next conquest.

This is a map of Denver in 1999, but by Tryba's reckoning it could be Paris in 1853 before Baron Haussmann remade the French capital into a city of boulevards and sidewalk cafes, or Boston in 1835 as plans were created to fill in the swamps of the Back Bay and turn the area into a cosmopolitan district of apartment buildings and shops.

Right now the Mile High City holds the same promise, Tryba insists, if only Denverites could be shaken out of their suburban sleepwalk and realize they have all the makings of a great city--an extraordinary city--right under their noses.

"It's like an empty canvas," he says, looking at the map. "I can't sleep at night, thinking about the potential of this town."

The combination of real-estate booms and busts, the leveling of historic buildings in the 1970s and the decline of the railroads have combined at the end of the twentieth century to make Denver a paradox. It's a city with a historic heart that adjoins acres of empty land, with a downtown overflowing with fashionable new restaurants and clubs that still has few residents, with inner-city neighborhoods where crack houses and half-million-dollar residences sit side by side.

And Tryba is right in the middle of it. For most of the past decade, his firm has been doing renovations in downtown Denver, including the Mercantile Square development (home of the Tattered Cover LoDo), the Hotel Teatro in the old Tramway building, Arnold Schwarzenegger's slowly progressing Stadium Walk project on Blake Street, the Euro Bath and Tile building on Market Street, and the P.S. 1 charter school in the Golden Triangle. Tryba and his staff of 26 architects have also made over several branches of the Denver Public Library, including the Park Hill, Decker, Smiley and Woodbury libraries.

Already established as one of the most historically sensitive architectural outfits in Denver, Tryba's firm now faces its greatest challenge. Suddenly most of Tryba's commissions are for new buildings, many of them in historic areas, that will help shape the look of Denver in the 21st century. Already Tryba has designed two buildings that will soon front the 16th Street Mall, and he is overseeing the mixed-use commercial district that will rise on the site of the old Cinderella City in Englewood, as well as the retail center that will serve thousands of new residents at the former Lowry Air Force base straddling Aurora and Denver.

This burst of new construction gives an architect who isn't shy about criticizing much of what's been put up in Denver since the 1950s an opportunity to show his stuff. More than anything, Tryba wants to take Denver back to the future: to re-create the pedestrian-oriented community of the early twentieth century that shopped and lived downtown, valued street life, treasured beautiful civic buildings and built an exemplary system of mass transit.

While Tryba is excited about his firm's good fortune and the ongoing revival of central Denver, he despairs over the way the metro area continues to develop. As he talks in his Capitol Hill office, the sound of bulldozers tearing up virgin prairie to the south seems to echo off the walls.

"Douglas County is the fastest-growing county in the United States," notes Tryba. "Why isn't Denver County the fastest growing? I can't imagine what it would be like to drive a half-hour every day to go to lunch and get to choose between McDonald's and Bennigan's. What does the Douglas County performing arts center look like? Do they have a major-league ballpark? Do they have a hockey team?"

Tryba's dream is to remake downtown Denver into the kind of place where tens of thousands of people live and work, where kids walk to school and people can take their families out for a night on the town without ever getting into a car. While this is a familiar lifestyle in many European cities, it's almost unknown in places like metro Denver that were built largely after World War II.

When Denver officials brag about the construction of new housing downtown, Tryba quietly fumes. "They like to boast there will be 10,000 housing units downtown," he says. "There should be 100,000 units downtown in a metro area of two million people. Why isn't that happening?"

The red smudges on the map behind Tryba's desk are the result of a brainstorming session with Denver historian Tom Noel, as the two men talked up an idea of illuminating every major historic building downtown.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers

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