Family Style

Will LoDo ever be more than a playground for big kids?

Ever since abandoned warehouses in lower downtown were transformed into livable lofts and the addition of Coors Field ushered in restaurants and bars, the area has become a fashionable neighborhood. There are the young professionals who like walking home after happy hour and the empty-nesters who've given up their suburban spreads for the simplicity of condo living. But what about all of the people in between -- the ones with children?

Acknowledging this gap, a number of people who have a stake in the area's future are trying to make LoDo family-friendly. One of those is Mark Smith, president of East West Partners, the company responsible for the new Riverfront Park development in the Central Platte Valley. "If downtown Denver is going to be a real downtown, it's got to have a school," says Smith, who has been talking with Denver Public Schools ever since he began drawing up plans for East West's 25-acre community of condos, lofts, shops and eateries.

Smith believes the best place for the school would be in Union Station. One of the depot's wings "is two stories and could be big enough for a small school," he explains. "I think it would be a model for the nation. It's a transit spot for people coming downtown, and it would give Union Station a civic purpose."

He's so passionate about the need for a school that he's pledging $500,000 to the effort. The money would come from the Riverfront Park Community Foundation, which is funded by proceeds from condo sales.

But Smith's vision is a long way from reality, especially since the Regional Transportation District, which bought Union Station from its private owners last July, is only in the early stages of formulating a master plan to redevelop the historic depot and the eighteen acres of land surrounding it. "I'm sure there are 12,000 ideas about what to do with the space," he concedes. "I just want to make sure a school is on the table. People might say I just want this because it will be good for my project -- and it may be -- but a school is not going to make or break the project. A school just seems like the missing element in the downtown scheme.

"Skeptics say there are no kids downtown, but there's a reason for that," Smith adds. "Is there a market now for a school? No. But can you create a market? Yes." A school, especially an elementary school, would keep people who are just starting families from abandoning the city and lure parents who already have young children to the area, Smith believes. It could also serve the people who work -- but don't live -- downtown.

A school geared toward commuters with children is something that the Downtown Denver Partnership would like to see, as well. "Our Central Platte Valley Development Council has had the possibility of a downtown school on its work plan for several years, and we're having new discussions with DPS," says DDP economic development director Cindy Christensen. "Right now we're trying to understand the need for a school in the area.... There's a school in downtown Des Moines for parents who work there, and there's a wait list for it."

To keep up with Denver's population boom, DPS has been building schools at a rapid rate; five are under construction in northeast Denver, and at Lowry and Stapleton, thanks to a $305 million bond issue that voters approved in 1998. A downtown school would require further tax dollars, explains Mike Langley, executive director of facility management for DPS. Although Smith's half-million-dollar contribution would be nice, it wouldn't be enough, he explains, because just outfitting an existing building with computers, phone lines and furniture could cost upwards of $600,000.

And because land in LoDo is scarce and therefore expensive, if a school is ever built, it would most likely be non-traditional, lacking the usual amenities such as a gym, auditorium or playground, Langley says.

In fact, playgrounds are hard to find anywhere downtown.

The St. Charles Neighborhood Group has been trying to build a playground nearby for the past three years. The group's members originally wanted it to be in Commons Park, near the Riverside Park development, but the park was constructed with state lottery money, which can be used only for "passive" recreation areas -- those without playgrounds, baseball diamonds or other developed areas. So last fall, many of the 200 St. Charles members decided on a new site near the Volker Lofts, at 1628 14th Street, and were prepared to raise between $200,000 and $300,000 to help pay for the playground. "We envisioned benches and a climbing rock like the one at REI," says Jana Everett, who points out that her young nieces have nowhere to play when they visit from Colorado Springs.

To proceed, the group's members needed the backing of the city's parks and recreation department, which required them to demonstrate neighborhood support. But when the group held a meeting in November to discuss the plans, numerous loft dwellers voiced concerns. Mary Anne Hoffman, who lives in the Edbrooke Lofts, at 1350 Wynkoop Street, says the grassy area is already a problem spot and will only get worse if it's developed. "There's trash, broken bottles, human excrement and homeless people," she says. "A lot of residents are concerned it will be another Skyline Park."

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