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.

Likewise, Ron Bernstein, who directed Theaters and Arenas until this summer (when he was named to head up the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and International Trade), says, "We share a commonality: our love for Red Rocks. Their perspective and mission are very similar to ours." But, he concedes, "we do have some areas where we look at things differently."

To say the least. Rutter says that Bernstein has always been polite to him, but "he believes we're going to oppose him every step of the way, which was not our intention. But when it comes to the southern terraces, we will."

In 1995, the city's "master plan" for Red Rocks, a 103-page tome encompassing a variety of ideas for renovation, was passed with precious little public notice -- no protests, no uproar -- and the first press coverage in advance of the city's scheduled March 2, 1999, presentation before the Landmark Preservation Commission contained little hint of the controversy to come. In the piece, a 150-word blurb blandly headlined "Mayor Announces Renovation of Red Rocks" that ran on the Associated Press wire, Webb was quoted as saying, "This restoration project will help to historically rehabilitate Red Rocks to its original design. The deteriorated features of the park will be restored and preserved and several new features will help to improve the park."

They see red: Friends of Red Rocks (from left) Ben Williams, Peggy Choate, Melinda Yeary, Scott Croushore, Tom Rutter and Greg Campbell.
David Rehor
They see red: Friends of Red Rocks (from left) Ben Williams, Peggy Choate, Melinda Yeary, Scott Croushore, Tom Rutter and Greg Campbell.

But the quiet didn't last long. The following day, items in the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post specified some of the "new features" in the $22 million outline, including box seats and advertisements to be projected on the rocks. "Gasp!" wrote Post staffer Julia C. Martinez. "It's going corporate."

This last word went off in Red Rocks lovers' heads like a grenade, prompting a large and vocal group opposed to such changes (including Carolyn Etter, who had served under Mayor Federico Peña as co-director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department) to attend the March Landmark Preservation Commission meeting. FORR's Randy Fordice was particularly incensed by the logo lights. "Red Rocks is such a beautiful place," he says, "and putting a Pepsi logo or a Ticketmaster logo on the rocks is going to literally ruin the atmosphere, regardless of whether it's only there before the show or during the set break."

When the city next brought up Red Rocks before the commission at a June 15 meeting, officials kept quiet about the lights proposal and were rewarded when the commissioners gave the nod to the broad strokes of the mayor's plan. Emboldened, they came to a July 6 hearing armed with reasons why the commission should approve the southern terraces -- among them, historical data about structural difficulties that have existed since the amphitheater was built.

"They had to blast a lot of rock out on the Creation Rock side, which is the north side of the amphitheater, to create a nice bowl," says David Mashburn, another Sink Combs Dethlefs architect working on Red Rocks. "And then they brought in soil to put on the south side to even it up. But it was bad soil -- our studies are showing it was mostly clay -- and the soil engineers are worried about the mass of it starting to slowly slide, because it's so steep and because there's water between the sandstone and the clay. And sixty years of rain and precipitation have opened up gaps beneath the seats. The geologists tell us there's almost no soil down low by the stage on the south side, and that's causing sinking that's got to be repaired."

To do so, the city has a couple of options. Crews could tear out some of the amphitheater, stabilize the ground beneath it, and then rebuild the section using materials of the same color and texture -- "but it would never be the same," Mashburn says. "No matter how hard we would try, it wouldn't be historically quite right. Which leaves us, literally, between a rock and a hard place." Preferable, then, is what's known as mud-jacking, which Mashburn describes as "getting at it somehow from underneath, probably by core drilling, to create temporary access and then placing in more shoring that way."

Of course, the new earth might start slipping just like the old stuff. As a way of preventing that, the architects want to build up a barrier on the amphitheater's southern slope, which is currently covered with natural plant growth. The simplest way to do so, Dethlefs says, "is to put up a large concrete wall. But if we didn't cover that back up, all you'd be left with is the concrete, which would be very unattractive. But even if we built the wall and then reinforced the soil on the slope, it would be basically bare ground until the vegetation came back in. That wouldn't be very attractive, either. It would be expensive and time-consuming, and it wouldn't address any of the other issues at the amphitheater."

Among those matters is the desire for more restrooms. Right now, the main bladder-relief sites are at either end of the amphitheater, necessitating long hikes for folks in mid-level seats. Worse, the permanent facilities up top are supplemented by disgusting portable toilets that are not always treated with respect by concertgoers. "There are forty of them up there," Mashburn says, "and after almost every show, city employees have to retrieve one or two of them from the valley below, because someone's shoved them down there -- and you can only imagine what an awful mess an upside-down Porta Potti is. On top of that, it smells like a zoo up there. Men who don't want to use the portables just pee off the south side, and women who don't want to use them just have to hold it. Everyone wants to 'preserve the magic,' but there's not much magic in that."

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