Redeveloping 11th and Pearl

Paul Danish | Boulder Weekly


Karlin Real Estate, the company that bought the building at 11th and Pearl that once housed the newspaper that was once known as the Boulder Daily Camera (before it dropped “Boulder” and “Daily” from its name), recently presented its plans for the redevelopment of the site to the Boulder Planning Board and the Landmarks Board — which were underwhelmed.

“Too tall (55 feet), too big (150,000 square feet of commercial and office space, mostly office), too much glass, too much of a traffic generator (it will have underground parking for 300 cars),” the board members and citizens attending the meeting said, in so many words.

“This has to be an iconic building,” Planning Board member Andrew Shoemaker said. “It has to be special.”

The sentiment was echoed by other board members.

Well, they have a point about too tall, too big and too much traffic.

Fifty-five-foot-tall buildings may be allowed in Boulder — a 1971 amendment to the City Charter set 55 feet as a height limit for Boulder buildings — but the 55-foot buildings that have actually been built in downtown Boulder have, for the most part, detracted from the quality of life, not enhanced it.

As for “iconic,” fat chance of that happening.

The most “iconic” structures in Boulder are the rural Italian Renaissance buildings at the University of Colorado and the Table Mesa headquarters of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Both were created by extraordinary individual architects with truly original vision — Charles Z. Klauder in the case of CU, I.M. Pei in the case of NCAR.

Boulder’s least iconic structure — the Crossroads Shopping Center, or the Twenty Ninth Street mall, if you prefer — was designed by a committee. Or, more accurately, a committee of committees, including the Planning Board, the City Council, the Boulder Urban Renewal Authority, and assorted citizen advisory, environmental, and watch-dog groups, all of which are parts of “The Process.”

The Process — the Boulder planning and decision-making process, that is — was once famously described by former Mayor Bob Greenlee as “just like driving home at night by way of Cleveland.”

The Process is not all bad. It prevents a lot of environmental mischief from happening. But it also all but guarantees that everything will take a lot longer and cost a lot more. And it also pretty much precludes the approval of any iconic buildings. That’s because The Process produces compromise and consensus, which in turn produces outcomes that are noncontroversial, inoffensive and often mediocre.

Thanks to The Process, chances are “iconic” won’t happen at 11th and Pearl. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

That’s because of an inconvenient truth almost everyone involved with The Process tends to ignore — which is that commercial and industrial buildings in 21st century America typically are not, repeat not, built for the ages. They are built to last 20 or 30 years, if that. Thus, the original Crossroads shopping center, which was built in the early 1960s, was extensively expanded and rebuilt in the early 1980s, and then was almost entirely rebuilt again in the early 2000s.

None of the Crossroads incarnations remotely approached anything that was iconic — even though the developers tried to portray them that way — but all of them were functional and served Boulder’s commercial retail needs quite well in their day.

There is nothing wrong with this.

America, Boulder included, is constantly reinventing itself and constantly rebuilding itself to meet contemporary needs. That being the case, why should “iconic” be considered a higher community value than “iconoclastic?” I think there’s a lot to be said for putting up a structure at 11th and Pearl that will meet the needs of today’s Boulderites, but is also intended to be easily removed and replaced by one that meets the needs of the next generation when the time comes.

Fortunately, I have a modest proposal for a structure that could do that. It could be quickly built. It could be built for a modest cost. It could be easily removed and replaced. It would not overwhelm the site.

And, as a bonus, it would be iconic.

Put up a tent. Not a canvas tent like a circus might use, but a tent like the main terminal of Denver International Airport, which is nothing if not iconic.

What sort of business could be put in the tent? How about a state-of-the-art 24-hour cyber café where Boulder’s coffee-shop entrepreneurs and scholars could rent a table and an internet connection for their laptops for say five bucks an hour? Put in a couple hundred tables with state-of-the-art communications, a copy center, meeting rooms (also available by the hour), a Starbucks, big screen TVs for news and stocks, a food court, and, well you get the idea.

Think of it as a parking lot for people instead of cars. Parking lot owners make out like bandits.