Civic Center Park – Design Guidelines Need, Um, WORK!

Early yesterday morning, about 7 a.m., I navigated to and found the link to the “Denver’s Civic Center, Design Guidelines,” that, apparently, were presented to Denver’s Landmark Commission recently and, of course, to the august group of the “Advisory Committee,” who, again apparently, had some little input into the “Design Guidelines.” We’ll call the above noted document, “The Report,” and note that the cover page provides the following: “95% draft, October 2, 2008.”

Ahem… Then, at 9:30 a.m., after reading The Report, all of it, word for word, I attempted to re-access the link and, wallah!, came up with this: page-not-available-civic-centerOkay. According to a blurb in the Rocky: The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission Tuesday [11/18/08] declined to approve design guidelines proposed for Civic Center until changes were included, rather than signing the document before fixes were made.

The commission instead voted to hold open a public hearing on the guidelines until Dec. 16 while the city’s Civic Center project manager Mark Bernstein and consultant Mundus Bishop Design Inc. refine language and address concerns.

So, there were “changes” that needed to be added/amended to The Report. I understand.

Might I suggest a few modifications to the report. Most importantly, The Report in the introductory section makes note of the “Civic Center Conservancy,” which, if you will recall, commissioned the Liebskind redesign of Civic Center Park which, when seen, turned most people’s stomachs, urged a WTF scratching of the head, and, of course, (I think, “of course”) provided the opportunity for more than a few folks to question the integrity, the intent of the the Civic Center Conservancy. Don’t let me bore you with prior posts dealing with this “event” here, here, here, here, here and here. Suffice it to say, the Civic Center Conservancy, who brought us Daniel Liebskind’s fantastical abortion for “revitalizing” Civic Center Park, is also entrenched in the “Civic Center Advisory Committee,” acknowledged within the pages of The Report. Specifically, of the 36 members of the advisory committee, ten are noted as also being members or ad hoc members of the Civic Center Conservancy: Elaine Asarch, Kim Bailey [although, I believe ol’ Kim is long gone], Susan Barnes-Gelt, Derek Cunz, Ruth Falkenberg, Chris Frampton, Dennis Humphries, Jeanne Robb, David Tryba, Mickey Zeppelin. So, first modification to The Report, I would suggest, is to reveal that the Civic Center Conservancy was the group of “enlightened” folks who paid Daniel Liebskind about $78,000 to provide his conceptual design for Civic Center Park and, as a consequence, lost, with most of us, a good deal of their integrity, their supposed commitment to preserving the park as something representative of Denver’s history. The Civic Center Conservancy should have been ashamed to publicize Liebskind’s “vision” for Civic Center. But, they weren’t. Should they now suffer the consequences of their misdeed?  “Off with their heads!”

Second modification to The Report I would suggest is to correct the error indicating William H. McNichols, Jr. was mayor of Denver from 1963 to 1983. McNichols was mayor of Denver from December 31, 1968–an unelected ascension to the mayor’s chair after Tom Currigan flew off to Los Angeles–to 1983 when Feddie and Dreamers corralled the mayor’s office. McNichols tenure was from 1968 to 1983; elected officially in 1971.

Third modification I would make is to that section of The Report that refers to three-dimensional elements to be placed in what is called the “South Garden” (more on the “South Garden,” later). The Report notes: “Three-dimensional elements will be non-habitable, will provide an open an dairy quality.” Okay. So, somebody didn’t really proof the thing as intently as they should have. But, on first reading, yes, I imagined a dairy–I’ve been to several–and was gleeful with the prospect of having cows in the park. Of course, with cows comes cow shit and odors and deep-set groans and moans and high screeches and… Well, then I reread the thing and realized there was a damned typo there. Funny though, at first I didn’t think it unreasonable the city would come up with such an idea. Go figure! They did, after all, kinda, sorta, at first embrace the Liebskind abortion.

The Report embraces the preservation of the “symmetry” of the space. Yes, I understand that the City Beautiful movement kind of liked the idea of symmetry. I do, too. But, please, I do get the impression that the adherence to this idea of “symmetry” is being used to unabashedly promote a “structure” to be placed in what is called the “South Garden,” to off-set the structure on the north side of the park, now referred to as the McNichols Building, which was originally the Carnegie Library.

Now, I understand Mayor Hickenlooper is just wetting his pants giddy with the expectation one of his “legacy” projects will be a new structure in Civic Center Park. If I recall, he was, at one time, promoting a glass structure that would be an “exhibit hall” in what is now, in The Report, referred to as the South Garden. The Report, both in narrative and drawings, provides a tiresome emphasis not only on “symmetry” but on the need to put some kind of structure in the South Garden. The Hickies seem to have prevailed in the writing of The Report. The Hickies seem to have caved to the winky-wink desire of Hizzonner to forgo any real devotion to preserving the pristine presence of the park, by constructing…What?…in the South Garden.

A section The Report, entitled “Composition of Park Spaces,” notes that: “The McNichols Building (Carnegie Library) defines the north edge of th Lower Terrace. A complementary building to the south (illustrated on the adjoining diagrams as a dashed outline) was proposed [apparently in Edward Bennett’s design, circa 1917, although the plate provided in The Report for the 1917 design, shows no structure on the south side offsetting the McNichols Building] but never built. This building would have defined the Lower Terrace on the South.”

Ahem… The defining characteristic of the so-called “Lower Terrace on the South,” is a very pleasing, shaded, tree-lined portion of the park that begs the loll of visitors under the spread of vegetation that flourishes there; that begs to be LEFT ALONE in spite of the Hick’s designs on the park which, one cannot avoid the suspicion, he, the Hick, sees as a kind of brick and mortar testament to his PRESENCE in the mayor’s chair, something akin to Wellington Webb’s slick deal to build himself his own legacy in the guise of the Wellington Webb Municipal Office Building just across Colfax from the park. Politicians are like that; egos that cannot be satisfied without some substantive STRUCTURE giving witness to their GREATNESS, their self-acknowledged IMPORTANCE to whatever they themselves deem IMPORTANT.

Drawing, after drawing, after drawing in The Report includes a dotted line BOX, representing a structure to be erected in the South Garden. Now, if you don’t know, the described South Garden is that area of Civic Center nearest to 14th Avenue and Bannock, south of the Greek Theatre, and immediately across the street from the Denver Art Museum. And, The Report concludes, that in the interest of “symmetry” this dotted line structure is necessary to offset the presence of the McNichols Building (nearest to Bannock and Colfax) directly opposite the South Garden, or the north side of the park.

Let’s spend a moment on the McNichols building. The Report suggests the McNichols Building be modified, inside and out, to provide for a “new park use.” The Report suggests additions to the Building on the south side and the north side. These additions would replace the parking lot on the south side of the building with a new entrance and other “park use” space; would create a new entrance on the north side of the building, “…reinforcing the building’s presence on Colfax Avenue.” The modifications to the interior of the McNichols Building would be–this is a little scary–reviewed by “…Denver Parks and Recreation and the Civic Center Conservancy.” Oh my… Visions of Liebskind persist. Sorry. But, I do have to note that the Colfax side of the McNichols Building is, and has been, in a deteriorating state for decades. The entrance is actually below ground level, surrounded by cracking, peeling concrete and is in need of major rejuvenation. Getting rid of the parking lot on the south side of the building is, I believe, a wonderful idea. It should never have been put there in the first place. And, taking The Report at face value, the additions to the south and north sides of that building seems reasonable and necessary. The rub, of course, if what new “park use” will be identified for the building itself. We’ve already got more art museums than one city could hope for. Restaurants? Retail space? Denver history museum? I dunno. But, how do you define “park use?” The idea, of course, is to draw people into that space. What “park use” could do that? I guess we’ll have to think a bit on that one.

The Report also suggest that “kiosks” be installed in the area described as the “Broadway Terrace.” The “Broadway Terrace” is, you guessed it, that portion of the park that faces Broadway. This appears to be a good idea. What, exactly, the kiosks would be used for is–I just didn’t see any specific use mentioned in The Report–unsure. And, I’m a little curious about the following from The Report: “Design each kiosk as an architectural gem or folly compatible with the character and neoclassical aesthetic of Civic Center.” Yeah, it’s that word “folly” that concerns me. I suppose the definition the folks who put The Report together would most likely attach to the use of that word would be: an often extravagant picturesque building erected to suit a fanciful taste. I mean, they surely wouldn’t go for: a foolish act or idea. Would they? Just having a hard time wrapping my mind around the use of that particular word, “folly,” in the context of assuring new structures are “…compatible with the character and neoclassical aesthetic of Civic Center.”

Now comes the South Garden. It is no secret, Mayor Hickenlooper has argued for a structure to be erected in the South Garden. Why? We know what the The Report argues; that it’s a matter of “symmetry.” Additionally, of course–I guess???–there is the argument that plopping a structure down in that area of the park would provide a reasonable expectation that people would be drawn to the South Garden. But, here’s what else is visualized for the South Garden: “To both define edges and provide Park amenities, this new garden may include three-dimensional elements such as walls, trellises and Park structures. Garden plantings, trees, water, sculpture and civic art are important elements that may be used to complete the South Garden.”

Hmmm… Those of us who know the South Garden area well, must wonder where in hell all this stuff is going to go. And, a structure, a building besides. And, if that question slip-slides through our brains, what necessarily comes next is the question: Where is the people space? Indeed, where does the grass go? Where, oh where, do the children play? See, there’s another rub here. The South Garden is probably the most naturally pristine portion of the park. Just grass and trees. What’s wrong with that? I know, I know… There’s that matter of “symmetry,” the matter of “presence,” the matter of maintaining those “axis” lines that appear in each of the plates in The Report. Who dares to argue with the planners, the architects, the Civic Center Conservancy on the worth of that pristine open space that will be destroyed if the plans for the South Garden are realized? Citizens? Just folks, like you and me? Do we dare question the “experts?” Yeah, I think we do. We can. It is, after all, OUR park.

Cathy Donohue, a former city councilperson for nineteen years, a neighborhood and parks advocate long before that, argues the following in a letter to the Denver Landmark Commission, dtd. November 18,2008:
The green field that will be destroyed by the addition of a structure as depicted in the pages of the Guidelines can never be replaced.  Today’s open field has been the gathering place of a hundred thousand people, who came to hear our future president.  If the lawn is destroyed, it can never again be played upon, or used for civic celebrations.  A small bit of oxygen will never be inhaled.  The open field gives birth to no new vagrants or graffiti producers.

Why is our current city leadership so determined to dig up our civic front yard?  How can another structure enhance this green field?  Do we need another flower holder to be forever maintained by city gardeners or a building like the one shown in the attached picture?
Take a slow walk through the park and feel the sense of peace that is offered by the open, green lawn.  Then imagine a structure as shown in the drawings.  The land should not be destroyed.  Our city does not need to remove a place that helps us breathe.  We  have too many large structures surrounding the park.
Cathy Donohue’s devotion to Civic Center Park, to its history, to its beauty, to its elegant simplicity, is unequaled. Her point is well-taken. Would that the Denver Landmark Commission conclude the same.
So, there it is. The Denver Landmark Commission, as noted above, will hold open public comment on the “Denver Civic Center Design Guidelines” until December 16th.
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