Park Place

An ambitious plan to expand Denver's parks may take root if the political climate is fertile.

The other great opportunity for adding neighborhood park space is along neglected creek beds. The parts of Cherry Creek that run through southeast Denver navigate an odd landscape of run-down commercial buildings and empty lots; this could be transformed into a greenbelt.

"The Cherry Creek corridor is a tremendous opportunity," says Tina Scardina, deputy manager for parks planning.

Westerly Creek, which runs along the Denver-Aurora line, could also become a protected wetlands area. The section of Westerly Creek that crosses Stapleton is already planned as part of an open-space corridor, but the creek could become a natural resource for other areas, as well. "The creek is now in a pipe that goes under old apartment buildings," says Scardina. To bring it up from underground would require the cooperation of the Denver Department of Public Works and the City of Aurora.

Anthony Camera
Susan Baird (left) and Tina Scardina are planning ahead for better Denver parks.
Anthony Camera
Susan Baird (left) and Tina Scardina are planning ahead for better Denver parks.

The Game Plan also calls for upgrading existing spots by adding gardens, running and bike trails, natural areas and new ballfields. "We have a lot of bland, boring neighborhood parks," says Baird. "We need to jazz them up."

With the drought forcing cutbacks in watering, Denver must also reexamine the idea that every park should have a huge, water-slurping lawn, Baird says. Redesigning neighborhood parks to include more natural areas would save water and also make them more interesting.

"We've lost the shrubs and small trees in a lot of our parks," she notes. "What happens underneath the trees is much more open. Do we need turf underneath all the trees? Probably not. We're seeing this tested at Stapleton and Lowry. We're talking about using a different plant palette."

Denverites are also increasingly demanding new recreational facilities. Some neighborhoods have no rec centers, and many of the existing ones are in need of major renovations and new equipment. Dog owners have been pushing the city to find areas where dogs can run off-leash, and Frisbee players and others who need large fields for impromptu games say they often can't find enough space to play.

The biggest complaints come from softball and soccer players, who say Denver has a chronic shortage of ballfields.

"The suburbs are building a lot more ballfields, and they're better than ours," says Ernie Perez, executive director of Denver Softball, which organizes leagues in the city. Aurora recently built more than a dozen ballfields, he notes, while his group constantly struggles to find space to play, even though it pays hundreds of dollars in fees for every team that uses Denver's facilities.

"They collect the money but don't seem to put anything back," he says.

The Game Plan calls for fifty new baseball and soccer fields by 2025. The city will have ample space to construct new fields in east Denver at Stapleton and Lowry, but finding sites in other parts of the city may prove difficult.

The parks department recently proposed doubling many of the fees charged to use recreational facilities. Children would pay $1 to go swimming in a city pool, tennis lessons would jump to $60, fitness classes would cost $2, and motor-boat permits for non-residents would climb to $400. Most fees haven't been raised in sixteen years, and officials say they have to raise them or cut back on services.

"There will be a proposal before city council to look at those fees," says Scardina. "We have to catch up."

While neighborhood parks are at the heart of the plan, two proposals would create park space that could attract people from throughout the metro area.

One idea is to put Speer Boulevard underground, between the Auraria campus and the Denver Performing Arts Complex. That would link the two sites and create a new venue for community celebrations. "The Auraria campus would be a great festival area if it were connected to downtown," says Baird.

Burying Speer would be expensive and would disrupt traffic during construction, but the city did the same thing successfully at the intersection of Speer and Broadway. That project also added a park atop the underground thoroughfare.

The other big proposal is to create a huge, natural park along the Platte on the city's border with Englewood. Currently, that area is home to a power plant, a brick factory and lots filled with scrap metal and other debris. Baird believes this is the place where Denver has its best opportunity to create a park like no other in the city, Denver's own answer to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Balboa Park in San Diego. A place where city-dwellers can disappear into a riverside grove.

"When you go to other cities, there are 1,200-acre parks where you can get lost," says Baird. "We don't have that. We think the southern reach of the Platte has the potential to be something spectacular. We could flood the river down there and have cottonwood groves. If you start to think about a 600-acre park -- imagine what that could be like."

Creating such a park would require the cooperation of Englewood. The city would also have to acquire large amounts of land, which might involve condemnation if owners refuse to sell.

Of course, none of this will come to pass unless Denver's civic leadership rallies round the plan. Baird points out that Denver spent years talking about remaking the land along the South Platte into a greenway -- DeBoer proposed the idea back in the 1920s -- but it wasn't until recently that the idea really took off. The debut of the downtown Commons and Cuernavaca parks along the river marked a milestone in Denver's effort to reclaim the river, something Webb has cited as one of his proudest achievements.

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