Three years ago, Denver architect Jeff Sheppard dropped a bomb on our civic ego in a Denver Post op-ed titled, “Denver is a great city, so why the bad buildings?” He noted that while the city is “infilling” at a record pace and hitting cultural and economic high-water marks, we may not be getting the quality building design and construction that reflect our aspirations to be a first-tier city and region.
He specifically cited today’s typical multifamily products as “repetitive, banal housing solutions” creating a plethora of “five-story apartment boxes.”
This is not just a Denver issue. Boulder is in an uproar over the putative lack of design excellence for new multifamily buildings in the Boulder Junction transit hub. There, critics dub new apartments “the Great Wall of Boulder.”
At times, the critics are off-base, such as the trash-talking Denver Fugly or the recent poll absurdly naming Denver International Airport as our state’s ugliest building. As programs like the Mayor’s Design Awards and the Urban Land Institute’s Impact Awards highlight, we also are getting some excellent new buildings and public spaces to celebrate.
But like it or not, architectural looks and urban design manners matter – and they can have a huge effect on public policy as it relates to housing supply and density.
In recent elections, public outcry helped antigrowth candidates win seats in cities and towns around our state. Lakewood, which wisely prepared for and encouraged dense, multifamily transit-oriented development, recently elected a slow-growth council. They may put a brake on these efforts by enacting sharp limits on new residential development. The new Boulder City Council may pause new development while undertaking a long “neighborhood engagement” process. There are whispers of a Front Range-wide antigrowth ballot initiative.
I am not a fan of unfettered growth. Yet curbing the density and overall supply that multifamily infill projects provide only worsens other problems like housing shortages and sprawl. There are implications for the region’s economy as well. As the middle and working class were priced out, people left Colorado in record numbers in 2016. Labor shortages loom in the service and construction industries.
Here’s my summary of “heard on the street” complaints during this apartment boom:
- New apartments stuff the maximum square feet into the permitted envelope. There is little done to break up massing that could also bring light into interiors while providing courtyards and public spaces.
- Cheap-looking materials on building facades do not look enduring to withstand our climate.
- Lowest-common-denominator structural and construction systems, e.g., stick-built “podium” apartment buildings, don’t seem built for the ages.
- Too many apartment buildings and site designs ignore neighborhood context and culture, as well as Colorado views, landscapes and native building materials.
As I mentioned, we also are getting some solid, good-looking buildings. But why is this not the norm for so public a product?
Privately, I surveyed several prominent ULI members who design and develop commercial buildings. One fessed up, sighing, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Here’s some informal survey results:
- Rising/unstable construction costs. Cost estimating has been difficult for years. As costs rise, innovative design and quality materials drop from budgets.
- High predevelopment costs. Neighbors reasonably expect thorough review before seeing new development in their backyard. When this process becomes obstructive or results in downzoning, costs to the developer go up. Then the project team is ripped for cutting costs or providing too expensive housing.
- Design review/design guidelines. The public often confuses this process with design excellence, and that certainly can be a result. Some architects say design guidelines are a safety net that enforces mediocrity.
- Lending standards. Bankers (wisely) don’t generally approve loans for “fancy” architecture or building materials unless the pro forma shows that leasing rates will support these “extras.”
- A hot market for transactions. This is slowing down a mite, but until recently developers could bank on selling their partially leased new apartment buildings to investors for high rates. Some would say this removes the incentive to create a higher-quality product. We generally are not in a time of patient money and long-term holds.
- Construction defects inhibit condo development. Luckily 2017 brought progress toward reform in the statehouse and the courts. The demand for housing is at an all-time high, but many developers still won’t build condos for fear of lawsuits. The incentive to build a higher-quality, for-sale product for the long haul is nil.
- A “momentary” lapse in taste. It’s been said we live in crude times. Perhaps our era does not value pleasing proportions, ageless materials and harmonious design. It’s happened before. It was called the Dark Ages.
So, where are the answers? Should we be building more expensive buildings or hiring famous architects? Last fall at the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Architectural Foundation presented a lecture on design quality by Louis Becker of the acclaimed Danish firm Henning Larsen. I attended and expected a “wow-em,” pretty-picture talk on Starchitecture. Instead, Becker talked about avoiding big statements and fancy materials while paying attention to fundamentals like attractive, useful public spaces and access to sunshine, indoors and out.
On Wednesday, April 25, ULI Colorado will present its third Design Forum at the Denver Art Museum. Registration opens in March at Colorado.uli.org.