09 February 2010

Just Say No To The Department of Law Building

Click on image to see the proposal being discussed.

The existing buildings housing the Colorado Supreme Court, Colorado Court of Appeals and Colorado History Museum will be torn down in May. A new complex of buildings is to replace them and be ready to use in 2013.

The proposed new appellate courts building, a neoclassical four story structure with an attached office wing, is fine. The proposed twelve story Department of Law building planned for the location of the current history museum location is not. I explain my reasons in the comments to a post at the Denver Infill blog on the design proposal.

Here are some of my concerns:

As a matter of symbolism, there is . . . something to be said for a clear separation between the judicial and executive branches that the design blurs. It creates the image of the state’s attorney’s looming over the judicial branch and having a privileged place close to it. The Justice Department building in Washington D.C., for example, is far removed from the U.S. Supreme Court building.

I also don’t like the symbolism of having an executive branch building that is much taller than the state capitol building so close to it.

As a matter of practicality, there is also something to be said for keeping most of the AG’s office away from Civic Center. It is, as the drawing illustrates, massive. Only a small core of the AG’s office regularly does business with the appellate courts (criminal appeals, solicitor general’s office), or with the legislature. Consolidating the AG’s office in one building (1) increases the traffic and parking load on Civic Center, (2) much of the office doesn’t have cause to interact with the general public, and (3) a single building facilitates the spread of gossip (a fair amount of the day to day work of the AG’s office involves white collar crime/regulatory enforcement work that is best removed from the state’s gossip hub).

Given that the relocation of the history museum is, alas, a done deal, why not put a mere human scale building of four stories or so in that location, at a far lower cost, containing only AG office functions that need to be downtown, and renting office space elsewhere for the rest of the AG’s office. After all, it isn’t as if we have a shortage of office space in this city (major rentals would provide stimulus to a struggling part of the state capitol’s economy), and the state isn’t exactly so flush with cash that it needs to be spending as much as originally planned on a new, large, not particularly interesting office building right in Civic Center.

I’d also symbolically, prefer the idea of putting a building for the Secretary of State in that location than the AG’s office. Lawyers, including the AG, thrive on secrecy. The Secretary of State is a quasi-judicial honest broker whose touchstone is openness to the public. The SOS does more business with the general public and with the state capitol than most of the AG’s office. The SOS could similarly be housed in a human scale building. And, this kind of change could be made now without causing any harm. It isn’t a done deal.

. . .[T]his is [also] a raw deal for the Security Life building, whose designers could reasonably expected that their view would be maintained because of the importance that Denver has given to the Capitol view plane and because there was no reason to think when it was built that the two civic buildings between it and downtown would be torn down and replaced with something much taller.

Would it be so hard to chop eight stories off the existing design and find it different tenants? With office space lease rates down, and the state budget tight, the economics that made a huge new consolidated Department of Law building near Civic Center no longer make sense.


Anonymous said...

I like your thoughts of using rental to offset the cost of a new building. With the Capital building showing its age, is it smart to build two new buildings? Also, city park seems really scary to walk though.

Mishalak said...

A thought I have in looking at the photograph is the height of the Department of Law building in relationship to the ING Building behind it and other office buildings in the area. If its design looks like just another office building and the appellate courts building looks governmental I think there would be less or no visual conflict. Also, though taller in absolute terms the Department of Law building won't dominate the State Cap due to the height of capitol hill.