In case you haven’t been following the issue in the papers recently, the State of Colorado is proposing to relocate the Colorado History Museum to Denver’s Civic Center Park. The plan has its roots back in 2005 when it was first revealed that the State was considering building a new Justice Center on Block 025-B that would necessitate the relocation of the Colorado History Museum to a new location somewhere in the Civic Center area. Since then, various sites have been discussed, and I’ve periodically blogged about the issue. Recently, the State has come forward with a favored location that seems to be gaining traction with the City too. Today I’m going to weigh in on the issue.

The proposal is to build the new Colorado History Museum within Denver’s Civic Center Park at the northeast corner of 14th and Bannock–across Bannock from the City and County Building and across 14th Avenue from the Denver Art Museum’s Ponti building. The Civic Center Park site is the State’s preferred location of three finalist sites: the other two being the vacant Denver Permit Center at the southwest corner of Bannock and 14th on Block 022-E, and the State-owned parking lot at the northeast corner of Lincoln and Colfax on Block 028-B where the State also has tentative plans to construct a new state office building.

The primary argument against the two non-preferred locations is that their configurations result in building footprints that would not be ideal for the Museum’s planned program and floorplan layout. While the parcel at the corner of Colfax and Lincoln is owned by the State, the State has plans to build a new office building there, and integrating the museum into the office project is problematic. The issue with the Denver Permit Center location is that, not only is the shape of the site not ideal, but also the State would need to acquire additional privately-owned property on the block that is not necessarily for sale and/or would be available only at extremely high cost. Thus, we’re left with the Civic Center Park site that has been debated over the past several weeks.

The Civic Center Park location would result in a new above-ground structure with essentially the same size footprint, about 19,000 SF, as the historic Carnegie Library (now the City’s McNichols Building) at the northwest corner of the park where the Denver Revenue Department offices are housed. The main exhibit space for the Museum would be located underground between the two structures. Here are a couple of images, taken from the CHM’s website, showing the configuration (the proposed building is on the left in both diagrams):

One of the benefits of locating the museum in Civic Center Park is that the State won’t have to purchase the land. That doesn’t mean it’s free–Denver’s not just going to let the State use their land for nothing–but part of the deal is that the State would renovate and restore the City’s historic McNichols Building to allow it to become a new Denver Cultural Center facility. The City doesn’t have any money to renovate McNichols, so in exchange for the right to build on City land, the State will pay to upgrade the City’s building. The new Denver Cultural Center would then be linked underground to the new CHM, with both entities having the opportunity to share each other’s facilities.

Another positive attribute of the Civic Center Park site is the proposed State-City partnership. After many years of frosty relationships between the two governments during the Webb/Owens administrations, it’s refreshing to see the two entities finally engaging in a dialog about the character of the Civic Center/Capitol Complex area; the fiasco that is the new State Parking Garage at the corner of Lincoln and 14th being a prime example of the State’s general lack of attention to good urban design, savvy real estate development, and cooperation with the City on urban planning issues.

One of the other arguments that has been put forward in favor of the Civic Center Park site is that the museum will help activate the park. While the museum’s presence is unlikely to reduce activity in the park, I’m skeptical of the degree to which it will really help enliven the park. The 1995-built central Denver Public Library building, the recently completed Denver Art Museum Hamilton building, and the other notable developments in the area like the Wellington Webb Municipal Office Building and Denver Newspaper Agency Building have all done little to change the usage, vitality, and constituency of Civic Center Park. My view is that the museum’s presence may only marginally improve the park’s vitality and that the only thing that will truly transform Civic Center Park into a great urban space (beyond better maintenance and policing) is the introduction of about 5,000 residential units within a few blocks of the park’s perimeter.

Another aspect of the proposed Civic Center Park site that people have been promoting is that the 1918 Edward Bennett plan for Civic Center shows the placement of a building in the southwest corner of the park, mirroring the McNichols Building across the park’s east-west axis. I’m a big fan of the City Beautiful era and plan symmetry and all that, but just because someone nearly a hundred years ago thought that a building at that location was a good idea then, doesn’t mean that it makes sense today. We need to determine if a building placed in that corner of the park is the best choice under our current 2007 situation. If it does, great. But let’s not promote a $100 million decision based on feel-good nostalgia for an unfulfilled century-old plan. There are all sorts of plans out there, such as the 1960s proposal to put an expressway lined with modernist high-rises along Market Street through the heart of LoDo, that have never been realized. Would we really want to implement that plan today, simply because it remains unimplemented?

In the end, I’m leaning in favor of the Civic Center Park site proposal. I think the financial win-win deal for the State and City is compelling, plus, putting a museum in a park is a pretty standard land use decision that is unlikely to spawn negative results. I’m not too concerned about the criticism that the museum would take away valuable green space in the park. The surface parking lot that currently exists immediately south of the McNichols Building would be removed as part of the plan, which essentially offsets the loss of lawn to the museum’s footprint. Also, the plan includes the removal of a traffic lane along both Bannock and 14th, adding more green space to the park and making that part of the Civic Center Park area more pedestrian friendly. There are certainly good arguments both for and against this proposal, but right now I say, let’s move this proposal forward.

For additional perspectives on the matter, here are two articles that recently appeared in the Denver Post in a pro/con format: Leave It/Use It. The Rocky has also had several articles on the issue, including this feature by Mary Voelz Chandler that focuses more on the reuse of the old Carnegie Library as a cultural center, and this article that announced the CHM’s plans.

So, what do you think? Put the museum in the park, or locate it elsewhere in the Civic Center area?