If beauty is in the eye of beholder, ugly punches you in the nose.
Both, of course, are a matter of opinion, which is one reason Denver impresario and civic enthusiast Brad Evans started the Facebook group Denver FUGLY — to give fellow Denverites a place to vent their wide-ranging gripes about the shape, scope and, especially, the look of the city's explosive growth and development.
Another reason for the group is to give Evans himself — who among his many pursuits is a graphic designer and art aficionado — a public place to post his own take on new development. He finds plenty of it appalling, as he tells us in this week's Q&A, and he hopes to prompt a community conversation that will promote more attractive architecture.
Lest you think Evans is a curmudgeon only, it's worth noting his engagement with a city he actually loves is far more extensive than serving as an ad hoc architectural critic at large. He is also a transportation activist who opposed the realignment of I-70 through north Denver and ran for a seat on the RTD board in 2018, and he's a passionate bicycle advocate who founded the popular Denver Cruiser Ride.
He holds forth today on the challenges of growth, the folly of trying to stop it — and the wisdom of guiding it.
Colorado Politics: Plenty of Denverites have their gripes about the shape, scope and look of the city’s rapid development. You actually did something about it; you started a Facebook group. Four years later, it now has some 9,000 members and counting. The posts stir spirited debates that can read like the transcript of some City Council meetings. Besides providing a forum for letting off steam, what do you hope Denver FUGLY will accomplish? Do you feel it has influenced policy so far, or does it at least have that potential?
Brad Evans: Denver FUGLY started out as a chronicle for what was happening in my home neighborhood of Jefferson Park. I’d moved there in 2004, and by 2015 it had become the center of a crazy building boom. The race was on and they were scraping single family bungalows as fast as they could snap them up and replacing them with three and four story monstrosities.
I hadn’t quite figured out how to tell the story, or what the outlet was going to be until March of 2015, and I was near Park Avenue and Glenarm, and that’s when it came to me. They’d just completed a row of townhomes, which still remains as one of the worst examples of bad design in the city; nonetheless, I said out loud to to myself: “that is f---ing ugly.” I went straight to my office over on Brighton Boulevard, and launched the Facebook Group Denver FUGLY, the rest is history.
As for influence, I think one of the most powerful things that we can do is have conversations and actually allow people to have their own subjective opinions. We’re living in a moment of time where there’s an echo chamber, and it doesn’t want to hear opposing viewpoints.
We have a city government headed essentially by a PR team that’s only interested in spinning positive messages, and only deals with problems when they become unbearably uncomfortable. That kind of spin-making doesn’t work in the Denver that I think we all desire. The best kinds of solutions come from seeing/hearing all sides — we shouldn’t be afraid to bring together opposite and divergent voices to actually figure out where we’re headed as a city, culturally and politically.
Our built environment is a key component of what our city will look like, and be talked about in the future, and in this boom, so far, the idea of high design or well-thought-out projects has certainly taken a back seat to some pretty awful stuff, both commercial and residential buildings. This blog/concept didn’t launch with a business plan, or even a specific goal other than creating a place where the community could discuss their own take about what they were seeing happening in their city.
I’ve definitely heard from some in the development community that they don’t ever want their projects to be featured in the group, and my retort is, “If you don’t want it on Denver FUGLY, don’t build something ugly.”
That kind of stick only works if people actually care about what they are building, and far too many of these developers think they are “saving” the neighborhood, when in fact they’ve basically run off what made it great in the first place — generations of families and people that can no longer afford to live there.
- Started the Facebook group Denver FUGLY in response to development that he — and the group's 9,000-plus members — find ugly.
- Bicycling advocate who organizes and founded the Denver Cruiser Ride in 2005.
- Sought a seat on the Regional Transportation District board in 2018.
- Licensed real estate broker.
CP: In a recent commentary for Colorado Politics, you seemed to be seeking middle ground in the ongoing discussion of development. Rather than simply calling out growth, you called for better guidance — notably, “great design,” so construction and land use doesn’t look so haphazard and in some cases, just plain “FUGLY.” What kinds of steps should the city be taking?
Evans: A city has the absolute power to set the tone, be the policeman and champion for where the city grows, how it grows and how that growth looks. When you have a mayor that lives in a suburban sprawl mess like Green Valley Ranch, the idea of connected, historic neighborhoods is absolutely something that is a foreign language.
Cities are living, breathing entities, and bulldozing the historic core in the 1970s was just the beginning of the mess Denver made for itself. If you were to take, say, an Aloft hotel built in Madison, Wisconsin, and the one built in downtown Denver a few years back, and set them side by side, you could see the stark difference between the two buildings, and that’s all about having a planning department that does more than approve permits. It also speaks volumes about the kind of leadership we have and those leading in cities where design and the environment go hand in hand with growth.
We constantly hear leadership here talking about not leading a “dying” city, but when was the last time you saw something that was built in, say, East Sloans Lake, and you said to yourself, “That’s a brilliant design"? Denver’s top brass, both on the public side and the private side, have little concern for design or the value it can bring as part of making Denver a great city. I could go on, but let's just wrap this one with the idea that we can and should be doing better on the design front.
CP: While your group gives vent to wide-ranging anger at growth, you counsel against trying to stop it or place strict limits on it. What are the hazards of some of the growth-control proposals out there like the one just passed by Lakewood voters, or the restrictions enacted long ago in Boulder, where you grew up?
Evans: The worst way to control growth is to limit it. Municipalities have a whole tool box of options open to them to manage growth. Sure, it probably depends from which side of the spectrum you are looking at things, but anti-growth factions in cities like Lakewood that thought putting a cap on growth would be a good idea are in for a big slap in the face. Did they bother to ask how many projects would be pushed through the system before their idiot Strategic Growth Plan was approved by less than 20% of the eligible voters?
CP: Should the city enact additional requirements for the architecture used in new commercial or even residential developments?
Evans: Denver is a design backwater. We’ve had moments of glory, much of which has been torn down, or shunned. At one point Denver was into "let's build amazing stuff," but it didn't work to make it happen, particularly in the instance of the [Santiago] Calatrava mess at DIA, where they ran off the world-renowned Spanish architect because he needed more money added to the budget to execute the design of the hotel.
Instead, we ended up with what I lovingly refer to as the "whale tail,” which ended up $200 million over budget — $50 million more than the amount Calatrava was asking for to complete his design.
Think about it, Denver hasn’t had a planning director for nearly a year, and the Community Planning Department was a mess even before that. We’re stuck in neutral when it comes to getting big thinkers and divergent voices into our process. Too many "yes" men, not enough critical thinking.
CP: What about the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission and its role in shaping, or curbing, development? The commission recently recommended granting landmark status to Tom’s Diner on Colfax, preserving that arguably historic, midcentury-modernist structure. The move flouts the property owner’s plans to sell the diner for redevelopment that would include apartments and new business space. Arguably, the commission’s vote could fend off more FUGLY development, but it also has the potential to stymie growth — sort of a back-door way of implementing the kind of growth control that could drive up housing costs in an already-expensive city. Where’s the balance?
Evans: The argument that a “hostile designation” is a NIMBY tool, or is designed to curb growth, is wrong. The reality is that this tool is currently in the toolbox, designed to give citizens a voice if their representatives aren’t listening to their constituents. I don’t necessarily think it’s the right tool to fix our current growth problems, but the reality is that many in Denver feel ignored, and these kinds of issues come out when people aren’t heard.
The “move” by the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission is just one of the steps required to demolish (or save) significant structures. We can argue all day about what is significant, but when a quarter of your city’s historic stock has been demolished, it’s no surprise that LPC would latch on to this. I think what’s missing in the conversation is what Denver wants to be, what we value, and a vision for how to get there. Big shiny billion-dollar projects aren’t always as good as doing good things for the people that already live here, and that’s some of the issues we’re experiencing
CP: Tell us about your background and what led you to take such an interest in the look of Denver?
Evans: I’ve lived in Denver since 1995 (sans a three year stint back in hometown of Boulder 2001-03) and I’ve seen Denver transform from a dusty little cowtown into a thriving, on-the-bubble metropolis. My first art studio was at 26th and Walnut, and I’ve lived in Park Hill and Jefferson Park along the way.
Culture and quality of life have always been a top priority, and having lived on the east coast, the midwest and the west coast, living at the base of the Rocky Mountains is really the best of all worlds. I think we’ve grown so fast, and had so many transplants move here, that some of the “western values” that we may have had have gotten watered down. It’s hard to see us ignore the natural beauty of where we live, and I don’t think I’m the only annoyed by what values seem to be dominating the metro area’s growth spurt as it is today.
I’ve never been one to shy away from challenging subjects, or stupid ideas. What I’ve learned is that we’re better having open and honest conversations about the future of our city, than sweeping the problems under the rug. We need more champions, and less in the cheerleading department. It’s fine to rally people around the newest, shiniest versions of Denver, but not at the expense of our air, water and the lives of the people who live here.
We need more people to step up and be catalysts for Denver’s future, or we can just hand it off to the power brokers to squeeze the city dry. It’s up to us to be the leaders we want, or our city will be paved over — and what will we have left when that’s done?
As a kid my dad would say as we were driving from Boulder to Denver that "eventually this will all be developed.” We thought he was crazy, and that the cow pastures and fields of wildflowers would be like that forever. Well, fast-forward to today, and it’s quickly becoming one big city between the two cities.
CP: What from your perspective is the FUGLY-est kind or style of development to afflict the Mile High City?
Evans: There is no shortage of bad ideas. Denver is littered with its current-day models of FUGLY, and there is plenty of what I call “vintage FUGLY” spread across the metro area from eras gone by. As I noted before, we should be thinking first and foremost how to build a beautiful and sustainable city, not paying lip service to the concept. I think if we were wiling to collectively pull back the layers on who really has their hands on the levers, we’d see a bunch of rich white guys that are actually running things (shock!).
I think that’s what’s really at the core of what we need to be asking: Is this really the kind of city that we want, or are we going to sit on our hands and let others turn this into a concrete metropolis from Pueblo to Fort Collins? Is this the best we can do? Or are we going to fight for clean air, clean water, great transportation and a healthy city that serves everyone?