On April 25, ULI Colorado held its third Design Forum since 2015 raising the question: has the design and construction of our buildings and public spaces gotten better or worse? As the public increasingly objects to the design and development work ULI members do, the question has become much more than academic. And what can be done to raise the bar? A sold-out crowd at Denver Art Museum’s 275-seat Sharp Auditorium heard a panel featuring two out of town speakers and local leaders address these issues in a lively (and at times prickly) discussion.
Moderator Chris Waggett of D4 Urban, developers of the former Denver Design District at Alameda Station a mixed-use TOD redevelopment being rebranded Broadway Park, kicked things off by quoting architect Jeff Sheppard’s infamous 2105 Denver Post op-ed: “Is the building of repetitive, banal housing solutions the best we can do?”
He framed the issue by quoting architect Renzo Piano, “Cities are beautiful because they are created slowly; they are made by time. A city is born from a tangle of monuments and infrastructures, culture and market, national history and everyday stories. It takes 500 years to create a city, 50 to create a neighborhood.” Yet he noted many projects are viewed through the prism of a five-year investment horizon where the primary driver is IRR and the investors don’t live with the consequences unless they are local, patient and focused on long-term value.
Eric Cress, a developer from Portland, Oregon, and principal of UD+P, countered by showing his firm’s work, which included handsome examples of typical apartment forms. Mostly clustered on Portland’s Division Street, these generally feature large windows, generous public spaces, and vibrant ground-floor retail. (Waggett later noted that UD+P’s model of careful capital deployment and long-term holds of properties are not typical in today’s hot Colorado market driven by many out-of-town merchant builders.)
Amanda Loper, principal with San Francisco’s David Baker Architects, followed with examples of affordable housing built relatively inexpensively; but with flair including strategic use of quality materials and public art, and again generous public spaces. Addressing the issue of rising construction costs (1% a month for four years in Colorado), Loper saw a bright future for stylish modular housing, noting that her firm has 1,300 modular multifamily homes under construction.
Like Cress, Loper stressed the importance of meeting the street: “the mark of a building’s success is how it works at the ground level.”
“It’s easy to activate the street when you have ground-floor retail,” countered Jay Renken, principal of the Denver office of MIG. “But what happens when you have no more retail? It’s all about turning the function of the building inside-out, bringing back the stoop.”
Denver planning director Brad Buchanan placed the conversation in perspective: “There is a real outcry from everyone, not just Denver Fugly [Facebook page slamming current Denver architecture]. We’ve been designing great buildings and bad buildings for a long time. The difference is velocity. Everything is happening so fast and change is all in your face at once.”
What about solutions? Buchanan said the 2010 New Code revisions have had unintended consequences the city will address through the Blueprint Denver/Denverite planning process. For example, the mass of building envelopes for multifamily buildings in neighborhoods will likely be decreased. Expect design review to become more prevalent, especially in emerging areas like Arapahoe Square.
“I have seen design review as a total circus,” countered Cress.
Buchanan admitted that much design review “only prevents Ds and Fs” and said while the city sets parameters, it’s up to the private section to execute.
“We are not patrons of the arts,” said Waggett, introducing market realities. “We have to deal with our capital partners. There are always two empty chairs in the room in this discussion, and they are Equity and Debt and both have a profound impact on the outcome, especially equity investors.”
Fiona Arnold, relatively new to the development game (Backyard on Blake, condos in Jefferson Park) after a stint in Governor Hickenlooper’s cabinet, wondered at least half-seriously why developers aren’t licensed. She chided hometown developers who don’t pay attention to design quality: “It’s like taking a dump in your own backyard.” She also noted that patient, local capital cares about its legacy in the City.
Rounding out the panel were Nan Ellin, CU Denver’s new of Dean and Architecture and Planning, and Milender White SVP Darren Hinton, who addressed the role of construction pricing and forecasted the future of modular construction.
Closing the program was veteran developer Mickey Zeppelin. He offered a tribute to the late Ron Straka, the “Imagine a Great City” director of urban design under Mayor Federico Pena. Zeppelin showed Straka’s 25-year-old trace-paper sketch of Central Platte Valley showing the exact urban design vision as it is being built today.
The program was sponsored by Christopher Carvel Architects, Kephart, McWhinney, MDP Engineering Group, MIG, OZ, Zeppelin Development, and Ivy Street Design. It was presented by ULI Colorado’s Explorer series committee, including John Binder, Susan Brown, Chris Carvel, Karen Gilbert, Nate Jenkins, Stevie Reynolds, and Brandi Sanger.