Opinion: Preserve the Denver7 building? The case must be much stronger to justify curtailing the owner’s property rights
The fate of an ugly building in Denver is hardly the most important issue on the radar these days, but a dispute over the old KMGH Denver7 building on Speer Boulevard does highlight longstanding weaknesses in the city’s historic preservation rules.
The main weakness is an elastic definition governing landmark designations that ropes in unwilling property owners without public consensus. It’s one thing for a building of borderline or questionable historical and architectural importance to be declared a historic landmark when the owners embrace the status. They will have to deal with any consequences, such as reduced sale and redevelopment value. More power to them.
But a landmark designation over the owner’s objections is a different matter. The case should be crystal clear and attract widespread public support. We should react with astonishment that the owner would dare to want to tear down the structure rather than with quizzical surprise that our civic leaders insist upon saving it.
Which brings us to the hulking, uninviting eyesore that is the 51-year-old Denver7 building at Speer and Lincoln. A historic landmark? Well, what do you know.
Scripps Media, which owns the building, wants to sell it for redevelopment and applied for a certificate of non-historic status last year. Not so fast. First, Denver’s Community Planning and Development (CPD) office declared the building a candidate for landmark status. On cue, three Denver residents filed a notice seeking that status for the building, triggering a process that landed the question last month before the Landmark Preservation Commission. That panel voted 6-1 in favor of the designation.
The full city council takes up the proposal on May 10.
To be fair, the building arguably represents an example of “brutalist” architecture — never has a name been so apt — which the CPD describes as follows: “Coming into usage in the 1950s, the terms ‘brutalist’ or ‘new brutalism’ were used to describe a style that celebrated raw materials, eschewed decoration, and presented an honest architectural expression by exposing a building’s structural and mechanical components to view.” The style faded after the 1970s.
Other examples of brutalism in Denver include the Federal Reserve Building on the 16th Street Mall and police headquarters — and yes, they’re cold, imposing and off-putting, too. In fact, most examples of brutalist buildings in the U.S. and Britain that I found on the internet appear equally sterile.
But of course brutalism was a real phenomenon and however we might applaud its demise we shouldn’t wish to expunge every example of it from the landscape. So is the Denver7 structure a striking example of the form or a low-grade knock-off? And does it meet other criteria necessary for a historic landmark listing?
Here’s where we run up against Denver’s flaccid standards for hostile designations. I won’t presume to opine on the quality of this building’s brutalist style, but if you are interested in arguments pro and con you can find them at CPD’s website. Scripps Media’s analysis by Heritage Consulting Group, “a national historic preservation firm,” maintains that the building is a second-rate mix of styles, and “was designed and built by high-volume firms that prioritized speed and cost-efficiency. Both the local aggregate and the use of pre-cast panels were chosen, not as a design feature, but as a way to speed construction and minimize costs.” Ouch.
The landmark commission obviously disagrees.
What’s annoying, however, is the convenient flexibility of other criteria that city officials claim have been met. I’ll cite just two.
For example, does the building have “a direct association . . . with the historical development of the city”? Well, sure: Of what 50-year-old building that has housed the same commercial entity could that not be said?
And does it represent “an established and familiar feature of the neighborhood, community, or contemporary city, due to its prominent location or physical characteristics”? Again, the answer is easily cast in the affirmative for almost any old structure, whether it is worth saving or not.
Two years ago, Councilwoman Kendra Black proposed an amendment to Denver’s landmark ordinance that would have required a supermajority on city council to approve an owner-opposed historic designation. It didn’t succeed but is still needed. A national corporation like Scripps Media may not be the most sympathetic target of a hostile landmark designation but local property owners with far less resources have been targeted before, and will be again.
If we’re going to curtail property rights in order to preserve structures of true significance — a goal I support even if I doubt the building at Speer and Lincoln qualifies — it shouldn’t be terribly hard to achieve greater consensus than a simple majority vote.
Contact Vincent Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org.