Colorado History Museum: New Home in Denver’s Civic Center Park?

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?

By | 2013-11-13T19:03:52+00:00 November 6, 2007|Categories: Civic Center, Government & Civic|Tags: |16 Comments


  1. Anonymous November 8, 2007 at 9:53 am

    Any word on why they want to move it? Are there plans for the existing site?

  2. Anonymous November 8, 2007 at 10:54 am


  3. Anonymous November 8, 2007 at 11:52 am

    I whole-heartedly agree with the issue that is a lack of mixed-use in the Civic Center Park area. The City/State land holdings and density of office/cultural sites has left this area void of residents. My only support for more office/cultural facilities is if Denver starts working to make the area mixed-use.

    If we look up in ten years and it is just more office and culture, then we have a dead zone that will be permanent for our lifetimes!!!

    To make this work, here's what is needed:
    1) a plan by Denver CPD to rezone/encourage/'OED loan' developers to build residential into surrounding parcels (like 1 block away max) in Golden Triangle.
    2) CPD develop (quickly please) a larger Civic Center Park neighborhood master plan, that looks at the park and surrounding land.
    3) DO NOT finalize this decision until a workable/acceptable park master plan is approved for Civic Center Park. To think that this building fits in a new master plan precludes the option that something better could be planned. Let's avoid arrogance on this one.
    4) Offset the park loss with a new smaller park on State Land in Central Denver somewhere else…how about the Sherman and 12th to 13th holdings…seems like the State is sitting on those? Make it part of the deal when the State goes to build on that site, where they include a smaller public park into their site plan.

  4. Saint November 8, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    I'd be for it, as long as the building maintains the neoclassical flavor of the park.

    Two things that would increase use of the park would be to stage the summer Farmer's Market on the weekend in addition to or rather than on a weekday in the middle of work. I'd love to shop at the Farmer's Market as a downtown denizen, but I can't get there in the middle of a work day!

    Open up alcohol zones for vendors, like they have in most European civic parks.

    Increase police presence. The presence of vagrants I fear decreases the use of the park by other people. Though, loitering shouldn't be illegal, since that's what parks are used. So, keep the homeless, but add a few more beat cops.

  5. Anonymous November 8, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    I think buildings with lots of activity IN the park are part of the solution. Not the whole solution, but part of it.

    This museum would get lots of school groups and families. That would also be a good thing (assuming they feel safe enough to venture into the park for a picnic lunch). This building won't help much in the evenings, but the community center would.

  6. BHeb November 8, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    My initial reaction… why would we go building in the middle of such a great park! There are so many empty lots downtown that deserved to be filled first!

  7. Anonymous November 8, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    I think one of the main reasons the park lacks social vitality is the fact that it's isolated from the city by busy roads on all sides. It's like an island out there – tricky and inconvenient for anyone to reach. Plus – it doesn't feel like an oasis of tranquility like a park should project. Even if there weren't a lot of questionable characters hanging around – I still wouldn't feel like bringing my lunch and enjoying the natural scenic vistas. Why? It's because of all the noise and congestions from traffic whizzing by. Not only is it difficult to get to, but it's not a peaceful place once you get there.

    That's why I would really support a proposal to put some of these cross streets underground. Imagine if Lincoln/Broadway were underground in front of the Capitol – and Bannock too. You'd have a more expansive park system that isn't cut up into parcel by roads. Or – if Colfax was put underground in this area – city workers could simply walk to the park without dodging cars.

    Boston has put a lot of their traffic underground.. Chicago has parking under most of Grant Park.. and we all know how NY loves their Central Park. Denver's Civic Park could – and should – be better integrated with the city. The museum idea sounds great – but get rid of the surrounding traffic..!!

  8. Dirk Gently November 8, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    Getting rid of the traffic there is simply not feasible, unless, you make a tunnel there. Hell, that'd be nice, but it would costs hundreds of millions–all so that the walk is slightly easier and it's slightly less noisy? No way.

    Personally I agree with Saint's proposals: small vendors, more events, a farmer's market…good stuff. That should be done whether the museum goes in there or not. Although I like this proposal: it doesn't take up too much of the open space, and it's in a prime location for its purpose, which is after all a museum about Colorado history. I mean, the environs set the whole tone: historic park, historic sculptures, civic center, capitol…

  9. Matthew November 8, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    .."historic park, historic sculptures, civic center, capitol…" …ceaseless traffic noise, irritating and marginally safe access across arterial streets, bums drinking to death in the bushes, mangy lawns pockmarked with garbage…

    It will take more than moving a museum to fix this space. How about we keep the museum where it is (I like the old doorstop building myself…what is the problem anyways?) and use the museum relocation money to help fund a cut-and cover tunnel for Colfax. My cousin even has a bulldozer.

    As a pedestrian walks southeastward on the Mall, downtown ABRUPTLY ends at Colfax. Try it for yourself (my cousin walks it every day). I can't conceive of a better connection between downtown and Civic Center Park than a green, onobstructed line-of-sight accessway over Colfax.

    Also, my cousin reminded me that there is precedent for a cut-and-cover tunnel along a busy arterial street…Southbound Speer under Broadway…

  10. Anonymous November 8, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    I think placing the history museum in the park is a good idea as long as the building fits well with the neoclassical style of the park. Actually, my dream would be to have I.M. Pei design the building. My main concern is that the mature allee of trees aligned perpendicular to the City and County Building will be cut down. Hopefully, these trees can be transplanted. I think the museum will add vitality to the park. I think the park really needs a greater police presence. I walked through the park last weekend and witnessed drug dealing very much out in the open. I also think the park needs a unique playground because there is nothing for children and families to do there. There are no nearby playgrounds for children living in Capitol Hill, Golden Triangle, and other nearby neighborhoods.

  11. Anonymous November 8, 2007 at 10:11 pm

    Making tunnels for Colfax, Broadway, and Lincoln is a terrible idea. I personally enjoy the sight of the monumental Capitol, City and County Building, and park architecture as I drive by. Would you want to bury the streets in Washington D.C., Paris, London, etc. More crosswalks can be created for pedestrians to get to the park. A pedestrian bridge from downtown into the park might not be a bad idea (probably the only good idea in the Libeskind park design). When I am in the park I don't really notice the sound of traffic from the surrounding streets amyway.

  12. Dan November 8, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    Ken's first paragraph explains why they want/need to move the museum. The state wants to build a new Justice Center on that block.

  13. Paul November 9, 2007 at 12:28 am

    I like the symmetry that putting the Colorado History Museum in Civic Center Park will bring by mirroring the McNichols building. I also really like the idea of a cultural center in the McNichols building. Maybe it could be a Colorado Free University type program. That would be really fantastic. Actually, that'd be pretty f'ing rad.

    Also, a lot of people are worried that putting the CHM in CCP will decrease open/green space, but doesn't the Civic Center Master Plan include creating more green space in places between Speer, Colfax, and 14th?

    The great parks/gardens of the world have museums, government offices, etc. in them. I would love to see that happen in CCP. I think Libeskind's ideas for the park were not that good, to put it lightly. EXCEPT for his pedestrian bridge connecting to the 16th St Mall at Civic Center Station. I think that a scaled down version of his bridge would be a fantastic addition to the park that addresses, albeit not completely, the accessibility issue on the NE side of the park.

  14. Anonymous November 9, 2007 at 12:37 am

    You guys don't get why their moving the museum? They have to because the judicial complex wants to expand! So, yes, the museum has to move. I say put it in the park! And I also agree with Saint!

    I seriously can't wait to see the plans for the new judicial complex! Plus, with the passage of the bond measures, the permit center will now be renovated for city office space.

    Ken is correct that the only real true way to make Civic Center park a lively place is to get more residents living nearby! How about that civic center bus station plaza? Anyone want to build a 70 story signature tower there? hehe

    I hear the CHUN is completely opposed to putting the museum in the park. Funny, if theyre so concerned why aren't they down there patrolling the park and cleaning it. 😀

  15. BeyondDC November 9, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    > Would you want to bury the streets in Washington D.C.

    FYI: There *are* buried roads beneath the National Mall. I-395 most significantly, but also 9th Street.

    That having been said, the streets are not the problem. Pedestrians would overwhelm them if the park generated enough activity on its own. In fact, I would be against burying the streets as that would take away some of the limited activity that does flow through the park, even if the only benefit it provides is ambient noise.

    >it doesn't feel like an oasis of tranquility like a park should project.

    There’s more than one kind of park. Not all public spaces are suppose to be oases of tranquility, and Civic Center isn’t one of them. It’s awkward because it’s *too* tranquil and quiet for its purpose.

    The problem with Civic Center is that it’s too big to be the sort of active city square it’s trying to be. The really successful ones (Rittenhouse in Philly, Bryant in New York, etc) are a lot smaller.

    And before I get accused of homerism, I’ll add that the National Mall suffers from the same problem. It’s far too large to work as any kind of city square, but far too formal to act as a tranquil escape into nature. The Mall masks its problems because it’s always so full of tourists that casual observers don’t usually notice them, but the problems definitely exist. Because of its size and lack of mixed use, the Mall is so disconnected from the rest of the city that it may as well be on the moon.

  16. Anonymous November 13, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    Anyone who has visited a museum or a zoo in the past twenty years can tell you what they have done to in crease their "draw", add food and shopping. Eating and shopping are the two main visitor activities wherever you are in the world. If the city wants to vitalize the park they need vendors, markets, etc. full time. They might include a sexy little cafe like the one in New York's Central Park.

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