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From an old brick building overlooking the South Platte, Susan Baird is quietly redesigning Denver.
Peering over maps and diagrams of pipelines, she traces the routes of long-forgotten creeks and gulches and imagines a lush trail running through a battered industrial zone. Under her steady gaze, downtown streets disappear underground, giving birth to new festival sites in the shadows of skyscrapers. Run-down avenues sprout rows of maples, new bike trails emerge to make it easier to commute downtown, and wildlife areas transform dilapidated commercial zones.
With her conservative glasses and soft- spoken manner, Baird looks like she might spend her time planning church socials rather than an overhaul of the Mile High City. But for the past two years, Baird, a senior landscape architect with the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, has been coordinating the first comprehensive plan for the city's parks system since 1929. Known as "A City in a Park" -- or as the department calls it, the "Game Plan" -- the blueprint is farsighted, visionary and undoubtedly expensive, although its actual price tag is uncertain. It calls for the most ambitious expansion of Denver's parks system in a generation, as well as substantial renovation of the city's existing parks.
Specifically, the proposal calls for a park within six blocks of the home of every Denver resident, along with a network of new nature trails throughout the city. Downtown, Speer Boulevard would be buried between the Auraria campus and the Denver Performing Arts Complex, creating a new downtown park to host street festivals. Along the Platte, on the city's southern boundary, a ragtag collection of brick factories and power plants would become a huge nature refuge, with hundreds of acres given over to cottonwood groves, native grasses, herds of deer and foxes. New pedestrian paths would crisscross the city, "green streets" would bring parkway-style boulevards to neighborhoods that have never had them, and existing parks would sparkle with gardens and ballfields that would enliven turf that may now be little more than lawns -- these days, brown lawns -- with clumps of trees.
The idea, Baird says, is to create a city where every resident has access to nature and open spaces just outside his door, turning Denver into a high-plains garden of delights.
"It's all about cities and how people define nature in a city," says Baird. "The early parks plans were about what kind of city people wanted Denver to be. They wanted an urban oasis, a little bit of Paris on the plains."
The parks department is aiming to guide development over the next fifty years, although many of the biggest projects would be done over the next decade. For this to happen, Denver's new mayor and Denver City Council would have to embrace the plan and ask voters to approve a multimillion-dollar tax increase to fund it. (Mayor Wellington Webb and ten of the thirteen councilmembers will leave office next spring, unable to run for re-election because of term limits.)
City officials gave the okay to develop the plan three years ago, deciding that the parks department -- with over 1,400 employees and a budget of $56 million to care for 20,000 acres -- needed to outline its project wish list over the long term. Baird has been working with a 23-member advisory board appointed by the parks manager to develop "City in a Park."
"It was clear we didn't have a strategic plan, and should," she says.
The strategy harks back to the heady days of the previous turn of the century, when the city's gifted landscape architects created the topography that now defines Denver. City Park, Cheesman, Washington and Civic Center didn't happen by accident. They were born from the often messy union of grand dreams and backroom deal-making. Denver's present-day parks and parkways system was guided into existence under the skilled leadership of Mayor Robert Speer, a machine politician not averse to stuffing ballot boxes, but who had a passion to turn Denver into a "Paris on the Platte."
"Denver's parks were a product of extraordinarily ambitious plans from the past," says John Huggins, co-chair of the advisory committee for the Game Plan. "Those plans took years to fulfill. We think this plan will guide the department and the next administration in deciding what its priorities are."
While being in favor of parks may seem like supporting motherhood and apple pie, it takes huge amounts of money and political will to create the spectacular public spaces that define cities. Central Park in New York, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Forest Park in St. Louis -- all of these landmarks required massive commitments and were often the centerpieces of nasty political brawls.
While Denver's politicians love to talk green, too many times the parks system has been used as a way to pay off cronies and reward political allies. Recent history has been no exception. Despite Webb's determination to be remembered as the man who added more than 2,000 acres to the system -- by setting aside huge areas for parks at Stapleton and Lowry, and building several new parks along the Platte -- the mayor allowed the department to be caught up in a series of scandals. First, department manager B.J. Brooks, a Webb appointee, was discovered awarding a $4,000 consulting contract to a training company run by her sister; then, her deputy manager used city funds to buy equipment for two restaurants he owned. Brooks was removed as manager last year and replaced by James Mejia, but the department's reputation has suffered. And just last week, a Denver grand jury wrapped up an investigation of the department that was highly critical of its purchasing system.