Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A New Edge for the City

Fourteenth Street has added new buildings and new entertainment venues, creating a new edge for the city.
Downtown Denver is a fairly well-defined collection of tall buildings. By zoning and by geographic circumstance the edges of downtown are clear. Civic Center Park constrains downtown on its southern end. The Platte River provides a natural boundary on the north where new condo buildings add structure and order. Approached from Interstate 25 or 6th Avenue, it is a skyline that erases Denver’s cow town image. Now, almost overnight and unannounced, the city’s downtown has acquired a gleaming new edge on its western boundary. Instead of a central business district that dribbles off in unremarkable lackluster, the countenance of the city changed recently with the towering additions of the Four Seasons hotel and the Spire condominiums. At 45 and 41 stories, respectively, they have reinforced a wall of tall buildings on 14th Street: the nearby Hyatt hotel, the Executive Tower residences, the Curtis hotel. The western edge of downtown is suddenly distinctive from almost any vantage point.

Convention Center.
The hovering roof of the convention center and glass arcade of the performing arts complex act as a contemporary plinth for this assemblage of buildings. Speer Boulevard and parallel Cherry Creek provide a permanent and green foreground for this urban vista, much like Lake Michigan is an unchanging boundary for Chicago’s skyline. Okay, this is not Chicago or Manhattan or Miami Beach. Fourteenth Street will never be one of the truly great urban vistas. However, this new urban fa├žade is more than a bunch of tall buildings. The energy and activity provided by these new buildings adds vitality that this side of downtown sorely needed. Not only did the architecture dribble off in the past; so did the feeling of connectivity to the city.

Perhaps you had occasion in previous years to walk from the 16th Street mall to a show at the Buell Theater on 14th Street. No matter which route you chose, in a few short blocks you would have walked out of bright activity into scary grey streets. The streets weren’t really scary because nothing really happened on them. That was the problem: nothing happened. No shops, no sounds, no life. Walk that area now. It has come alive.

Several things have converged to make this happen. There are new buildings, of course, but they are supported by a vortex of urban forces that make this area another focal point for our awakening city. It is as “happening” as Larimer Square and as (potentially) interesting as Lodo.

Light rail pushes through the convention center and across Fourteenth Street.
Light rail is a major contributor. It shouldered its way right through the convention center with a station that is currently Denver’s most urban. This adds people and activity. The clanging bells of light rail are a big-city soundtrack. The convention center itself has been expanded to attract world-class events as has the performing arts complex with the transformation of the old auditorium into the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. More people beget more venues to serve and entertain them. The boutique Hotel Teatro is not a newcomer -- hipsters have always appreciated this place -- but it is revealed in a new context. Award-winning chef and restaurateur Kevin Taylor operates two dining rooms in the Teatro. They are joined now by friendly competitors across the street: the Oceanaire Seafood Room and the Corner Office martini bar. Both attract young crowds.
Nightlife on Fourteenth:  Left to right: Hotel Teatro, Ellie Culkins Opera House, Oceanaire restaurant.
The aforementioned Spire is ready for occupancy with condos selling from six figures to seven. Its common spaces are among the coolest interior designs in town. The ninth floor party deck feels like a stylish nightclub in Las Vegas or Palm Springs. The Four Seasons has yet to open, but will offer another, more staid, version of high luxury. As these towers become occupied the intensity of street life will ratchet upward.
Denver is a city of neighborhoods. Urban planners are trying to position this neighborhood as the Theater District, with signage and lighting aiming for a Times Square atmosphere. It is going in the right direction, but not there yet. For one thing, vacant lots and dinge still predominate in the direction of Civic Center park. Connections to Larimer Square and Sixteenth Street are weak. More cabarets and retail are needed. But this new edge for the city is one more reason to love the city Denver is becoming. 
Left:  The Spire condos.  Right:  Four Seasons hotel and condos.
Credits:
All photos M. Knorr.