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From the word go, the as-yet-unnamed Denver justice center project, just west of the U.S. Mint on Colfax Avenue, has been a disappointment. First, starchitect Steven Holl, who was designing the courthouse portion of the complex, was dismissed -- though paid in full -- over cost estimate overruns that he claimed had been inflated by the city team overseeing the whole project.

That was a big story, and it even showed up in the New York Times, something that rarely happens when the topic is a building in Denver.

Holl was succeeded as designer on the courthouse by his Denver collaborators, klipp, one of the most distinguished architectural firms in the state.

Less publicized than the Holl saga, but equally indicative of the same kind of bad decision-making at the top, was the recent completion of the U.S. Post Office and parking structure element of the complex in a bare-bones form. Missing are many of the details seen in the original design, notably the neo-modern canopy at the entry and the matching, pierced-metal cornice treatment meant to run around the parapet at the roofline.

Money ran out for these details, and left in its wake a building that could more easily sit in a suburban shopping center than on a site just off the greater Civic Center area. The most poignant aspect of this part of the story is that this building was designed by Ranko Ruzic, one of the most artistically distinguished architects in Denver. What a waste.

The post office/parking garage may offer a foretaste of what’s in store for us when the courthouse is unveiled. A recent decision was made to eliminate many decorative details from that building as well -- notably the illuminated wall blade. Mayor John Hickenlooper has not rubber-stamped this latest terrible decision by his team, and has instead suggested trying to come up with the $2 million needed from some other sources.

With the entire project now estimated at more than $70 million over what was initially projected, a couple million more doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. But that this relatively paltry amount wasn’t included in either of the two formal requests to Denver City Council for additional money reveals what’s wrong with the whole process: the people running it for the Hickenlooper administration just don’t care what it will look like. -- Michael Paglia

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