Is Denver’s skyline for sale?

Is Denver’s skyline for sale? And, if so, what’s it worth?

The first of these questions has gotten a lot of attention in the debate leading up to today’s hearing before the city planning board on The Sports Authority’s proposal to install three 178-foot, lighted signs along the metal band that undulates around the top of the stadium where the Broncos play in northwest Denver.

The second question has gotten almost none.

The Sports Authority, a Denver-based nationwide sporting goods retailer, took over the stadium naming rights deal from Invesco Funds Group last summer. It has proposed amending the comprehensive sign plan that governs signage at the stadium to permit much larger, more prominent signs than Invesco installed to identify it as the naming rights holder.

Opponents of the signs — each of which would be nine and a half feet high and 178 feet long — include a host of neighborhood organizations, a handful of Denver City Council members and at least one editorial columnist who generally opposes government interference in the free market.

“I object to it on aesthetic grounds because the stadium is an attractive stadium and that’s no accident,” Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll said on the Dave Logan Show.

“I object to it on commercial grounds since the taxpayers get nothing in return for the addition of these huge signs in their faces. And I object to it on procedural grounds. Nobody warned anybody when this transfer of naming rights occurred at an Aug. 16 meeting of the stadium board that these sorts of signs were in the offing. And yet, lo and behold, all of a sudden there’s this proposal and it seems to be just taken for granted by city bureaucrats, by the stadium district, by the Broncos’ management team, the stadium management team, that this is going to be a fait accompli.

“And you know, maybe it is. Maybe it’s a juggernaut that can’t be stopped. But I, at least, and a whole host of neighborhood organizations that were on this case long before I was, think it’s bad policy, it’s bad for Denver and it’s going to mar the skyline.”

You can read Carroll’s columns on the subject here and here.

The Broncos, through a subsidiary that manages the stadium, now known as Sports Authority Field at Mile High, stand behind their corporate partner.

“The proposed signs celebrate a couple of things,” said Andy Gorchov, general manager of Stadium Management Co. “They celebrate, obviously, the naming rights partner and the new name of the stadium. The one thing that people may say is this is a form of advertisement. But it’s not. It’s actually the name of the building. So that’s an important distinction to make.

“It also incorporates the Broncos’ logo as part of the combined sign elements. That’s something that has not had any kind of a presence on the outside of the stadium before. As the home of the Broncos, to be able to incorporate the Broncos’ logo is something that we’re definitely excited about.

“But additionally, it also incorporates the legacy ‘at Mile High’ term. So combining all three of those was the intent of the design, as well as giving it enough of a size where it has sufficient legibility and visibility from a reasonable distance away. I think we believe that the old signs, though everybody liked them, they were small and they were difficult to read from a distance. The proposed sign was designed to improve that.”

You can find the application to amend the comprehensive stadium sign plan here.

Last week, the city’s community development and planning staff completed its review of the proposed amendment to the sign plan and recommended that the planning board approve it.

“The criteria, some are very concrete and very scientific, others are more subjective,” said Kelly Leid, Denver’s director of development services. “I think the aspect of the city’s role in this is to say, ‘Look, we have a responsibility to, one, follow a clear and consistent and transparent process.’ The comprehensive sign plan has a process we follow and we’ve done that.

“The second is we’re obligated to review the application when it’s submitted, which we have done. To the extent there are impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods, we take those very seriously and we have to evaluate those and look for, are there any mitigating factors that can be taken into consideration that may impact the neighborhoods?

“And then lastly, and I think of equal importance, is that we have to have a system that is predictable. And by that I mean, in this case the applicant relied on a set of rules that were in place for the comprehensive sign plan, they’ve submitted a request to amend that sign plan based on those criteria, and we have to make sure as a city that we’re providing a system of predictability in the review of that plan.”

Area neighborhood organizations describe the likely local impacts of the signs in somewhat stronger terms.

“The neighborhoods surrounding the stadium, believe it or not, are kind of a nice, quiet, serene place to live and raise families,” said Michael Guiietz, co-president of Jefferson Park United Neighbors, the neighborhood that abuts the stadium to the west.

“We’re all aware that there’s 10 Bronco home games that are going to happen and they’re going to create a certain amount of energy. We just don’t want that energy to be translated to these giant, red, lighted signs that are going to be on 365 days a year up until 2 a.m. in certain instances.”

As I understand the most recent negotiations on that issue, The Sports Authority has agreed to turn off the signs facing west and north, toward residential neighborhoods, at midnight. The sign facing east, toward downtown, would remain on until 2 a.m.

The web site for the campaign against the signs is here.

The city skyline is often photographed from the east so as to include the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. Depending on the angle, these photos often include the stadium. In photos of the skyline taken from the west side of town, the stadium is in the foreground. Putting aesthetic objections to the proposed signs aside for a minute, one would think that the right to put a commercial brand on a public building that is part of the skyline would be a fairly expensive proposition.

So perhaps the most surprising aspect of the debate is that at no time has the city or the stadium district asked The Sports Authority to pay an additional fee for the right to vastly augment the signage that went with the original naming rights deal. The money from the naming rights deal — approximately $6 million a year — is divided between the Broncos and the stadium district, which uses its share for upkeep of the facility. If there is excess, it is supposed to go back to the counties that provided the public funding that got the place built.

I don’t know where in the bureaucratic process this possibility should have or could have been raised, but the failure of public officials to broach this topic raises the question of their fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers to maximize revenue from the facility.

If the free market allows The Sports Authority to put its brand on the Denver skyline, then the free market should also require it to pay a market rate for the privilege. And that doesn’t mean just picking up the existing naming rights fee, which included much more modest signage rights.

At least, that’s how it looks from here.

Today’s public hearing before the planning board is at 3 p.m. in the Webb Municipal Office Building, 201 W. Colfax Ave., 4th floor. Those who want to speak should arrive early to sign up.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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