The Alto at Midtown’s grand opening party on September 1, 2015, involved a fair amount of pomp, treating around 400 guests to Moët & Chandon Champagne and clear views of the Denver skyline. In the following months, the rectangular, so-called “post-modern” residences inside a master-planned community in north Denver went on to achieve both commercial and critical successes: The builder, Denver’s Infinity Home Collection, sold all 29 houses in a year and a half. Meanwhile, the National Association of Home Builders gave the architect, Woodley Architectural Group of Littleton, a national design award.
But the praise wasn’t universal. Brad K. Evans, a graphic designer with no formal architectural training, characterized the Alto’s general aesthetic as “prisontecture.” Just in case that description wasn’t clear, Evans later used more colloquial language in assessing the Alto: “It sucks.”
Evans’ opinion matters because he’s the founder of Denver Fugly, a private Facebook group he launched on April Fools’ Day 2015 devoted to “celebrating the stupid crap that’s being built, thought of, and done in Denver.” The group has grown to more than 6,000 members—with almost 1,000 more waiting to be accepted, at Evans’ discretion—and has inspired offshoots in Aspen, Kansas City, and Seattle.
While showing me around the growing development, Evans turns to take in the full scope of the Alto. He sports bright red Adidas sneakers, a University of Arizona cap, and a red but graying mustache. Although he’s 50 years old, Evans is still boyish: He takes stairsteps two at a time and keeps laughing about a graffiti message—describing an intimate activity involving the male anatomy—he says he saw in one of the Alto’s basements during a previous visit.
“Contextually, it’s OK,” Evans says, meaning that at least every Alto house shares the same blocky aesthetic. But there are other issues. He points to the panels, which he claims are made of “shitty materials,” on one of the model homes: “Those boards will warp in a few years.” Then there’s the palette, the popular tan-brown-gray-rust combo, which Evans trashes as unoriginal and lazy. He notes that the rust color is rarely used in the second phase of the Alto, which is currently under construction. “I think they got lampooned on my page so much,” Evans says, “they decided only to do it in one other house.”
Evans takes a photo and uploads the image to Fugly the next day. The caption bemoans “an awful cacophony of poor color choices, odd shapes, bad materials, and mind-numbingly dumb floor [plans]—all built on a former dump to boot.” Most of the 29 commenters agree. (A sampling: “Yuck…so ugly” and “When did Architecture become boxology 101?” and “Ugh.”) When a man points out that someone must like the Alto, otherwise the homes—priced from $559,900 for 2,984 square feet, according to the Alto website—wouldn’t have sold out so quickly, he’s rebuked by another commenter: “McDonald’s also sells ridiculously fast.”
Over the past few years, Denver has grown at a historic pace with homes selling at a clip not unlike that of Big Macs. In 2016, a record $8.2 billion worth of new buildings sprung up in the Mile High City’s metro area, according to Dodge Data and Analytics, a 26 percent boost over the previous year—which happened to hold the former record. But the structures being erected aren’t necessarily ones that will go down in history. “If we can read our culture in our buildings, what this says about us right now is pretty sad,” says Christine Franck, director of the University of Colorado Denver’s Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture. “Because it says the only thing that matters is money.”
For both design professionals and regular Denverites, Fugly has become the foremost forum to discuss and rail against what many view as the uglification of the Mile High City. But is Fugly skewering just for skewering’s sake? Or can Evans and his acid-tongued cohorts actually induce change in Denver through discord and snark? “I’m not purposely trying to create conflict,” Evans says. “But if we’re stirring the pot and somebody gets mad, then great. Sometimes good things can come from anger and spite.”
Evans wanted to attend the University of Arizona because it had a good architecture program. Then he arrived at the campus in Tucson and discovered the major’s math requirements. “I was like, ‘You have to take statistics? Fuck this.’ ” He switched to interior design (and, later, to graphic design). The prerequisites for an architecture degree weren’t the most unfortunate surprise of his college years, though: During the oil bust of the 1980s, Evans’ parents, developers in Boulder County, saw their leases collapse and lost everything. Evans found out when his car was repossessed.
Sufficiently scared, Evans swore never to make his living through real estate. But after earning his degree and working as a graphic designer in Fort Collins and then Boulder, Evans decided to move to Denver in 2004. To save money, he obtained his real estate license to sell his condo and buy a house in the Jefferson Park neighborhood—which led to helping friends buy homes, which ultimately led to a new career as an agent.
At the same time, Evans began dabbling in organizing and activism. He’d belonged to the Boulder Cruiser Ride (basically a drinking and cycling group) before relocating; in 2005, he founded a similar outfit in the Mile High City called the Denver Cruiser Ride. Participation has grown from only 13 people on the first jaunt to thousands of costumed peddlers—themes include Mad Max and ski bums and bunnies—who convene once a month, May through September, for rolling revelry.
Evans also joined the Jefferson Park United Neighbors (JPUN) organization, serving as the chair of its land-use committee when the group tangled with the A.G. Spanos Companies in the mid-2000s. The California development firm wanted to erect a five-building apartment complex at the edge of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the renderings looked like a cheesy mountain chalet. (You think Fugly is mean? During a meeting, JPUN’s criticism of the design grew so vicious that Spanos’ architect cried.) After years of negotiations, the Denver City Council approved a zoning change that allowed Spanos to construct its building—though the final product, called Element 47 by Windsor, looks vastly different than the original plan. “Is it great? No,” Evans says. “But it’s better than what they were going to do.”
Evans’ interest in JPUN wasn’t solely altruistic. After witnessing the rise of the Highland neighborhood, Evans figured development would spread west into Jefferson Park. With the help of some partners, he began buying up parcels in the area and planned to integrate new buildings with the century-old Queen Anne–style homes in the neighborhood. He never got that chance. When the Great Recession struck, Evans lost almost everything—just like his parents. Had he been able to hold on to the land, Evans estimates he would be a millionaire four times over. “After the recession,” Evans says, “I guess my heart wasn’t in it anymore.”
Plenty of others were willing to take his place. From 2013 to 2016, the value of new construction in the Denver metro area increased by more than 66 percent, according to Dodge Data and Analytics. “We have world-class designers and architects bringing their A games,” says Brad Buchanan, the director of the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development. “But that’s in sharp contrast to merchant builders using cheaper, out-of-state architects.”
CU Denver’s Franck and Buchanan claim developers can build homes that fill Denver’s affordable housing shortage without sacrificing beauty. Some architects and developers agree—others do not. In 2013, local architect Sean Tennant designed a row of blue townhouses in Five Points for his architectural firm, Tennant Arkitecture. Tennant tried to incorporate alluring embellishments into the exterior of the project, called the Park Row Townhomes. He went with blue, for instance, to honor Five Points’ musical past (yes, Tennant knows the neighborhood is famous for its jazz history, but he’s more of a blues man). Still, he admits form was sacrificed so that Witkin could keep the price tag around $250,000. “People love Porsches,” Tennant says. “But people can’t always afford Porsches. That’s why most of us drive Chevys.”
Evans happened to drive past the Park Row Townhomes in 2015. Living in Jefferson Park then, Evans had witnessed many of his neighbors’ historic homes being scraped to make way for Lego-like abodes. So he was primed for an explosion, and Tennant’s boxy, blue Chevy proved to be the match. “I was like, ‘It’s fucking ugly!’ ” Evans says. “I said it out loud.” He went home, logged onto Facebook, and created Denver Fugly.
Christine Franck is committed to the principles of new urbanism, a city-planning approach that promotes walkable communities where residents can live, work, and play—basically the opposite of suburban sprawl. Which is why, in 2013, Franck happily relocated from New York City, where she had an architecture and design practice, to become the first director of CU Denver’s Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture: Denver had recently become one of the first big cities in the country to implement form-based zoning. Instead of segregating buildings by function—industrial here, shopping there, residential elsewhere—city leaders suggested neighborhoods could, and should, include different uses.
Unfortunately, Franck’s excitement was short-lived. After arriving in Denver, she noticed a plethora of boxlike buildings that paid no regard for scale, detail, or color. “I kept asking people, ‘What is it with these boxes everywhere?’ We’re not getting this in Virginia; we’re not getting this in New York,” she says. That’s because what Franck calls “boxitecture” seems to have started in Western cities in the early 2010s. Financing had finally loosened after the recession, and there was a push to build “as much as possible as quickly as possible as cheaply as possible,” Franck says. Boxitecture has since spread to Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina, and other East Coast cities.
Then, in 2014, Franck received a call from her now fiancé, also an architect. Come to the West Colfax neighborhood, he told her. Once there, Franck saw that developers had started scraping bungalows and replacing them with townhouses. But not normal townhouses. To squeeze the most out of the small lots, developers folded a row of 12 townhouses inward, like a taco, so six faced six. The side of a building—a blank wall—faced the street. Walking down 16th Avenue between Sloan’s Lake and West Colfax Avenue, Franck was soon in tears. How could someone create so much ugliness when they have a city full of such beauty? she wondered.
Other architects, developers, and planners took notice, too. In 2015, Jeffrey Sheppard—the acclaimed architect behind the Denver Art Museum administration building, Izakaya Den, and the Room & Board expansion in Cherry Creek—penned an op-ed in the Denver Post titled, “Denver is a great city, so why the bad buildings?” Historic Denver launched an ongoing lecture series called Re:Denver to teach people what makes a well-designed building. Franck held a conference on contemporary building issues at CU Denver. (It was there that Franck says she coined the term “slot houses” to describe what she saw on West Colfax.) But nothing has riled up Denverites like Fugly. “It’s provided an outlet for people’s frustrations, and there was no other outlet for that,” Franck says. “And people are really frustrated.”
Evans is willing to stoke that frustration. “Brad is an antagonist,” says Buchanan, Denver’s planning director. In March, Evans posted a photo of a custom-designed house whose facade seemed to be made out of cheap wooden pallets. When the developer of the project took to Fugly to explain that the pallets were actually screens made out of durable tempered wood, Evans simply replied: “Pallets.” Later, Evans posted a picture of an actual pallet house in Tijuana, Mexico. “The developer was so mad,” Evans says. “ ‘You’re just making fun of me now.’ Yup, I am.”
Evans’ provocative nature often obscures his thoughtful opinions. “The biggest curiosity I have about Brad is: What’s he doing up at 2:30 in the morning, writing these well-researched arguments and posting them to Facebook?” says Jonathan Weaver. A house flipper and co-owner of the Ginn Mill bar and Larimer Beer Hall in Ballpark, Weaver has seen his projects lauded and ripped apart on Fugly. “No hard feelings,” Weaver says. At least most of his critics on Fugly have offered constructive opinions and discussion: “They’re like, ‘That sucks because….’”
But Evans knows people come to Fugly for the snark. Gosia Kung, executive director for WalkDenver, keeps advocating for Evans to change the name to Denver Beautiful, but he demurs because no one would respond to the inoffensive moniker. And what about the architects who design Fugly’s targets? Or the developers who built them? Or, more important, the people who buy and live in the homes? “If I had an ugly baby,” Evans says, “I’d probably love it too.”
He may be an agitator, but Evans is no martyr: In 2016, he looked up and down the Jefferson Park street he called home and saw one end of the block being redeveloped and the other end soon to follow. Plus, Evans had a daughter in Lakewood he wanted to live closer to. So he partnered with a neighbor, and they sold their properties to a developer who, Evans admits, is building a fugly condo building on the land. One observer compared its appearance to a housing complex in Lagos, Nigeria.
The city councilperson for Jefferson Park, Rafael Espinoza, who’s also an architect, has known Evans since they sparred with A.G. Spanos as part of JPUN. Espinoza doesn’t like many of the new houses and townhouses going up in his neighborhood either. During a recent stroll around Jefferson Park, he bemoans everything from the dearth of landscaping (“Give me a freaking tree!”) to ruined curb appeal (“It’s gone from a nice front porch, a nice lawn, a nice tree to a fucking garage”). Still, Espinoza doesn’t think Evans is a sellout for—well, selling out. That’s because, Espinoza says, Jefferson Park is a lost cause. “The city, to its credit, now has the slot house task force,” Espinoza says, “but that won’t go into effect until early next year. That will be too late for Jefferson Park.”
Launched in late 2016, the Slot Home Evaluation and Text Amendment task force has been studying slot houses’ design quality and impact on communities. Early next year, the group, of which Franck and Espinoza are members, will recommend changes to the city’s zoning code. Buchanan says the task force is an example of how the community planning and development department closes loopholes in zoning.
Absent official power, Denver Fugly—which will launch as a standalone website this month—can only legislate through fear. Developers often approach Evans to express concern about ending up as a mark on the Facebook page. “That’s influence you can’t buy,” Evans says. Chris Frampton, the managing partner of East West Partners, which co-developed Union Station, admits he worries about his projects being lambasted on Evans’ page. “I do,” he says. “We want our stuff to be well-received.” Still, ridicule might not be enough to drive the fugly out of Denver. “When people stop buying ugly stuff,” Buchanan says, “people will stop building it.”
Sitting in 2914 Coffee in Jefferson Park, Evans stares at a block of land he co-owned before the recession. It’s been redeveloped since then (poorly, according to Espinoza). “At first, I was dealing with my own bullshit with the market crashing and losing everything,” Evans says. “So I was dealing with the sadness of that and the anger. I guess I’m OK with it now, to some degree. It’s sad, still, just looking at all this shitty stuff they’re building.”
Evans is only a block away from his old Queen Anne, but he’s not sure if he wants to see the property. His young daughter is with him, and she doesn’t know her childhood home has been razed. There could be tears. When Evans finally strolls over, the scene is straight out of the animated movie Up: one cute Queen Anne left, sandwiched between two blocky edifices. “I don’t know what the answer is,” Evans says. “The inherent ugliness? That’s unfixable. I guess shaming. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”