Reach for the Skyline

Is Denver ready for an 86-story high-rise?
A downtown Denver property owner is working on plans for the highest skyscraper ever built in the city, a behemoth that would tower almost thirty stories over the city's existing skyline. While memories of half-empty office towers in the 1980s make many skeptical of the plan, Denver's booming economy could make the project more palatable than it would have been just a few years ago.

"This would characterize the Denver skyline into the next millennium," says Scott Moore, a well-known local businessman who is pushing the project. "We want to make a significant statement for the Rocky Mountain West."

If it's built, the proposed skyscraper would be the tallest building west of the Mississippi. That honor currently rests with the First Interstate World Center in Los Angeles, which is 73 stories and 1,000 feet tall. The local 'scraper would be erected just behind the Denver Pavilions project now under construction on the 16th Street Mall. The rear third of the block behind the Pavilions, between Glenarm and Welton streets, is being reserved for the high-rise.

Moore, a fifth-generation Coloradan who is descended from the pioneer Cheesman and Evans families, says he wants to give Denver a signature building that would be unlike any other. Last year he hired Rick Keating, a well-known Los Angeles architect, and asked him to design a tower that would relate to the Rocky Mountains and Colorado's geographic heritage.

Keating came up with a granite-clad, wedge-shaped building with a sloping roof. While tall, the building would be skinnier than other skyscrapers in Denver, forming a sheer wall along 15th Street. It is meant to evoke the famous Trango Tower in the Himalayas, a 3,000-foot pinnacle that attracts mountain climbers from all over the world. Moore's sons are avid climbers and scaled the mountain several years ago. The proposed building would be named Trango Tower in honor of the legendary formation.

In a radical departure for Denver, most of the building would be devoted to housing. Forty stories would be reserved for condominiums and another fourteen stories for a five-star hotel; the rest would be divided between parking, street-level retail and offices. Two of the top floors would be reserved for a restaurant with stunning views of the Rockies, and midway up the tower would be a dramatic glass-enclosed observation deck.

In the past few years there has been little high-rise construction in the United States. Many banks, having been burned by the real estate recession of the early 1990s, are skittish about funding huge skyscrapers. Moore acknowledges that it will take years to get the project off the ground, but he believes the Trango Tower can succeed.

"I think there's a window of opportunity for the Denver area to support a project of this magnitude," says Moore, a key player in the Pavilions project who owns numerous Denver properties and is also active in oil and gas ventures.

At one time Moore was a controversial figure in Denver. He got into a nasty legal fight with the Denver Urban Renewal Authority in the 1980s, when that agency tried to condemn property he owned along the mall for a planned retail center. The project died when Denver's economy hit the skids, and the block remained a parking lot until construction on the Pavilions began last year.

Denver has no height limits for buildings in the heart of the central business district. When the former Stapleton airport was open, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed a height limit of about 58 stories on buildings downtown, since planes were often routed over the area on their final approach. Denver's tallest buildings, including Norwest Tower (commonly known as the "cash-register building") and Republic Plaza, are both just under sixty stories, or about 725 feet tall. The only law that affects building heights is a city requirement that says new high-rises cannot block sunshine on the 16th Street Mall during the lunch hour.

Moore says his building meets all those guidelines. "We've had preliminary discussions with the city planning department, and they don't see any problems with it," he says.

Many people believe Denver has a boring skyline compared to those of other cities and would welcome more daring high-rises downtown. "I do think our skyline is kind of bland," says Tyler Gibbs, Denver's director of urban design. "Any new high-rise is certainly an opportunity to give the skyline more distinction."

Gibbs says he hasn't seen the latest renderings for the Trango Tower and so can't comment on the design. But he adds that he's often envious of the high-rises he sees in cities like Atlanta, which are more varied than the standard-issue shoeboxes that went up in Denver in the early 1980s. Gibbs says Denver missed out on a daring new wave of skyscraper construction that swept the country in the late 1980s, giving other cities buildings that are tapered like pyramids and theatrically illuminated at night.

"Denver built its crop of high-rises before the second great era of high-rises," says Gibbs. "The Norwest Tower is a signature for the Denver skyline, but I don't think it's a distinguished building."

Susan Barnes-Gelt, the Denver city councilwoman who has earned a reputation for her outspoken criticism of downtown projects like the Adam's Mark hotel, says she is less concerned with the proposed building's height than with the way the project would present itself to pedestrians. Barnes-Gelt believes that many downtown Denver skyscrapers don't add to the city's street life. She cites Republic Plaza, with its underground food court and stores, as an example of a building that detracts from the 16th Street Mall.

"We've done a lousy job," she says. "We have buildings in downtown that are ego buildings and don't relate to the pedestrian."

Barnes-Gelt says she likes the Trango Tower's proposed mix of street-level retail, housing, hotel and offices. In order for downtown to thrive, she believes such mixed-use projects must become the wave of the future. However, she says she has serious doubts that the building could be funded in today's market. "I can't imagine there's enough demand now to finance it," notes Barnes-Gelt.

While downtown Denver has made a big comeback during the past five years, Moore admits that lining up financial backing for such a huge project will be a formidable task. He says he is putting together a development team, and he expects it will take years to make the Trango Tower a reality. After witnessing the wild roller-coaster ride downtown has experienced in the past twenty years, Moore knows the real estate market can change with dizzying speed. Some may call his dream for a monumental high-rise folly, but he vows to pursue it anyway.

"I think five years ago they would have sent for the boys in the white jackets and had me hauled away," he says with a laugh. "They may still do that--I don't know.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers