Planning Board votes down controversial Writer Square sign plan at impassioned hearing

The Writer Square pedestrian shopping center downtown may be subtle, quiet and low-key, but the passions the location inspires are anything but. Denver's Planning Board learned that fact firsthand last night when it considered a controversial new sign plan for the property -- a proposal board members decided to vote down after three hours of dramatic testimony.

The sign plan, which included new retail signs, LED light bands curving around two corners of the property and a 96-square-foot video billboard facing towards Larimer Square (gone were two additional video billboards that were to adorn Writer Square's clock tower), is part of a major overhaul of the shopping center by its new owners to make the site more flashy and dramatic. Apparently the folks who turned out en masse to oppose the sign proposal took a page from the property owner's shock-and-awe playbook.

In order to demonstrate the size of the video billboard that would face into Larimer Square, Joe Vostrejs, general manager of Larimer Associates, which oversees the historic shopping district, had volunteers unfurl an eight-by-twelve-foot sheet in front of the Planning Board. "You can see this is a very large object, and you are experiencing it like you would on our property," said Vostrejs.

And when Arlene Parker, one of the residents who live in the condos above the shopping center, voiced her concern about how the owners' "Time Square-like" vision for the property would ruin its "warm, European appeal," everyone who supported her at the hearing stood up -- wearing blinking bike lights on their chest in reference to the animated signs being proposed.

Others' testimony, while lacking in visual aids, still packed fireworks. Several speakers noted that the hundred-plus people who'd signed petitions or written letters in opposition to the plan, not to mention the four city council members opposed to it, clearly suggested the proposal would have negative impacts. And while the sign plan was designed to draw more customers to the area, several critics pointed out that not a single Writer Square merchant had shown up to support the changes.

Another concern was the precedent this new breed of signs would set. Illuminated LED signs are already allowed in the Theater District on 14th Street and along the 16th Street Mall, noted Michael Plachy, lawyer for the Writer Square Condominium Association. If they're given the green light at Writer Square, too, Plachy predicted, "the core of downtown will be open for this type of animated, illuminated signage."

The Planning Board got the picture. "The reason Writer Square is so successful today is because it was designed so well 27 years ago," said Planning Board Chair Brad Buchanan. "I think that the current sign design is not just in contrast, I would say it is in contradiction to Writer Square." And with that, the planning board voted to recommend that the city's zoning administrator, who makes the final decision, deny the sign plan.

As the sign plan's opponents headed to Red Square Euro Bistro in Writer Square to celebrate their victory, property co-owner Gary Dragul said he heard their concerns loud and clear and hoped an agreement would eventually be reached. "We have a project that's halfway cooked. We are very committed. We are very, very long-term owners. We may be the last owners," he says. "We are gonna be fine. We are going to find a way."

One way, points out Carolyn White, lawyer for Writer Square's owners, is kill the plan for the digital billboard but move ahead with the LED light bands and other new signs, since none of that requires approval from the city. "It may be we just do that," she says.

In other words, whether people like it or not, it looks like Writer Square is in for a re-write.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner