It’s a big deal when Denver’s top architect publishes an essay that says this city fails in downtown design. That we are building one secular house after another. That we are missing out on the opportunity to become a national leader and ruin the urban landscape by putting profit above civic pride.
Jeff Sheppard said all of this, if more politely, in a guest editorial in the Denver Post last Sunday. And we’d be wise to hear him and do what he suggests: stop right now.
In fact, he said this part nicer too, suggesting that we “stop and consider whether there could be more attractive, innovative approaches to building a timeless, dynamic urban living core before it’s too late”.
My interpretation: No more blocky apartment buildings that form almost flat, five-story walls along our pedestrian zones and obliterate sunny sidewalks. No more structures that ask people to live in shoe boxes with a minimum of windows and balconies. No more quickly building lofts that aren’t really lofts, along anonymous corridors that discourage neighborly interaction.
At least until we make a plan to encourage developers to do a little better. And we, as a community, can do better than erasing our own past by demolishing important buildings that tell the story of the city and replacing them with nondescript structures that increase our housing stock but don’t improve it.
Now is the time, as they say. This city is experiencing a building boom that is unparalleled in any era. The economy is strong and the demand for housing will only increase because our population is growing rapidly. We can afford to slow down and think for a minute.
Developers will only develop if we make it attractive to them. Architects will not lead the charge because they do not want to bite the hand that is feeding them. They are a notoriously silent bunch.
This is what makes Sheppard’s paper so interesting. He’s taking a business risk. He’s not just any architect, however.
He is the Official Colorado Architect of the Year, an honor recently awarded to him by the State Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
He designed what is arguably the best structure in the city of 2014, the Denver Art Museum administration building on Bannock Street.
His company, Roth Sheppard, has a reputation for delivering beauty and economy. He’s the man behind the Room & Board retail store in Cherry Creek, the luxurious Sushi Den restaurant in Platt Park, the Boulder Regional Fire Training Facility, and the Colorado State Patrol stations from Fort Collins to Frisco.
In other words, he knows his way around and sounds the alarm.
Sheppard is not exactly offering solutions, although he would like us as a community to examine some good examples and he is ready to lead the discussion and invite interested citizens to participate. (He asks people to email him at jsheppard @ rothsheppard.com.)
In all honesty, solutions are hard to come by. In those cities where design is forward-looking – meaningfully incorporating the outside space, encouraging residents to interact, and creating landmarks to stop passers-by with their good looks or innovation – the momentum comes from the developers themselves. They are Business people who feel it is their duty to keep their cities sharp and know that they can make better money in the long run by creating structures that stand out from the rest.
Denver has its models for well-planned home design. There’s one called Lumina on West 33rd Avenue and Navajo Street that was designed by Tres Birds Workshop and clad with a series of cut stainless steel panels so attractive that the Denver Art Museum bought one for its collection.
But more often, and especially in the city center, developers are building structures that make maximum use of their properties – upwards, downwards and outwards – in order to achieve the largest possible square footage.
Nobody can pass laws that enforce better design. Would we really want that? But we can work together to promote it by forcing developers to think about what they’re doing and by stimulating that civic pride that seems to be taken for granted in Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.
1. At the community level, create a real design review body with the power to review proposed buildings of a particular size or budget and recommend ways to make projects better neighbors and make a real contribution to the city’s aesthetic style. Developers are not bad people – they make the world move, create jobs, give us badly needed roofs – they just don’t always consider the possibilities.
2. Rewrite the city’s rules that 1 percent of the public works budget must be spent on art so that it can be spent on better design. Too often this art is an afterthought, jewelry bought to light up bad buildings. If the money could be used for design elements or for more skilled architects, we wouldn’t need the art first. The government could set the example.
3. Treat this for the consumer problem that it really is. People wouldn’t build ugly homes if others didn’t rent them.
I understand: there is a housing shortage. Every apartment can look like a palace in 2015. But this is a temporary situation and should not affect the structures that will define our city for a century or three.
AIA could serve their community well by launching a public awareness campaign to educate residential customers about why good design makes better life. Design education should be part of art education, starting in schools.
4. Similar to LEED certification, which recognizes buildings for their environmental performance, create a certification program that recognizes buildings that, as Sheppard put it, “take into account the concepts of outdoor living and social interaction react thoughtfully to the context at the same time ”.
5. Offer some form of tax incentive for buildings that are well designed. This is a difficult concept: what is good and who should say? But when people can so easily get together what is unattractive, they can reasonably decide what is also desirable.
Perhaps developers could apply for a tax rebate as there are only so many available each year. Make it competitive; Deal makers understand that.
These are just ideas, and there are certainly better ones out there – ideas that reward rather than punish, inspire without demanding, respect property rights, keep government intervention to a minimum,
Jeff Sheppard wants to lead the discussion. I suggest we join in.
Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, [email protected] or twitter.com/rayrinaldi