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Think we can’t stop it? Read the History and Think Again
One of the most effective ways for government to do whatever it wants is to keep plans a secret. One of the most effective ways to block government’s less thoughtful plans is to know about them before they happen.
Up until the middle 1980s there was no requirement for the Department of Parks and Recreation to inform anyone of anything.
1983 – The Fire Station in City Park
A 1982 bond issue included proposals for a new fire station “in the vicinity of 14th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.” The secret plan of the city was to locate the new fire station in City Park at 17th Avenue and Jackson St. The only public notice of the new location was at a weekly meeting between the Mayor and City Council, at which the mayor announced the new location to the council and attending press.
The people learned about this plan because one of the councilmember’s aides lived in South City Park and happened to be in attendance. Concerned neighbors produced a handbill and handed it out to four blocks of residents. At the neighborhood meeting called to discuss the proposal, the attending neighbors decided that it wasn’t appropriate to use park space to build fire stations.
Six neighbors volunteered for a committee. They decided to send letters to the three men running for mayor in May, 1983, to ask their position on the fire station location. The sitting mayor, William McNichols, replied that, if elected, he would build the station in City Park. He lost the election. The second-place candidate, Dale Tooley, said he would not build the fire station in the park because the proposed location violated national standards for fire stations and, further, it was a poor location since most of the land abutting the new station would have little fire threat to its lawns and trees. The ultimate victor, Federico Peña, said if elected, he would hold a neighborhood meeting to get public input on the plan.
The neighborhood committee created a slide show demonstrating the feasibility of alternative locations, including the final site of Station 15 at 14th Avenue and Harrison Street. The committee leafleted all of South City Park about a meeting on the subject at the Museum of Natural History. When eighty residents showed up in uniform opposition to the City Park site, the Peña administration abandoned the City Park location.
This experience resulted in the neighborhood position that changes to our parks require: 1) public notification, 2) a public meetings and 3) a means for neighbors and others affected by a change of land use in the park to offer their opinions to those in power.
1984 – The Museum of Natural History
Lack of public information is also illustrated by a project for the Museum of Natural History which was approved in secret. Approval was given by a then brand-new Manager of the Department of Parks and Recreation who, like most managers of the era, had neither training nor previous experience in parks.
The same 1982 bond issue that funded the Fire Station approved a request from the Museum of Natural History for funds for a fix-up, paint-up, and “other improvements” for their aging building. Their sales pitch in the campaign leading up to the vote was that the building needed updates to its HVAC, electrical and plumbing systems, and a new paint job. When the project finally appeared, without any public awareness of its true character, the public rose in anger at the near doubling of the pre-existing museum, the ugliness of the additions and the blocking of the view to the mountains from Montview Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard.
1985 – The Aquarium
The 1982 bond issue also included money for Denver’s Aquarium that was to be built in City Park. Because of the stress over the Museum expansion, the Peña administration tried to be as open as it could. They agreed to make a presentation at an open meeting in Park Hill. The meeting included about 400 people and a slide show presented by the community.
The slide show was based on the impact of the proposed aquarium on City Park. With maps, the community showed how the parking required by a typical aquarium (then being built around the country), with its 1.5 million annual visitors, would impact City Park. The show demonstrated what the parking would do to the park, such as consuming the entire rose garden west of the museum. After review the Peña administration admitted that another attraction would essentially destroy what was left of City Park and agreed to find another location.
The aquarium was eventually constructed by private money near the South Platte river where it succumbed to low attendance and was purchased for pennies on the dollar by a restaurant chain. Had it been constructed in City Park there would now be an empty building in the park with its parking lots and no funding.
1988 – The Pavilion
The managers of the Parks and Recreation Department announced to 12 community activists that the department was planning on converting the empty pavilion to offices for its staff. Eleven of the attendees approved the idea at the meeting. One said that he would have to take the proposal to his neighborhood.
The next meeting on the subject of the office conversion brought loud objections to putting such a use in the middle of a park. The managers refused to budge. The community sued the city and won a decision which established precedent for park use across the state. The common practice of using parks for cheap development land was finished throughout Colorado.
This ruling created a hardship for many parks departments which had placed buildings in parks. Now the buildings had no legally approved use. Government needed a way to use these buildings rather than demolish them or let them sit idle. In Denver, the City worked with a community task force, resulting in a City Charter change that allowed a procedure to allow the City to use these buildings, with public approval. The City is required to notify its citizens of its plan, hold a public hearing and find a use compatible with the park in which the building resides.
Late 1980s – Cooperation Works
Public concern over City Park was loud enough that the Peña administration opened a public forum to consider its future. The products of that forum included closing park roads, expanding the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board to include representatives of each council district, and creation of the City Park Alliance. Citizens of nearby neighborhoods celebrated City Park by creating City Park Jazz, a completely open, community-organized event.
With mutual trust between the department and the community, there was agreement about limiting the size of the Museum and Zoo, preserving what remained of City Park as a free, publicly-accessible, green space park.
After the Pavilion ruling, the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation created a process for changing land use in parks based on the procedures real estate developers follow to request zoning changes. This procedure was used by both the museum and zoo to plan and construct their underground parking garages. These parking garages have relieved much of the neighborhood overflow parking and introduced a period during which there were few disputes and all disputes were resolved without the historic kerfuffle which characterized the previous decade.
Late 1990s-2000s – The Era of Top-Down Change
Mayors Webb, Hickenlooper and Hancock abandoned the process worked out over years of dispute. Today, all control over our parks has been shifted to the appointed minions of mayoral power.
In 1998 Mayor Webb negotiated an agreement with the Denver Zoo pledging the city to provide expansion land from City Park whenever the Zoo “needs” it. This contract was not discussed in public. It was negotiated and approved out of the citizens’ attention. The local media ignored it. Just this year (2013), current Parks Manager Lauri Dannemiller used this authority to cede nearly 4000 square feet from City Park to the Zoo for a fenced parking lot not available for public use. She helpfully explained to City Park neighbors that all of City Park, including the Zoo, Museum, and all the public areas, is one entity, and she has sole authority to dispose of the park, with no obligation whatsoever to protect the publicly accessible, green space areas (see Denver Zoo Expands at Parks Manager’s Discretion).
The new Denver Zoning Code, enacted in 2010, further removes the public voice from all parks. The code takes responsibility for park land use from the City Council, which represents neighborhood interests, and gives it entirely to the executive branch, delegating complete power over all land use in our parks to the Manager of Parks and Recreation. An optional provision in the zoning code allows the manager to conduct a public process at his or her discretion. There is no mechanism requiring public approval.
The Hancock Administration has made a deal with Denver Public Schools, trading away natural open-space land in Hentzell Park for an old downtown-Denver office building, full of asbestos and in need of extensive, expensive renovation. A 1955 Denver City Ordinance requiring the City to put sale or development of park land to a vote has been manipulated to allow the deal. Since the City failed to “designate” Hentzell Park, even though it has been named, managed, and funded as a park for over 40 years, the City claims there is no obligation to the public. Mayor Hancock says the City has “the correct legal position.” Neighbors have been forced to resort to another legal challenge.
The City talks about “activating” parks. We say it’s time for activated citizens to once again push back and save our parks.