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Shrinking Violets

The Denver Botanic Gardens is trying to be a better neighbor to residents who have long complained about noise from summer concerts, the high volume of traffic and street parking during DBG events. An apologetic Brinsley Burbidge, the organization's executive director, made the initial peace offering on July 18, during the first of what will be several "town hall" meetings, by dropping a bombshell: The Gardens will delay seeking a $40 million bond until 2002 rather than trying to get the measure on this November's ballot. It will also back down from plans to build an eight-story glass house across the street from the main entrance.

"We've been hearing that we, as an institution, haven't been good at communicating with you, the neighbors," Burbidge told the approximately 75 residents at the meeting. "In general, we have not spoken to you, and we are remiss in that. This is the beginning of an important dialogue about the future of the Denver Botanic Gardens, and we will listen to everything you have to say. We will hold meetings until no one is left in the room."

Neighbors have always been reluctant to endorse major expansions at the DBG; some have even tried to persuade the gardens to relocate or move part of its plant collection. Nevertheless, DBG unveiled elaborate architectural drawings in June calling for a 15,500-square-foot glass house that would have allowed visitors to view plants year-round; a pedestrian bridge over York Street, linking the glass house to the existing building; a new entrance in Cheesman Park; a new visitors' center; a family learning center; and a children's garden. DBG said it would need to raise $60 million -- $40 million in bonds that voters would have to approve and $20 million in private donations -- to pay for the expansion.

But Mayor Wellington Webb made it clear during his State of the City address last month that his top priority for November's ballot would be a new, $300 million jail. Still, the DBG tried to convince the city council to back the bond initiative and won the blessing of councilman Ed Thomas, who represents the neighborhoods surrounding the Gardens.

At the same time, a group of current and former DBG employees calling themselves the Friends of Botanic Gardens convinced the organization's fifty-member board of trustees to investigate a broad range of complaints, most of them centering around Burbidge's management style and the high staff turnover rate since he took over two years ago. The trustees have hired an independent investigator to look into the matter ("The Secret Garden," June 14). When a woman at the July 18 town hall meeting asked about the status of the investigation, trustee Tiffany Smink responded, "I have nothing of substance to say now. We will have a report back to the board some time in August."

Even if the Gardens weather this storm, the organization's leaders know they'll eventually need the support of neighbors to pass a bond. To that end, Burbidge explained that the size and scope of the plans were merely conceptual. He also said he is interested in opening satellite sites in Broomfield, Castle Rock and the as-yet-undeveloped Centennial Gardens near Elitch Gardens.

Despite his conciliatory tone, several residents lambasted Burbidge, and the DBG as a whole. In an effort to mend relations, Lisa Tyler, one of six trustees appointed by Mayor Webb to represent the neighborhood, gave an impassioned plea for residents to call her with their concerns. "I want to be more effectual as a mayoral appointee," Tyler told the group. "I feel I haven't been very effectual."

Town hall meetings will be held every month for the rest of the year.

 
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