Denver Hears the Music

Friends of Red Rocks puts on a good show for the famous amphitheater.

Last fall, city representatives argued that building large terraces on the south side of Red Rocks Amphitheater was an absolutely vital part of a proposal intended to raise the venerable venue's standards to the level demanded by today's persnickety consumers and, not coincidentally, to prevent the entire place from winding up as a heap of rubble at the base of the foothills. So why did the renovation design passed on January 11 by the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission contain no mention of these terraces?

The parties involved in the decision shy away from the mention of politics. But that's as good a word for this change of heart as any.

The city's master plan for Red Rocks was passed in 1995 with nary a whisper of complaint from the public ("Red Alert," September 16, 1999). But a presentation before the Landmark Preservation Commission in March 1999 was another story: A group of citizens, many of whom subsequently banded together as Friends of Red Rocks, expressed their displeasure with several parts of the scheme, including the construction of corporation-friendly box seats and the projection of sponsors' logos on the rocks themselves. The commission later slapped down the box-seats notion, and the city backed away from logo projection. But the hard sell continued on the southern terraces, which representatives at Sink Combs Dethlefs, an architectural firm that spent much of the '90s drawing up Red Rocks blueprints, said was a great way to address soil erosion that had destabilized the entire southern end of the seating area. Oh, yeah: And it would provide a place to put loads of mid-level food stands that would generate more revenue for the city.

Friends of Red Rocks countered that there were other, less obtrusive ways to deal with the erosion -- and after an October meeting of the group that drew more than a hundred people demonstrated just how tough a fight this was likely to be, the city found such a way. According to Don Dethlefs, of Sink Combs Dethlefs, "injection grouting" forced through existing joints will fill up the voids under the seats that were created by erosion. In addition, outside water sources, which significantly exacerbated the situation, will be cut off by, among other things, replacing a portion of some stairs that were physically pulling away from the main seating zone. Afterward, devices intended to monitor any further slipping will be installed. Dethlefs says the work should be completed this spring, prior to the start of the concert season.

The major additions to the amphitheater (which could take a year or two to complete) will be made up top: An agora, or upper terrace, will include a restaurant, more restrooms and a Red Rocks museum. Friends of Red Rocks never opposed these alterations, in part because of their historical basis -- an agora was included in Red Rocks architect Burnham Hoyt's original drawings -- and only objected to the placement of an elevator that will take patrons from one level of the terrace to the other. But in the new spirit of cooperation, Sink Combs Dethlefs has agreed to look at moving it so as not to obstruct views of Ship Rock, a striking attraction at the amphitheater.

If city reps view such concessions as a defeat, they're not letting on. Director of Theaters and Arenas Fabby Hillyard, who'd previously insisted that spiffier amenities were musts if Red Rocks was to survive and flourish (she even defended the logo lights as matching "the sereneness of the place"), is now portraying herself as a voice of moderation. She notes that many of the more radical ideas about sprucing up Red Rocks date back to when Ron Bernstein held the chief Theaters and Arenas spot; Bernstein was named head of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and International Trade last summer.

"I love Ron Bernstein dearly," Hillyard says, "but we don't always have the same view of things. I'm a fifth-generation Denverite, and I have a very similar belief and understanding of the place as the Friends of Red Rocks have." She adds that simple economics helped doom the southern terraces as well: "We had a $28 million project with a $22 million budget, and in setting priorities, the preservation stuff had to be done, and the upper plaza had to be done, and that's all the money we had."

Tom Rutter, one of the most prominent members of Friends of Red Rocks, neither disputes Hillyard's characterization of her role nor crows about making Denver government types blink, and with good reason: The group is currently working with those very folks to find ways to maintain the land surrounding Red Rocks as open space. (The city just purchased an eleven-acre parcel -- the deal should be finalized in a matter of weeks -- and Hillyard has her eye on an additional 180 acres.) Rather, Rutter is trying to be a gracious winner.

"Us sort of screaming led them to stop and take a second look," he says. "And that led to a rethinking of the process that was very positive. Everyone gave a little, and in the end, everyone looked good. And that's pretty cool."

 
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