Everyone in the construction industry admits some discomfort with government-imposed design scrutiny – the idea that a city official or unpaid agency can say yes or no to questions of architectural taste. Developers fear that forced beautification, as some call it, will slow down progress and increase costs. Architects fear that established standards will force them to think outside the box instead of coming up with new things.
Almost everyone has concerns that regulations could limit property rights and increase bureaucracy, that they put too much power in the hands of neighborhood associations and NIMBY activists who could dominate the process, that it is impossible to agree on aesthetic decisions.
But almost everyone supports them, especially now in Denver, where the construction boom is starting and the consensus is that many buildings are being built that disregard the character of their surroundings and damage the city’s image as the capital of progressive Western life. Ugly may be hard to define, but there is widespread agreement that it is on the rise.
So are regulations.
Denver now has about 20 neighborhoods and major developments, from Cherry Creek North to Stapleton, where new projects are due to be reviewed by the planning department. In addition, there are approximately 7,000 structures in designated historical areas that require renovation work to be subject to design review.
Still, the rules only cover about 15 percent of the total geography, and there is an aggressive plan to expand. The city is expected to add two new and important review areas over the next year: the fast-growing River North (RiNo) and Arapahoe Square in downtown. The committees develop guidelines.
“For me it all comes back to the idea that the real value of a place is in the public space,” said Brad Buchanan, who heads the Denver community planning and development agency, giving him the greatest influence on the matter. “It is very clear to me and our department that we hold each other responsible for protecting this public area.”
Buchanan insists that design review is less about taste than context, but there is a thin line and the guidelines depart from the usual catch-all rules set by traditional zone codes.
Types of restrictions
For example, zone rules determine the use, limit buildings to a certain height and mass and lead to setbacks from the street. Design rules like in Stapleton determine the choice of materials, the placement of the windows and the shape of the roofs. Concrete blocks (general cinder block) and foldable concrete walls are not recommended.
The design rules in each neighborhood may require that garages be made from the same materials as the primary structure of a property, that entrances are marked by porches or awnings or recessed entrance doors, and that the decorative surfaces can withstand the weather.
“A variety of suitable architectural styles, materials, and details throughout the district are recommended,” says Cherry Creek North’s general codes before a long list of details is drawn up.
It is hard to argue that “architectural styles” are not a matter of taste or that other rules go well beyond the usual tools that governments use to keep roads safe and healthy. The district goes so far as to expect developers to save existing trees, create “inviting facades,” use backlighting for signage, and use sustainable building practices. Is that design at all?
The Cherry Creek Rules are strict, but they were effective and now serve as a model for emerging districts. The area has boomed wildly, adding hundreds of thousands of built-up areas, but it looks chic, designers and developers agree, thanks to an understanding that materials have to be real, that retail spaces have to be vibrant and transparent to keep the visual appearance interesting is that public spaces remain on a human level that is common in a low-rise area – attributes proposed in the design package that is now being examined by an advisory board.
“Just having a board can make you more aware of the design,” said developer Randy Nichols, whose sizable Clayton Lane project set a trend-setting standard for a decade of construction in the region.
Would a widespread design review save more of Denver? Would it eliminate the indistinguishable apartment buildings that are emerging in other areas – quickie construction works that use cheap vinyl and wood materials that overcrowd their lots, leave little air to breathe for the people living in or around them, and on bright Velveeta cheese dab color squares to disguise the fact that they’re otherwise boring blocks?
Should the Broadway corridor, the highlands, and all these neighborhoods along the new light rail line be restricted in design?
That is probably impossible in enforcement, but still impractical.
Design review only works when there is a basis for creating standards that everyone can agree on. A neighborhood must already have common characteristics – building heights or historical materials, houses or warehouses, parks or paths, a certain density.
“It’s easy to develop design standards in homogeneous places like Cherry Creek. But when you try to apply this in other areas it gets really difficult, ”said Shears Adkins Rockmore architect Chris Shears, a strong proponent of design review – when done effectively.
What is common on Broadway as it heads south through the city? Or all over Globeville or LoHi or West Colfax, other places developers keep an eye on?
The industrial style is common in RiNo, and the new rules that are forming there are guided by existing steel or concrete structures that are on a common level and avoid the ornamentation of mansions on Capitol Hill or the glass of downtown.
The Denver designer and builder Mickey Zeppelin is pushing for the guidelines, among other things. His taxi development is a testament to what is possible, a place that has introduced mixed uses into the neighborhood – retail, office, residential – without losing character. Its buildings have a personality similar to that of the factories that have long determined the style of the region.
“What makes great neighborhoods across the country is that there are places where people come together, places on the street where they can buy goods, places where people can communicate,” Zeppelin said. “That’s what the neighborhood is about.”
Fairness and timeliness are important
Like other developers and architects, Zeppelin believes that successful design guidelines depend on how they are enforced.
Denver planner Nore Winter is a consultant for cities across the country looking to bolster their design. His company is currently developing a screening process for Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country.
A review is only effective if it’s fair, predictable, and efficient, he believes. The rules must be based on concrete attributes of the neighborhood. “Good and bad isn’t really the subject of most design review guidelines,” he said.
Governments and bodies must work in a timely manner when approving projects so that construction – which generates jobs, housing and tax revenue – is not unduly disrupted. The review must take place at the various stages of the design, from concept to document approval, so there are no money-losing surprises.
And perhaps most importantly, review boards or planners need to be qualified. The panels should be made up of architects, city workers, and neighborhood officials, but they need to know something about design and accept that neighborhoods are growing and changing, and tastes vary.
Anti-development activists, big ego architects, and people vying for a piece of the financial pie should find another place to defend their interests.
Those who are there for a personal agenda are problematic, Winter said, “whether you’re a talented designer or a neighborhood doer.”
Make space for new ideas
The rules also need to include some provisions that allow new ideas to take shape. The Clyfford Still Museum, for example, is the most prestigious piece of contemporary architecture in Denver. Would designer Brad Cloepfil’s basic concept – a concrete box with a minimum of windows – meet the guidelines in most locations?
Zeppelin suggests that it’s all about writing the best rules and making things like innovation and neighborhood needs the standard. Design can have unintended benefits to a city. Limiting building type and height in a developing part of the city also constrains the value of real estate in those locations as developers cannot go up and down creating more units. When property values are limited, neighborhoods are generally cheaper – they don’t become places where only the wealthy can afford life.
It’s all about methods. The most effective appraisers work more like consultants – free in some ways – on construction projects. During the process, they may suggest larger living spaces, or insist on sharper retail options, or suggest including outdoor spaces such as functional balconies or shared green spaces, or reminding developers that the back of their buildings is important too – things that add value when it comes to that to lease or sell a property.
They protect the interests of investors because they prevent the next developers from coming along and erecting another ugly building that reduces everyone’s value.
Shears, who served on board and put his case before them, describes a good rating as a simple conversation between people interested in their city.
Effective review “adds depth and breadth,” he said. “You can promote good design and avoid weaknesses, and you can spot opportunities that the designer may not have seen.”
Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, [email protected] or @rayrinaldi