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Denver7 building sparks heated debate: Council seeks compromise as group fights for landmark status

Council could hear arguments on both sides May 10
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Posted at 6:16 PM, Apr 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-28 00:45:52-04

DENVER — The history of television news now spans decades.

And for Denver7, it’s not only the archived footage, but the building — which is considered an example of what’s called brutalist architecture — that tells a story to some.

“By far the best broadcast building in Denver,” said architect David Wise. “I believe it’s fair to call it brutalist.”

The company that owns Denver7, E.W. Scripps, is selling the building on the corner of Speer Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue after 52 years and looking for a new home with more space.

“It’s a local journalism success story,” said Dean Littleton, general manager of Denver7, who recently wrote an editorial about the building and its potential sale. “Even during the pandemic, we were adding people to our journalism operation.”

Denver7 has added people and newscasts since launching a 24/7 streaming operation, buying KCDO-TV Local3, and expanding the Scripps national team in Denver.

“All that into a building that was built to be just one TV station,” Littleton said. “So, we’re busting at the seams and the structure really doesn’t support it.”

Despite Denver7’s wishes to sell to a developer, a group of Denver residents is fighting the potential demolition of this brutalist beacon along Speer.

“Its place along Speer Boulevard, almost by definition, is a landmark,” Wise said. “It’s unique enough that most people remember it.”

So, what is this half-century-old building, built in 1969? Is it a brutalist-style icon or a total scrape and rebuild? We’re deconstructing that and going 360 with the Denver City Council, pro-growth advocates, neighbors, the Denver7 building manager and general manager. We start with that group trying to save the building from the wrecking ball.

Those who want to landmark the building

“It was meant to last,” Wise said. “It was meant to be a proud representation of a broadcast news organization.”

Wise is a Denver architect who says this building is a superb example of brutalist architecture.

“Really, the style comes out of the era,” Wise said. “It’s a bold building. It’s tricky to build. Any imperfections would be visible.”

Wise and two other Denver residents, Brad Cameron and Michael Henry, have filed an application to save the building under landmark status.

Wise explained the reason for the landmark status proposal: "For the sake of keeping this legacy, this piece of important architecture, for the city."

The trio said they believes this is an opportunity for Denver to preserve part of its past, all too often lost for the sake of new development.

“It is not good to generalize, but for the most part, the replacements are inferior and disappointing,” Wise said.

He said he believes a developer could wrap a new building around the existing Denver7 octagonal tower, like the what developers did years ago with the Holy Ghost Church at Broadway and California in downtown Denver, or like a current development happening at the old Uptown Tavern location on 17th Avenue and Pearl Street in Uptown.

“I do think residential use in this building could be spectacular,” Wise said. “One dream scenario is the apartment or condo developer does his thing, and they sell the octagonal tower to a local adaptive reuse developer who’s done a lot of loft residential. Because there’s nobody better than our local core developers in Denver who have done that.”

The building manager

But a tour of that brutalist tower with Denver7 building manager Rory Schmalzried reveals some brutal truths about the state of the building.

“These are the original boilers,” Schmalzried said. “So, built back in 1969. They’re kind of held together with spit and bailing wire. The company that makes them, Cleaver Brooks, doesn’t even have the parts to fix them.”

While the building may be iconic to some, it is hardly energy efficient by today’s standards.

“We’re using five times as much energy as what a green building would use,” Schmalzried said.

Schmalzried said the roof needs to be replaced, the boilers and chillers are on the brink of failure, and the basement — where all that invaluable archived footage is stored — floods regularly.

“If we get a big rain, I know beyond any shadow of a doubt, I’m going to have to come down and squeegee and clean this all out,” Schmalzried said.

Denver7's general manager

Littleton, Denver7's general manager, has met with the group trying to save the building and respects their efforts.

“We’re open to any solution that makes sense,” Littleton said.

Littleton said the architect working on the potential new development believes adaptive reuse of this tower would come at an astronomical price.

“They have tons of experience with adaptive reuse,” Littleton said. “And they’re the ones that have been advising us that it’s just too much of a stretch to try to think that you can adaptively reuse this building. Even if you take out the fact that it needs a new roof, new HVAC, new electrical, new plumbing, new windows — the life-safety requirements to bring the building to a place where it would be appropriate for people to live in are almost back-breaking.”

Littleton points out that if the site remains a TV station, the building is likely to remain unremarkable, unchanged and inaccessible to the general public.

“As long as we’re here, there will be security fences, there will be walls, there will be a building that is not open to the public,” Littleton said.

He said the site has amazing potential beyond a broadcasting facility.

“There’s an opportunity for something incredibly exciting at this gateway to downtown,” Littleton said.

What neighbors think

Neighbors seem to have mixed feelings about the building.

“I think that it is a unique building. It doesn’t look like every other building, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a special building either,” said neighbor Jessica Chase.

Another neighbor, Steffanie Davies, said the building looks like it's been there forever.

“Some buildings do have a lot of history tied to them and some, not so much," Davies said. "I get the arguments on both sides. We need more housing, but once you start to put more residential high rises in place, prices start to go up, volumes of people go up.”

Neighbor Michaela Icenogle said she likes the "almost brutalistic architecture."

“It looks almost a little Soviet as it were," Icenogle said.

Another nearby resident, Jignesh Maniar, said he definitely thinks Denver should save the building.

Others say it’s an eyesore.

“Ah, it doesn’t ring my bells,” said Mary Coddington.

Coddington is a member of a group called YIMBY Denver, or Yes, In My Backyard, which believes there’s too much negativity around new development.

“YIMBY Denver is an organization that believes that Denver isn’t full, and they want to have housing for everyone that’s here for everybody who wants to move here in a way that’s affordable,” Coddington said.

YIMBY believes the Denver7 building should be torn down and that a thoughtful mix of new residential and retail would be perfect at the Denver7 location.

“The neighborhood has changed a lot in the time that I’ve been here,” Coddington said. “And I think that’s the nature of cities. They change. It’s important for residents to be open to that and think about what the city needs today and going into the future.”

City council member's take

It’s an issue that could ultimately go before the full city council in May.

“I think it’s important for this particular conversation for me to withhold judgment until we hear the case in front of council, assuming it comes to council,” said Councilman Chris Hinds, who represents District 10, which includes the Denver7 site.

Hinds said he would prefer Denver7 and the applicants for landmark status hammer out a solution before it gets to council.

“That would be ideal,” Hinds said.

Hinds says Denver has recently been down a similar road with Tom’s Diner on Colfax, which also sits in his district.

“That was a similar situation in that it was an owner opposed historic designation,” Hinds said.

Denver7 went 360 on that story a couple years ago, raising questions then about landmark designations versus owner rights.

The owner of Tom’s was ready to retire but needed the nest egg that selling the building would provide. The group behind the push to keep the building intact eventually withdrew their application.

“We got emails from all over the country and Canada,” Hinds said. “People felt really strongly about Tom’s ability, his right, to retire.”

Hinds says the city doesn’t like to be in the business of telling land and business owners what to do with their property, especially at a critical crossroads like Speer and Lincoln.

“That’s part of the magic of where Racine’s and Mr. Bonanno’s restaurants and the Channel 7 site, all of those are just right there,” Hinds said. “There are a lot of people who work who can’t afford a place to live. People are opposed to the unsanctioned encampments and are also opposed to the development of Racine’s and other locations. And – in some ways – you kind of have to pick one. I think a growing city is a healthy city.”

Whatever your perspective, the building has inspired a lively debate about new possibilities, regardless of whether the octagonal tower stays standing or comes down.

“This is a purpose-built building that no longer serves the purpose for which it was built,” Littleton said.

“Communities either grow in their knowledge and sense of self — through these interactions, controversies and conversations — or they don’t,” Wise said. “Denver is enough of a city that I think it deserves this back-and-forth.”

“What are our priorities as a city?” Coddington said. “Having housing for people is of the highest priority.”

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.