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Red Alert

Red Rocks may or may not be sliding down the hill, but Friends of Red Rocks’ trust in the city is slipping away.

When many music lovers think about the City of Denver renovating Red Rocks Amphitheater, the image that fills their minds isn't far removed from the shower scene in Psycho -- something indescribably beautiful being slashed and gutted until its life slowly trickles down the drain.

It's not hard to figure out why. In March, members of the Wellington Webb administration floated the notion of upping revenues at the Rocks by installing box seats and projecting corporate logos on the venue's pristine red sandstone. Locals responded with expressions of outrage, and the Landmark Preservation Commission, which must approve any changes at the amphitheater because of its status as a national landmark, subsequently swatted aside the box-seats component like a particularly annoying insect.

Since then, the city has altered its public stance in regard to the renovation of Red Rocks, emphasizing that its $22 million plan for the amphitheater is focused on fixing what's broken, not breaking what's fixed. "We inadvertently created this little firestorm," says Fabby Hillyard, the newly appointed Deputy Manager of General Services for Theaters and Arenas in Denver, "and we really had no idea that it would cause such a reaction. Sometimes you get so close to a thing -- and you know that you're doing things for the right reasons -- that you maybe don't communicate as clearly as you should that Red Rocks is a special place and you just want to make that specialness better. So now we're learning how to describe it better and realize what the fears are based on. And I don't blame people for doubting, because there have been occasions where the sanctity of the place hasn't been protected."

Soothing words like these don't reassure Tom Rutter of the Friends of Red Rocks, a citizens' group dedicated to guaranteeing that the amphitheater doesn't wind up looking like a mall with really nice natural siding. At a July meeting of the nine-member Landmark Preservation Commission, the city began promoting another idea that FORR finds objectionable -- specifically, the building of what's been dubbed "the southern terraces," a massive extension intended to shore up the amphitheater even as it provides a platform for extra restrooms and half a dozen concession stands. Rutter believes that this is only the beginning. "The lack of sensitivity to Red Rocks that the box seats and logos embodied seems to be driving a lot of this," he says. "And damn it, the city has got to get the message that this place is special and that there's magic there that hundreds and thousands of people know about and love and don't want to see gone.

"Back in 1983, Joni Mitchell was there, and she stood on that stage and sang, 'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.' And that's what this is really all about. We don't want people to find out what they've lost only after it's gone."

Hillyard and other people working for the city on the Red Rocks upgrade dismiss such comments as hysteria. But on August 30, the Denver City Council quietly earmarked $5.8 million for use at the amphitheater, with part of the money set aside for work on the southern slope in the event of what Hillyard describes as "an emergency." For his part, Rutter sees the funds as an indication that the city's next push for "improvements" is about to begin -- and he may be right. The Landmark Preservation Commission has not yet approved the terraces, tabling discussion of them in July pending the presentation of more information pro and con. However, Don Dethlefs of Sink Combs Dethlefs, an architectural firm that's been working with Denver on Red Rocks for the better part of a decade, says that the issue may be brought back to the commission as early as mid-October, and he feels that the data he's assembled supports what the city's been saying all along.

Meanwhile, the twenty or so Friends of Red Rocks, whose previous protests were marked by a somewhat disconcerting politeness, have finally decided to stop making nice and start sounding alarms about the potential violation of one of Colorado's most precious gems. "We've gone out of our way to work with the city because we've been so afraid of looking negative," Rutter says. "But they're not inviting us to voice our opinions, so we're changing the way we're doing things. Our feeling is, Red Rocks comes first."

Geologists estimate that the rock formations around Red Rocks have been in place for roughly sixty million years, standing up remarkably well to season after season of environmental wear and tear. Likewise, the uncounted thousands of people who've trekked to the site this century to hear performances by musical greats from Igor Stravinsky and Ella Fitzgerald to the Beatles and the Sex Pistols have yet to cause the place to crumble into dust.

Yet time is beginning to take its toll. Some indicators were visible to the throng that flocked to Red Rocks on September 14 to watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers bring the 1999 concert season to a boisterous conclusion -- a dozen or so new planks were recently installed in rows of seats where the original wood had deteriorated. But according to architect Dethlefs, the greater dangers are hidden from view. The soil that supports a set of stairs on the south side of the amphitheater is pretty much gone, he says, and erosion beneath the seating area has created gaps that have destabilized its southern end, leaving the whole shebang in danger of winding up in a heap at the bottom of the foothills. "It's deteriorating," he says. "When it goes, it goes all at once -- and since it's hard to predict when that might happen, we need to get to work as soon as possible on preventing that."

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