Me and Writer Square – we go way back. Prior to figuring out my career path in life, I worked at the former Champion Brewing Company on Larimer Square. During many a shift slinging warm beer on that unwieldy patio, I parked my car in the Writer Square parking structure – and twice lost car stereos to needy thieves in said structure. I bought Mother’s Day cards in the old card shop, read the Westword over sushi-lunches at Sushi Han, and picked up the occasional latte from the Starbucks.
But one thing I never did, in those years waiting tables or later during grad school at UCD, was spend any time in the outdoor plaza space. I never dined on the restaurant patios, never sat on a planter wall, never rested on a bench. Writer Square, to me, was always a short-cut to the 16th Street Mall or a convenient place to park… not a place to be.
During 2009, Writer Square underwent a transformation. The changes are broad, and have been met with many opinions, both favorable and not. This post is the first part in one blogger’s view of the changes. And while it is not my intent to “pick on” one specific space, it is seldom that we get an opportunity to critique a re-imagined plaza space in Downtown Denver.
In part one, we discuss the 16th Street Plaza.
While I was never a big fan of the design of the large planters that populated the 16th Street plaza in the original design, they did prove to be quite functional. Not only did they provide space for shade trees and colorful annual plantings; they also served as transition elements to reduce the perceived impact of the grade changes that occur within the block. The planters also defined movement corridors and gave opportunity for rest within the large plaza space. With the changes to the Square, the planters are gone – replaced by a large stair and water feature as the centerpiece of the northern plaza.
Water and stairs are long-standing design tools for creating usable space. The sound of water is soothing, and broad stairs provide both pathways for movement and places for seating. With the redesign of Writer Square, both are used in an apparent attempt to create a social space at the core of the north plaza. However, there are some inherent issues that stand in the way:
The stairs. The northern plaza of Writer Square is, in large part, a connector from the 16th Street Mall to Larimer Square, and the majority of people using the space walk diagonally through the plaza. The orientation of the stairs, however, is orthogonal to the street grid – in conflict with the diagonal pattern of movement that pedestrians expect. This wouldn’t be so bad if the stairs were clear of obstacles; however, the proliferation and orientation of handrails along the stairs serves as both a physical and visual barrier to clear pedestrian movement. To further exacerbate this, rows of benches and planter pots between the stairs and the Mall provide further additional barriers and visual clutter to the 16th Street plaza.
The fountain. The idea of bringing water into the plaza is certainly an intriguing one. When appropriately considered, water provides interest to a space and a reason to stop and stay. However, water is most successful when it is accessible. And while you can certainly walk up to the water feature in this space, accommodation has not been made to engage with the water. The sloping walls discourage people from sitting on the edge of the water feature, and the orthogonal placement of the basin to the street (rather than to movement patterns) makes the fountain an impediment to movement rather than an object to engage.
The materials. In short, the plaza has been visually-muted. Gone are the raised planters with brick caps, as is the grid of paver bands that gave some richness to the ground plane of the plaza – all replaced by a monolithic concrete surface. The historically-referential benches and light poles have been removed, with silver/gray contemporary fixtures installed in their place. Small planter pots are provided throughout the space, but these will never be able to support the growth of shade trees or greenery that the former raised planters provided. The plaza is, well, gray.
The exception is the fountain, which appears to be constructed of black granite. However, the scale of the object and materials lacks “weight” – where the fountain should stand as the centerpiece of the plaza, it feels small and insignificant.
A noticeably successful addition to the space are the tables placed in the upper portion of the plaza between the (fantastic) barbeque vendor and Starbucks. In multiple trips to the Square during sunny lunch times, the tables have been well used – while the stairs and adjacent bench seating have been almost completely unoccupied.
The true measure of the success of a space is not found in opinions about its visual design, but in the nature of the way people use the space. The Writer Square 16th Street plaza should be a place that people are comfortable moving through and resting in – and, given its location, could be a space full of energy and vitality. Only time will tell if the updates can provide a dynamic social space at an important downtown pedestrian crossroads.
Next up in our visit to Writer Square: lighting.