As Denver develops, it loses its soul

Just a few weeks ago, the jackhammers and bulldozers of progress started the serious work of tearing up part of Denver’s Cherry Creek North area — barely four miles from Auraria.

Like most cityscape screwup scenarios, the project is being pimped as progress. Whether destroying the grassy Fillmore Street mall – the last open space, human-scaled gathering place in that part of town – in favor of another all-asphalt street is a plus, has raised serious doubts among neighborhood activists, despite a flood of well-financed hype.

If you’re on a student budget — and I don’t mean a student at The Univerisity of Colorado at Boulder — chances are you don’t spend too much time or money in the pricey precincts of Cherry Creek and its high-end stores, bars and spiffy restaurants. But you need not be a student of architecture or design to care about what’s happening to Denver’s cityscape.

Vandalism takes many forms. One is the work of kids armed with spray-paint cans. Most municipalities have clean-up campaigns backed by stiff fines to fight that form. Other vandalism is hatched in respectable conference rooms by realtors and developers not in jeans and sneakers, but business suits, backed by money.

Fillmore Street is now seeing the second form of vandalism, supported by serious money: a couple of billionaires in this case. The plan to turn the open space on Fillmore Street into what will be called “Fillmore Plaza” — actually, a street — came from two developers who happen to own projects on either side of the street: the Sturm Group and Western Development. The first has billionaire backing and the latter is co-owned by Christian Anschutz, son of well-known, but reclusive, Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz.

The pair of mega-heavies proposed the “plaza” project early in 2010 to the Cherry Creek Business Improvement District (BID), whose board has shifted from small retailers to big-boy developers. For more than a year, the proposal was opposed by small store owners and residents of the Cherry Creek North neighborhood. They never had a chance. In January, 2011, the Denver City Council — that seldom meets a development project it doesn’t like — approved an agreement between the city and the Cherry Creek BID as a green light for redevelopment to begin.

The unanimous-vote City Council rubber stamp recalls a comment made years ago by Denver Post columnist Al Knight who said “ …when it comes to development, Denver is one the cheapest ‘dates’ around … ” Knight was talking about the 1997 demolition of architect I.M. Pei’s modernist “parabaloid” in front of the old May D&F department store on the 16th Street Mall at Tremont Place in downtown Denver. A cluster of anorexic-looking ballerina sculptures replaced the piece on the site to herald a redeveloped hotel, then called the Adams Mark. St. Louis developer Fred Kummer got the Denver City Council to come up with a $30 million tax-abatement city subsidy then, although no city money will be involved in the Cherry Creek project.

Not a single project opponent or member of a neighborhood group turned out for the Fillmore ground-breaking ceremony on a freezing February morning earlier this year, according to coverage in the Glendale/Cherry Creek Chronicle community newspaper that was not enamored with the “plaza.” But the cheerleaders were all there – including Denver Mayor Bill Vidal, City Council members and BID members. All but Vidal gushed the project’s praises.

Said BID President Julie Bender, “… the new, improved design will enhance pedestrian, event and retail activity on the block, and have a major impact throughout the district.” She also said, “the new space will be closed off throughout the year for the Cherry Creek Arts Festival … and other community activities.”

In its early years in the 1990s, the arts fest featured some art that was actually affordable. But it long ago morphed into a venue for the Panama hat/chardonnay/designer sunglasses crowd in a reflection of what happened to the Cherry Creek area itself.

Cherry Creek became uber trendy after the opening of the upscale Cherry Creek Mall in 1990. Adjacent to a money magnet, most of the modest bungalow homes in Cherry Creek North were scraped off and replaced by ostentatious monuments to what I like to call “Texas Taste,” where bigger and flashier almost always trumps taste. So, you got an assortment of over-the-top architectural styles in a single McMansion — including fan-window Palladian, Cape Cod, Faux Chateau and Beaver Creek Bogus.

Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb claimed turning the open area into a street would lend a “European feel” — whatever that’s supposed to mean. Artists’ drawings show the usual idyllic streetscape peopled by well-dressed shoppers strolling in the lobotomized haze that makes for perfect consumers. Exciting, innovative and — excuse me, I’m falling asleep. Rather than trusting me — a dubious venture at best — see the progress- in- progress for yourself. This being Cherry Creek, you’ll first have to pay for the privilege of parking on the street.

Cherry Creek, and Denver, deserve something better.

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