It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s DIA’s new hotel — indeterminately over-budget!


Depending on whom you speak with, the hotel opening tomorrow at Denver International Airport resembles a bird in flight, or an airplane, or a mustache.

Apparently, the price tag for the city-owned, taxpayer funded Westin Hotel also is pretty subjective.

Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration says it doesn’t yet have a final cost, but expects it’ll be about $600 million — $100 million more than was budgeted at the hotel’s 2012 ground-breaking.

Yet those figures are questionable. Before leaving office last summer, then Denver Auditor Denis Gallagher put the price tag much higher – at $721 million and counting.

“Because of the way that DIA often accounts for work on the project it is not always easy to see the entire picture,” Gallagher wrote in an April report that attempted to calculate what he called “the real cost.

Whatever the final price tag, Denver’s new auditor, Timothy O’Brien, agrees that the cost of the 519-room hotel is concerning.

“It’s nice and all,” he says of the hotel he toured last week. “But nice to the tune of more than $1 million a room?” Not so much.

“That’s too expensive,” he added.

O’Brien – who took office last summer as what he calls “the check and balance” on Denver’s strong-mayor form of government — plans to audit the final cost of the hotel project in mid-2016. It’s too late for his audit to save any tax dollars. “The hotel’s already there. There’s no cutting the cost at this point,” he notes.

“The public deserves to have a debate on these large public expenditures, but we need the correct figure, not just widely varying estimates,” O’Brien says.

In the meantime, he added, “There are lessons to be learned.”

The Auditor specifically wants to make sure the city’s next big construction project – the massive makeover of the National Western Complex – doesn’t run over-budget like the airport hotel. The $1.1 billion redevelopment of the stock show site into a major year-round event center, education hub and entertainment complex is still in the conceptual phase, without specific costs projected for specific buildings, he noted. He wants to keep expenditures in-check.

“I’m trying to study up on the Stock Show,” says O’Brien, who keeps a book about the history of the complex on his desk. “Because it’s in such an early stage, it certainly warrants plenty of scrutiny.”

Scrutiny seems to have been stop-and-start for the airport hotel, which was always planned for DIA but is opening nearly 21 years after the airport started operating in 1995 on a 53-square-mile annex northeast of town.

The hotel – which is city-owned but run by Westin — is on the south end of the terminal, blocking the view of its iconic, white tent-like structure. After much internal debate, it was built in that spot to tie in with the Regional Transportation District’s light-rail line that in April 2016 is slated to connect DIA to Downtown Denver.

DIA ranks as the 5th busiest airport in North America and 15th busiest airport in the world, with some 53 million passengers passing through each year. Though several hotels have been built just minutes away, city officials have long argued that DIA wouldn’t be complete without a hotel connected to it where at least some of those passengers could attend conferences and get some shut-eye.

As of this writing, rooms at the Westin range from $189 to $499 a night.

Santiago Calatrava was the original architect appointed to design the Denver International Airport hotel. This is what his design would have looked like. Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava
Santiago Calatrava was the original architect appointed to design the Denver International Airport hotel. This is what his design would have looked like. Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava

With much pageantry, the city in 2010 unveiled bold designs for the hotel by star architect Santiago Calatrava, a Spaniard famed largely for the train stations he has designed in Europe. Calatrava’s original design included several of his signature flourishes, including the predominate use of white steel to match the white airport terminal, and a bridge that was to span Peña Boulevard and serve as a crossing for the RTD rail line.

The $22 million bridge was considered the jewel of the project. But the city nixed it because of cost considerations in 2011, when it lowered the hotel project’s budget from $650 million to $500 million. Calatrava abruptly walked off the job, citing “deep divisions” between the design team, the general contractor and city officials. The city paid his firm $13.6 million for its basic design, but the key elements that excited architectural buffs fell by the wayside.

Still, budget issues persisted. Parsons — the company managing the project for the city — had its contract massively scaled back because of officials’ dissatisfaction with its performance, Gallagher reported. Last March, DIA said total price wouldn’t exceed $598 million. That’s the figure airport spokesman Heath Montgomery gave The Colorado Independent today, although sources close to the project put the final number closer to $610 million to $640 million, or even more.

In his report in April, Gallagher rebuked the administration for low-balling.

“DIA has a tendency to exclude from the public discussion of the budget, directly related project elements, work and costs,” he wrote. “When added together, as of April of 2015 the total cost…to date is $721,391,732 – not the $598 million.

“This puts the project 43% over the $500 million, 2012 budget.”

Gallagher blamed the overruns on, among other things, “insufficient controls on cost-inducing changes to the project,” “a failure of oversight by DIA not having an independent construction consultant on staff,” and “flawed invoice review process to determine that all project costs have been reasonable.”

Without a final price tag from Hancock’s administration, it’s still in question whether the cost of the completed project will come in close to the $650 million that originally was budgeted for Calatrava’s far more elegant design. Also in question is whether cutting corners to the point of losing the architect and his signature rail-bridge was, in the long-term, worth it.

The hotel since has been built out of clear glass – not the clean, wide swath of white that Calatrava envisioned. Its lines are far more blunt than Calatrava’s design so that the aerodynamicism the hotel was meant to project has been decidedly lost.

“A bird? It don’t look like a bird,” said 9-year-old Ryan Foster earlier this week, passing the soon-to-open hotel on a park-and-ride shuttle. “I see a mustache. Like grandpa’s mustache. That’s what it looks like to me.”

As for the bridge that would have served as an iconic gateway to DIA, it’s merely a good idea that never came to fruition.

Former at-large Denver Councilwoman and urban planning watchdog Susan Barnes-Gelt lauds the new hotel for keeping DIA nimble and “capable of meeting the opportunities and demands of the future.”

As a booster of the project, Barnes-Gelt says she isn’t spun up about cost overruns. Still, she has moments of wistfulness.

“My only regret?” she says. “No Calatrava bridge.”


Photo credit: Fizzybeth, Creative Commons, Flickr



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