Making a Federal Case

A city project may restore some of the northwest Denver boulevard's former beauty.

Years ago, Federal Boulevard was one of the most beautiful streets in Denver. Huge elms towered over the thoroughfare, which was lined with churches, libraries and large homes. Now the City of Denver is spending $2 million to bring back some of that old glory, hoping to undo a mistake that dates back to the 1950s.

Before that time, the stretch of Federal Boulevard between Colfax Avenue and I-70 served as a graceful entryway into northwest Denver. But the age of the automobile prompted the city to expand the street, and in 1955 the trees on both sides were cut down to add additional lanes for traffic.

The city will rebuild Federal from 20th Avenue to I-70 over the next eight months, adding landscaped medians, new streetlights and trees. The intent is to re-create some of the lush feel the old parkway had before it was bulldozed.

Many north Denver residents believe their neighborhood has been slighted when it comes to parks and parkways, and they've looked on in envy as the city has spent millions to landscape Colorado Boulevard, East Evans Avenue and the streets around the Cherry Creek shopping center. "For a long time, our part of town was not always paid attention to on these amenities," says city councilman Dennis Gallagher, who represents northwest Denver.

With the federally funded reconstruction of Federal Boulevard, the city may make up for some of that inattention. The memory of the old boulevard has shaped the plans of designers working on the project.

"We looked at historic photos of Federal," says Bob Eck, a landscape architect at Wenk & Associates who worked on Federal's redesign. "We want to try to re-create the canopy of trees."

Bringing back the old parkway would be prohibitively expensive, since the city would have to buy up the right-of-way on both sides of Federal. Eck says he hopes that the landscaped medians will serve the same purpose, even though they may not be "historically correct."

During the past few years the city has tried to rebuild the historic network of Denver parkways first planned in 1907 by George Kessler. Landscaped medians were added on Colorado Boulevard, First Avenue was rebuilt, the Monaco Parkway was extended, and some of Evans Avenue was made over. The redesign of nearly thirty blocks of Federal Boulevard will resemble those efforts.

"It will look very much like Evans Avenue between Colorado Boulevard and University," says Mark Leese, who has overseen the Federal Boulevard project for the Department of Public Works.

Landscaping will mean the loss of several left-turn lanes, but one of the aims of the redesign is to slow down traffic on Federal. Eck says the medians will have a "traffic-calming effect." Neighborhood groups in northwest Denver have made it clear that they want to find ways to slow down the crush of cars streaming down the street at all hours.

Gallagher says the neighborhood worked for years to convince the city to rebuild Federal. Many longtime residents still remember its days as a parkway, and elegant old buildings like the Masonic Temple, the Woodbury branch library, and the Boulevard School are reminders of its former status.

"It was a beautiful street," recalls Gallagher, who grew up in the neighborhood. "When I was in high school, it had beautiful trees on both sides. Then, in the early Fifties the city widened the street, and it became something similar to T.S. Eliot's 'wasteland.'"

In fact, says Gallagher, north Denver has been ignored for years when it comes to parks and parkways. The neighborhood had to fight to get Viking Park built across the street from North High School, adds the councilman, even though almost all of the other high schools in Denver have adjacent parks. Similarly, the city is only now getting around to extending the Speer Boulevard landscaping past I-25.

"Look how long it's taken us to get Speer Boulevard up into our part of Denver," says Gallagher.

The deficit of parks and parkways on Denver's north and west sides goes back to the days of Mayor Robert Speer, Denver's early-twentieth-century political boss who--when not stuffing ballot boxes--managed to create much of the parks system that Denverites enjoy today. Speer's political base was in the wealthy neighborhoods of east and south Denver, and he lavished park funds on those areas. At the time, Denver was divided into several different park districts, and residents of those areas were also more willing to approve bond issues to build new parks.

According to Gallagher, the Ku Klux Klan even got involved in planning Denver's parkways. He says the Klan, which played a prominent role in Denver in the 1920s, axed a plan to turn 50th Avenue into a parkway because it served Regis University, a Catholic institution.

For now, Gallagher is simply happy that the most important street in northwest Denver may get back part of its former luster. "This should be something that will enhance old Federal," he says. "It's about time.

 
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