Under Beats Over

Denver's Civic Center was born at the turn of the last century, when legendary mayor Robert W. Speer, creator of the "City Beautiful" concept, began pushing the idea of building a grand city hall and park facing the brand-new State Capitol. Speer's dream was greeted with jeers in the press at the time, but it was realized almost twenty years after his death when the Denver City and County Building was unveiled in 1932.

Now plans are under way to revamp Denver's civic showplace for this century. The 1919 Greek Theater has already been restored and will be rededicated later this year. In the meantime, ideas being discussed include the possibility of burying West Colfax Avenue between Broadway and the City and County Building, creating new plazas that would better link the downtown business district to the park; turning the former Carnegie Library -- a 1909 Greek Revival jewel that has been used as city office space -- into a cultural center; and bringing outdoor seating and open-air cafes to Civic Center.

Denver architect David Owen Tryba has been talking up these ideas ever since the city's $132 million Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building, which he designed, opened two years ago across Colfax from Civic Center. Tryba believes Denver has the opportunity to turn this space into the sort of lively urban park found in cities like New York and Boston. "We need to think about what we need to do with Civic Center for the next hundred years," he says.

Today Civic Center Park is attractive, but it's often almost empty. While some people brave the panhandlers and drug dealers to eat lunch there, more stay away.

The most ambitious of Tryba's ideas calls for putting Colfax underground. Ten years ago, the city successfully built a $24 million tunnel that buried Speer Boulevard at Broadway, untangling a congested intersection and allowing for the creation of a new park along Cherry Creek. Doing something similar with Colfax could open up Civic Center to the rest of downtown and help transform the park. "We could turn Civic Center into a public gathering place where people feel comfortable eating and hanging out," Tryba says. "We don't have to condemn the land; we just need to connect it. This really should be Denver's living room."

The park Tryba points to most frequently as a model for Civic Center is New York's Bryant Park, behind the historic New York Public Library main building on Fifth Avenue. Once a gathering place for dealers and derelicts, the park was redesigned in the early 1990s and is now hailed as one of the most successful public spaces in the country. Every day, hundreds of moveable chairs are placed around the park, providing seating on the lawn for throngs of office workers who lunch there. Kiosks that sell sandwiches and espresso are placed at strategic points, and free concerts, fashion shows and outdoor movies bring a lively mix of children and adults into the area. Because there are always people in Bryant Park during the day (the park closes at night), crime is not the problem it once was.

Chicago built its new Millennium Park along Lake Michigan by burying commuter railroad tracks, Tryba notes. By putting Colfax underground, Denver could create a space just as lively as Bryant Park. "What we need to be doing is getting rid of cars and getting all the public transit in one place," he says. "We could get rid of seven lanes of traffic, and then all the downtown business workers could just flood over into the lawn."

The concept of burying Colfax interests current Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, but he says he needs to consider budgetary conditions before he takes a position on the idea. "There's no denying that putting Colfax underground would connect Civic Center to downtown," says Hickenlooper. "It's the kind of thing that, once you do it, it changes your city forever. But I'm concerned about the cost. We have a lot of other pressing needs."

The city is already moving to expand open space along the stretch of West Colfax that faces Civic Center. In a deal approved by the Denver City Council last week with the Denver Newspaper Agency, publisher of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, the city will rebate $750,000 in property taxes on a planned $80 million office tower for the two newspapers that the DNA hopes to build at Colfax and Broadway. In return, the DNA will set the building twenty feet back from Colfax, creating a small park on that side of the street.

Burying Colfax is Tryba's most spectacular concept for Civic Center. Other ideas might be more easily achieved. One calls for taking the former Carnegie Library -- now known as the McNichols office annex -- and changing it from city offices into a city cultural center. Chicago has done just that with a circa 1897 Carnegie library, transforming it into the Chicago Cultural Center. This downtown destination now offers hundreds of free events throughout the year, including concerts, films, art exhibits and children's programs, and it has become one of Chicago's most popular attractions.

Turning Denver's former library into a cultural center could transform Civic Center, Tryba says. "There's plenty of space in the Webb building for the occupants of the library," he points out. "This is an asset that's not bringing any dividends. It could be a museum on how we shape our city, like the Municipal Art Society in New York."

Although putting a new cultural institution into the old library would be a major endeavor, one involving both public and private funding, the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation is already considering a proposal to renovate the building, possibly turning the ground level into public gallery space and using the upper floors to house cultural agencies. "It's at the exploratory stage," says Beth Conover, a special assistant to the mayor.

The parks department has also begun working on a new master plan for Civic Center. According to Conover, city officials have been talking to several of the people involved in New York's Bryant Park renovation, to get their ideas for what could happen in Denver. "There's a lot of energy behind this," she says. "We want Civic Center to be the town square."

Tryba isn't stopping there. He insists that Civic Center could become not just Denver's most urbane park, but a magnet for people visiting from throughout the region that would also jump-start development in adjacent neighborhoods. Areas like the Golden Triangle could become home to thousands of new residents who are drawn to a lively park just a few blocks away. "This is our version of the Luxembourg Gardens," he says, referring to the famous Paris park. "It could be filled with all sorts of different kinds of people -- young people, old people, lovers. That's what this park was meant to be."

And Robert Speer would say it's about time.

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