🏢 Could a battle over brutalism determine the 'landmark' fate of a Denver journalism building?

...and more Colorado local news & media

Simply brutiful

Should a hulking brutalist-style building in downtown Denver that houses the KMGH Denver7 TV station remain a (disputed) iconic concrete structure on Speer Boulevard? Or should it be ripe for the wrecking ball?

In a way, that question could be up to members of the Denver community — if they know about it, anyway. And anyone hoping this brutalist beast stays standing doesn’t have much time to organize if they want to try and save it.

Scripps Media, the owner of the structure at 123 E. Speer Blvd., is trying to sell the five-story octagonal complex built in 1969, according to a recent city filing. The application also asks for a Certificate of Non-Historic Status “to allow for the total demolition of all existing buildings in favor of structures that better accommodate current occupancy trends.”

In other words: Knock the sucker down if you want.

But there’s a bit of a twist: The very application for potential demolition of the building triggered a round of official research and eventual findings from Denver’s Community Planning and Development office, which — drumroll — concluded the KMGH building has the potential to become a historic Denver landmark.

To meet such a threshold, Denver buildings must tick off certain boxes, such as whether they have direct links to a significant historic event, whether they embody characteristics of a distinct style of architecture, and several others. The city researchers decided the KMGH building meets enough to qualify.

From a Dec. 18 city memo assessing the feasibility for someone to demolish the current building and whether it might be preserved as a landmark:

123 Speer Boulevard has potential for designation as it has direct association with a significant historic event or with the historical development of the city, state, or nation. For over fifty years, the building has been home to the KLZ/KMGH local news station, and for over sixty-five years, this site has been home to the station. Throughout that history, Channel 7 news has expanded from an outgrowth of an existing radio station into … one of the main venues by which Denverites and residents of the Denver Metro area acquire their news, morning and night. The studio building itself represents this change, flaunting the preeminence of television as a news source in the second half of the 20th century. In 1969, KLZ upgraded from a rehabilitated auto dealership to a purpose-built studio building containing the latest broadcast technologies and designed by expert architects in TV studio design.

Furthermore, because the building is brutalist in style — a kind of architecture characterized by “monumental scale and blocky masses, contrasting planes and geometric volumes that highlight the engineering potential of an exposed concrete structure” — it checked that box, too. Being brutal also promotes an “understanding and appreciation of the urban environment by means of distinctive physical characteristics or rarity,” which gave the building another mark for potential designation. Its prominent location gave it another. (A building need only meet a handful of individual but specific criteria.)

This doesn’t mean, however, that the building will stay standing.

As of this writing, we’re a matter of days from the end of a public notice period when three members of the Denver community (any three Denver residents, apparently) could formally request preservation status for the structure. If they do, by 4:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11, that could spark a battle over whether the building stands or falls. (The executive director of the Community Planning and Development office, or a member of Denver City Council, could also submit a notice of intent to file a designation application, which could grease the skids for it to become a landmark.)

If that happened, the move would kickstart a landmark designation process. But if no one says boo before the 21st calendar day — in this case 4:30 p.m., Jan. 11 — then the building’s owner would be eligible for a demolition permit, which is good for five years.

I haven’t seen any news about this so far in Denver. That includes any coverage from the Denver7 TV station whose studios operate out of the building. (I’m told there might have been an item on the potential sale in the local subscription business press.) Again, to recap, the owner doesn’t want the building designated as a landmark and is trying to sell it.

Maybe on that front little news could be good news? Think of what happened with Tom’s Diner on East Colfax last year. Some members of the community got together to try and save it from destruction after its owner decided to retire and sell it to an apartment complex developer. An effort among some in the community to designate the iconic diner as a landmark kicked off what The Denver Post called “a heated debate about property rights vs. historic preservation.” A group of five Denver residents eventually dropped their move to save it, which kept the issue from going before members of Denver City Council to decide.

As of Wednesday, Jan. 6, the city planning department hadn’t received a notice from anyone intending to file a designation application, spokeswoman Amanda Weston told me. If that changes, the office will announce it online here under the building’s address in the “currently posted properties” section. (UPDATE, Jan. 11 at 12:37 p.m.: The city notes on its site that a “Notice of Intent was received on January 8, 2021.” A letter I obtained from the city planning department shows the names of three signatories who each listed Denver addresses for where they live.)

Denver7’s general manager, Dean Littleton, declined to get into details about the potential purchase because he said it’s still pending. But he said Denver7 isn’t trying to sell its building because the company is downsizing. It’s the opposite. The station recently launched a 24-hour streaming channel and bought an independent station, he said. If they sell the building, the station plans to move to a larger space, likely with fewer floors.

“There’s not many people who can say their news operation has outgrown their building right now, and that’s where we are,” Littleton said.

For its part, in its application asking for non-historic status, Scripps Media argued the building “has no historic significance,” and added the building “lacks any meaningful architectural significance.” Furthermore, Scripps questioned just how brutalist the building really is.

From the owner’s filing:

To the extent that they are considered Brutalist architecture, the City contains better examples of Brutalist architecture. What’s more, given the structures’ unremarkable nature, they cannot be said to portray the environment of a particular people or development with a distinctive style.

The Denver Community Planning and Development staff, one made up of city planners who specialize in landmark preservation, had a different take when they reviewed the building and its history. From the city memo:

Through its complex and dramatic massing including deep cantilevers, exposed concrete structure, modular materials, and expression of its interior program through the placement and design of its exterior masses the KMGH-TV Station clearly embodies the visible characteristics of the Brutalist Style.

For some international context, just this week the destruction of brutalist architecture in the north of England sparked outcry. According to The Guardian, a photographer who chronicled brutalist buildings in the area for a book called Brutal North, “said that a mix of mismanagement and a general undervaluing of brutalism was leading to unnecessary demolition.”

Whether downtown Denver might lose its own brutalist structure is an open question.

(The Denver7 building at 123 E. Speer Blvd. Photo by Evan Semón Photography)

As an aside to this: lest you think city planning memos might make for dull reads, on the contrary! They can be filled with interesting tidbits, including local journalism history. Here’s more from that city memo:

In 1972, KLZ was sold by Time-Life to McGraw Hill Broadcasting, at which point the station became KMGH-TV, the call sign by which it is known today. While under the ownership of McGraw Hill Broadcasting, KMGH became the first major market television station in the world to broadcast a fully automate newscast on July 15th, 2002. Using a computer system called ParkerVision, a single operator was able to control the cameras, audio, graphics, recording, and playback for a live broadcast, filling the roles of seven technicians.

Here’s the final line of the memo about this building’s potential as a landmark: “because the form of the building remains as it was at the time of construction and the building has only ever been occupied by the Channel 7 Station, the building retains integrity of association with its historical significance and integrity of feeling.”

I suppose we’ll see by Monday if anyone steps forward in the community to make a case for the building to remain.

(PS — If you like brutalist architecture and journalism, check out the Substack newsletter Brutal South by my friend and former reporting colleague Paul Bowers in South Carolina.)

Update: Labor union drive at a Colorado Alden Global newspaper

Journalists at the small Loveland Reporter-Herald newspaper voted this week to organize a union in their newsroom — another step in what one labor leader has characterized as the first viable union drive at a Colorado newspaper in decades.

Media News Group company representatives “made one last plea today for us to vote ‘no,’” the Heart of NoCo Twitter accounted posted Monday. “Our company's anti-union lawyer would rather we keep our heads down: ‘The best job security is making sure the company is profitable.’” Follow the union’s Twitter account to keep up to date on its efforts.

Local news mentions in HCN story on Colorado mountain town

If you haven’t yet seen this fantastic High Country News story by Nick Bowlin about a group of second-home owners in Gunnison County, which includes Crested Butte, trying to takeover a rural local election during the pandemic, set some time aside to give it a read.

Here are a couple references to local Gunnisson Valley news outlets from the piece:

Over the summer, I obtained access to the Facebook group. Beneath the anger at the County Commission and the exasperation with the local newspapers and adult skateboarders, a deeper grievance burned, one that was expressed consistently in the group. …

About local advertising:

In late April , a group called Save Gunnison’s Summer and Businesses took out a full-page ad in a local paper demanding a faster and more concrete reopening plan. It included a petition with around 200 signatures from local residents and businesses, including some members of the Facebook group, who were worried their businesses would not survive the shutdown.

About the role of a newspaper in the community beyond just reporting the news:

At a forum hosted by The Crested Butte News…

About measuring alleged impact:

“We’ve been successful in voicing our concerns loudly enough that they have been spoken about in virtually every single newspaper article printed since March,” he said. “If our goal was to have a say, then we’ve certainly had some say.”

Read the whole High Country News piece here.

Open records: ‘Nothing but black ink’

For a journalist, finding a response in the mailbox to an open records request you’ve filed (sometimes so long ago you might have forgotten you filed it) can feel like Christmas. What are you going to find when you open that package? What government secret might you be able to expose to help provide information your audience needs to be free and self-governing?

Lately, some reporters in Colorado have gotten the Colorado Open Records Act equivalent of black coal. A reporter from Westword posted a response he got from a state agency showing a fully-redacted page. Days later, it was a 9News reporter pointing to his own blacked-out responses. A reporter for Colorado Public Radio did the same.

“Seeing a trend here with some recent CORA requests,” noted the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “Nothing but black ink.” The organization, which seeks to help everyone in Colorado get public records, pointed out on social media how the Colorado Open Records Act, aka CORA, entitles you to an explanation in writing that cites “the law or regulation under which access is denied.”

Elsewhere on the access to open records front, The Denver Press Club held a virtual panel Thursday including Denver Post reporter Noelle Phillips, CFOIC director Jeff Roberts, and DU law school student Justin Twardowski to help educate journalists and the public about what to do when confronted with outrageous fees after filing a request. Watch a video of the discussion here. (I found Justin’s personal story about what first interested him in open-records fees intriguing.)

Donna Bryson leaves Denverite for Reuters

Thankfully for us, the site’s excellent housing and hunger reporter says she’ll be staying in Denver. The author and former Associated Press reporter has already had a fascinating career, reporting from four continents.

As the outpouring on social media showed when Denverite announced the news this week, Bryson’s work will be missed at the hyperlocal site that’s now part of Colorado Public Radio. I’m glad we’ll still be seeing her journalistic influence inside the borders of Colorado.

More Colorado local media odds & ends

👀 The editorial page editor of The Gazette, one of Colorado’s largest newsrooms, said he was in D.C. during Wednesday’s violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. On Facebook, he wrote in response to a question about whether he thought the people who breached the building were Antifa in disguise: “They looked nothing like members of the typical Trump rally crowd. Probably Antifa.” (The Colorado Times Recorder has more.) 9News anchor Kyle Clark called blaming Antifa “a loyalty test, an initiation rite” for a certain political set. A former Gazette reporter now at The Denver Post weighed in.

🎙️ Colorado Public Radio’s Caitlyn Kim, who I think is the only full-time D.C. reporter for a Colorado newsroom, talked to 9News about her unusual workday this week.

💨 The editor of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins wrote in a personal column about the year: “More than once I've considered running away. Selling the house, leaving journalism, finding a new start in a new town because something new has to be better than the weight of all this, right?” (Also, watch this best-of-times, worst-of-times video about the paper’s staff and journalism in 2020.)

📺 CBS4 Denver news director Tim Wieland celebrated 30 years in broadcast news after joining KCNC as an intern: “Today, I’m proud to lead our newsroom but have the same sense of gratitude & admiration as I did in 1991.”

📡 A Snapshot of what local Denver TV looked like around 8 p.m. Wednesday evening.

📰 There was an active voice vs. passive voice contrast on the front pages of Thursday’s two largest Colorado newspapers about the country’s major news event.

🔟 Westword rounded up what the Denver alt-weekly considered the 10 biggest media stories of 2020. 🔗 The Colorado Times Recorder, a progressive site with undisclosed progressive donors, published a roundup of all the national MSM outlets that cited its work in 2020. 🔖 Colorado Newsline, which launched in 2020, rounded up its most-trafficked stories of the year. ☀️ The Colorado Sun’s editor wrote how the outlet in 2020 “saw spectacular growth this year and is poised for even more expansion in 2021.”

👏 Colorado’s Office of Film, Television and Media “received international acknowledgement” for “highlighting native voices,” reports The Canyon Courier.

👔 The Denver Gazette added Dennis Huspeni to cover business.

👋 The Chicago Tribune reports its newsroom union “has called for the removal of three members of Tribune Publishing’s board who represent Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund trying to buy the newspaper chain and take it private.”

I’m Corey Hutchins, instructor at Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the Colorado-based contributor for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, and a journalist for multiple news outlets. I’m currently in talks with the Colorado Media Project about them underwriting this newsletter, and I’m working on a collaborative higher-ed project with COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. My last newsletter ran as a column in The Colorado Sun. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.