Monday, October 23, 2006

City Plan for Denver Justice Center: No, that's not good enough. It's not what Denver was promised.

The below is verbatim from this Morning's Rocky Mountain News.

More oversight for justice center

Panel of top architects should have a role

October 23, 2006

A legacy building designed by a signature architect - that's what Denver was promised, with great fanfare, when the process for selecting the architectural firms for the new justice center was announced. Ten noted architects were invited to present their work at public meetings late last year, and more than 2,000 people attended the presentations. A jury of 15 stakeholders considered the proposals and announced their choices in December, again to broad acclaim.

Now the signature architect for the courthouse, Stephen Holl Associates of New York, is gone, and without any public process whatever, his place is being taken by his local partner, klipp Design.

No, that's not good enough. It's not what Denver was promised.

Our first impulse is to say, "start over." But Denver Justice Center policy director James Mejia says it's too late to do that now. The goal was to design the justice center campus as a whole, and the courthouse is already months behind the detention center.

If that's correct, and it may well be, why was the situation allowed to fester so long? After all, the first-choice architect for the parking structure now under construction south of 14th Avenue didn't work out either, so the city eventually contracted with the runner-up. But that happened months earlier in the process.

Why weren't the City Council and the community stakeholders brought into the courthouse picture much sooner? Mejia said it's because the committee of city staff members considered it a contract management issue. On most contracts, that might be reasonable, but on such a high-profile building, which will anchor the Colfax Avenue civic corridor for decades, it was a bad judgment call.

The City Council should have had a full and public discussion of the best course of action before allowing klipp to proceed without Holl - and it still should. Could the runner-up architect for the courthouse step in? That may not be practical, but at least it should be explored.

And if it isn't possible, and Denver does proceed with klipp, what next? Councilwoman Jeanne Robb, who not only represents that district but was also a member of the 15-person jury that recommended the architects, suggests that there should be a peer review panel of distinguished architects, experienced with this kind of project, who can provide feedback on the design and how it works with the rest of the justice center campus.

We're not saying klipp can't do the job. We have no reason to believe that, and the firm has had considerable success, including the new Hyatt Hotel at the Convention Center. But it's reasonable to believe that if klipp had competed for the courthouse design without Stephen Holl as part of the team, it wouldn't have been chosen. Holl wasn't just a subcontractor, no matter how the contract was written; he was the star attraction.

This project needs input from other professionals of comparable caliber.

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