How this blog came to be


“Study a city’s architecture, and you learn about its people. About its growth and progress, its challenges and travails, foibles and dreams.”

That was how I began the introduction to the two editions of A Guide to Denver Architecture. And I believe this is still true. 

So, when I retired last year from a job located in the south metro area, I realized I needed to get the city of Denver back in my head. It’s where I live, but I felt disconnected. But my head wondered what was happening here. My head resisted, and for good reason.

I was impressed with classy new office buildings, well-designed new hotels, admirable new education buildings, and superb new museums. Fine.  I was pleased that architects had been chosen to design to the best of their abilities, despite escalating demands. But what my head had to process was the cheesy-looking (but colorful!) five-story apartment buildings that tried so hard to be cool, but wound up predicting a pretty short life span. They looked as if they had been made of foam, just waiting to crumble. 

When I drove through Denver’s neighborhoods – always one of the city’s biggest strengths – I realized that many  “typical” homes had been scraped for or subsumed by behemoths: extreme, vertical duplexes and triplexes that replaced one home on one lot. Some had merit, but others were ungainly. And when I looked at the slot homes, all I could think was: I know Denver’s zoning code changed years ago, but who decided to start maximizing profits while ignoring a sense of community? They are an affront to our senses. 

With a booming population, people were hungry for homes or apartments that regular people could afford; instead, they have been confronted with luxury building after luxury building.  Historic and familiar buildings have been threatened or re-cladded to perk them up, as if they no longer had value. Or, they’ve been scraped because they can be scraped. In the process, people in established neighborhoods have had to leave Denver. They can’t afford this place, whether it is because of soaring prices or taxes. So they moved, taking their history, culture and wisdom with them. 

So, Denver – a city for rich people? Homes and apartment blocks – not designed, but engineered with a computer program, moving doors and windows around with a mouse to save money for developers who don’t live with what they have created. But we have to live with it. 

One afternoon, after doing a dismal drive through Denver’s Northside and Westside, I pulled over and shut off the engine, and thought about what I had seen. I said to myself: Denver, what the hell happened to you? 

And I don’t think I’m alone. 

Okay, so you might be thinking: Hey, change happens. I know that. Denver has reinvented itself over and over, for better and worse. But change has to have meaning, and much of the change in Denver – actually, in the entire metro area – has little meaning, in terms of seeking excellence. Just money: taking advantage of the goose that laid the golden egg, but is it really gold? What about people, and good design? And why didn’t any officials try to make a plan for growth when it became apparent that the city was welcoming a huge influx of new residents? There’s a new Denver Blueprint plan out for review, but it seems like too little, and too late.

So this blog was born. If you read it – thanks! If you hate it, let me know. If you have an idea – or news — really let me know. 


Finally, the introduction to the 2013 guidebook still echoes – and is still true, up to a point:“In the end, though, Denver has grown and, in some ways, matured. It can claim a history rich in evolution, failures and successes. Begun in 1858 on the banks of Cherry Creek, Denver fits into the category of ‘instant city.’ There really was no reason for this place to exist except as a center to serve those heading into the region west to get rich or get away. And there was no reason for it to grow except for the commitment of its residents to a better life.” 

I don’t think that is happening now.

25 Replies to “How this blog came to be”

  1. For many years I worked downtown. My commute took me through the 5 points neighborhood. As one of the older neighborhoods in Denver, 5 points had some of the best examples of houses from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s left in the city. Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen house after house torn down to be replaced by generic townhouses, with designs that are not only boring, but actively clash with the neighborhood. It’s happening in most of the older areas of the city, but it seems particularly egregious here. And I’m with you in wondering who these places are for. Denver used to be a very livable city. I’d hate to see that change.


  2. Mary, I just signed up for your blog and look forward to your analyses on the sadly deteriorating Denver metro scene. However, I am disappointed at the title you used: Could you not find a better and more meaningful use of language than “what the hell”? That degrades the issue–and implies something about your writing.


      1. I think I understand; just wasn’t sure what post you were concerned about. Here’s my thought: The River Mile is going to take like 25 years to roll out. And who knows what the economy brings. But until we have an administration on all levels in Denver and the metro area, the concept of build-on-every-square-inch-right-this-very-minute will not make much of a difference. We need more thoughtful decision-making.


  3. What a pleasant surprise. We have missed you and your wise and witty observations. Keep those “developers”
    paying attention to our city’s heritage and possibilities.


  4. I believe there are examples of contemporary architecture in Denver that fits well with the neighborhood context. Those should be examined and discussed in an open forum throughout our communities with a goal toward setting zoning policies that will achieve better results going forward. I do not believe the issue of incompatible, low quality design will be address without new regulations. The culture of avoiding carefully crafted, place specific design in new development is very strong in Denver.


    1. I agree with you, David. I am hoping that with a new administration — and a new planning director — Denver can make changes that show a more thoughtful approach, rather than the standard 5-story zoning, bulk plane restrictions, etc., etc.


  5. Mary, I truly appreciate seeing you active in writing in the public eye again. We have lost the critical dialogue that we had in the Rocky that is nonexistent in media today. I just hope this voice reaches more and more folks, and not just the few in the design professions.

    Any dialogue we have must address both the positives and negatives we are seeing with growth. In my mind, the densification of Denver is generally positive because it means that we can maybe eliminate sprawl, which is a huge impact on the environment, land use and lifestyle. At the same time, growth must be managed. The new “blueprint” seems to simply reinforce the status quo of development along the arterial, reinforcing the strip instead of focusing density and height in nodes. Whatever happened to the olde notion of “activity centers” and in really reinforcing pocket density in TOD locations. Instead we are getting strip development that is still auto oriented and non-walkable.

    But we also need to be careful we don’t jump on the bandwagon of NIMBYISM, and attack the economic and physical growth of our city simply because it is not like it was. We can’t stop people coming here, and if we limit growth too greatly, we will continue to have massive price increases and affordable housing shortages. So instead of just attacking, we need an honest discussion of where to accept growth and how. Personally, I for one love the densification of Cherry Creek, Rino, Golden Triangle, Highlands Sunny Side and even Sloan’s lake. Focusing in these walkable neighborhoods can create a wonderful urban fabric that will accommodate growth for years to come. But along with that, we should preserve the historic context of our great neighborhoods and protect not only the scale, but also the context, materiality, and character of these neighborhoods. We need to also adopt zoning that incentivizes better design bybreaking out of the 4 story over podium formula, slot houses, and 35 foot 3 story “townhouses” by requiring buildings to reflect the architectural character of existing neighborhoods. We can have contemporary design that is of the scale and materiality of the place if we add design review as an overlay throughout the city in neighborhoods we wish to preserve.

    Thanks for taking up the fight Mary, and I look forward to a deep dive into what it means to live in our great city, and how to keep it a quality lifestyle for everyone who wants to be here.


    1. Thank you, Rich. I am hoping that we see some new blood in May, and a planning department that does not create another zoning document that has allowed developers to build some really awful things. It’s not all bad, but too much is misguided. And I am tired of feeling like I live in a greedy city, a city for rich people, a city that pushes out long-time residents, and subsumes historic areas that right now do not stand a chance. Here’s to 2019!


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