THE PLOT THICKENS

A FIGHT OVER THE DENVER BOTANIC GARDENS SPILLS INTO CITY GOVERNMENT--AND DENVER HIGH SOCIETY.

On the surface, the battle for the Denver Botanic Gardens is nothing if not polite. The genteel institution on York Street has long been the pet project and preferred playground of Denver's blueblood elite. Even after months of prim political fisticuffs, the prominent Denverites scuffling over its future decline to speak ill of each other.

"In all reality, we're friends," says Barbara Knight, the Denver publicist and Vine Street resident who serves as president of the neighborhood group Friends and Neighbors (FANS), which has spent the last few months bedeviling the Gardens' executive director and board of trustees over expansion plans that include the construction of a giant new parking garage and a "meeting house" named for the family of a trustee. "Our parents know each other, our grandparents know each other," she says of the opposing sides. "I just think we're very civilized people."

Behind the scenes, however, what began as a dust-up over the institution's desire for a liquor license hasn't been fought with kid gloves. Instead, it has blossomed into a full-fledged feud over the Gardens' entire master plan, along the way sparking a turf war in the upper levels of city government and bruising more than a few egos on the Denver social circuit.

Displays of power politics have become commonplace: Shortly after a group of FANS members met with two high-ranking officials in Mayor Wellington Webb's administration, the Gardens was slapped with an unprecedented cease-and-desist order instructing it to pull the plug on its popular summer concert series. The Gardens' attorney, Don Hopkins, of the powerful downtown firm Holme, Roberts & Owen, is appealing that order; a hearing is set for October, and in the meantime, this summer's shows will go forward as planned. Next year's concerts, however, have been put on hold.

Denver Manager of Parks and Recreation Bruce Alexander, who was the Botanic Gardens' interim director before being appointed to his present post, also has been drawn into the fray. As the scion of a longtime Denver banking family, Alexander is socially acquainted with many FANS members. But that hasn't stopped some of them from suggesting that Alexander was guilty of a conflict of interest when, as parks manager, he approved the Gardens' master plan in 1992--shortly after helping draft the document as the facility's director.

Alexander, who still sits as an ex officio member of the Gardens' board of trustees, vigorously denies any conflict, noting that under the city charter, the manager of parks has to review proposed changes at the facility. And he's still smarting over the cease-and-desist order, issued with the approval of city planning and zoning boss Jennifer Moulton after a meeting with FANS earlier this summer. "Cutting out those concerts altogether" would be a terrible mistake, he says.

Ever since FANS hired a lawyer late last year, the prospect of legal action has hung over its dealings with the Gardens. Representatives from FANS and the Gardens held a series of secret negotiations this summer in the offices of their attorneys, both sides agreeing to keep what was said out of earshot of other neighborhood groups such as Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods--which didn't appreciate the snub. "We weren't invited to participate," says CHUN zoning and transportation chairman Mike Henry. "I have no idea what was said between the two."

At one point, the sessions grew so testy that a professional mediator hired by the Gardens to the tune of $5,000 was forced to conduct "shuttle diplomacy," going back and forth between two groups of acquaintances who may have brunched together in the recent past but at the moment were too miffed to speak to each other.

Taking advantage of the considerable financial resources of its members, many of whom live in the posh homes that lie just south of the Gardens in the Morgan Historic District, FANS has hired its own consultants to do parking studies and measure noise levels at the summer concerts. Earlier this summer, a city health inspector summoned by the neighbors perched on the second-floor balcony of a mansion adjoining the Gardens to measure the decibel level of a children's concert being held in the amphitheater below. He'll be back soon--but FANS doesn't want to say when: Its leaders are convinced the Gardens turns down the sound when it knows they're listening.

Floyd Ciruli, a veteran Denver political consultant hired by the Gardens to help smooth over the situation, describes FANS as a "handful of folks" who, though they may have legitimate beefs, have managed to exert influence beyond their numbers thanks to their wealth and political connections. "There are a lot of neighborhoods in the metro area that have problems with growth and expansion and traffic and noise, many of which do not get much of a hearing," says Ciruli. "Given that this is a relatively small group, they've definitely leveraged their power."

Knight rejects the suggestion that she and a small group of influential people--FANS numbers among its ranks powerful political consultant Jim Monaghan, a strategist for governors Romer and Lamm--have been given special treatment. "I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that we're well connected," she says. "I think it's because we're smart and we worked hard." If anyone has behaved arrogantly, she insists, it's been Gardens officials who've refused to respond to anything less than a show of force. Her group only resorted to hiring an attorney, she says, because Gardens officials "kept avoiding us.

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