Park Place

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

Because it was built on expensive land just a stone's throw from Union Station, Commons Park cost $26 million. The city garnered financial support for the park from Great Outdoors Colorado and the developers of the land immediately adjacent to the park (having Commons Park across the street made the residential high-rises now being built there appealing to buyers). It's that sort of inventiveness that will be necessary in order to give Denver a truly remarkable parks system.

"It takes political will to make it happen," says Baird. "The last administration has really been bold. We're looking for a new administration that continues that."

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.

One thing almost everyone who's familiar with the parks system agrees on is that basic maintenance has been deferred for too long. Fifty-year-old irrigation tunnels are crumbling, and the department has been patching together makeshift solutions on an emergency basis.

Denver voters have approved several bond issues over the last fifteen years that included park projects. But that money didn't really deal with the maintenance problem. That's largely because city councilmembers are much more willing to add projects to bond issues such as new playgrounds and picnic areas in their districts than boring things like replacing gutters.

"You don't see a bond issue for invisible things like $50 million for irrigation systems," says Baird. "Maintenance isn't very sexy. These expensive, non-glamorous projects keep getting deferred. We've underfunded the infrastructure, and now we have a $200 million backlog of capital costs."

Josh Brodbeck is the president of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, and he serves on the advisory board for the new plan. He says most residents of Capitol Hill, Denver's densest neighborhood, are pleased with the parks they have, but want them to get more care.

"The parks department is so strapped for maintenance, they only have money for a crisis," he says. Parks are "our crown jewels, and they should be maintained. Why is it that it's easier to fill a pothole than get a sprinkler head fixed?"

The department is exploring the possibility of raising funds for renovation by allowing businesses to buy naming rights to pieces of the parks. While Denver has ruled out selling names -- sparing us from "Xcel Energy City Park" -- the idea of inviting businesses to sponsor playgrounds and trails is being seriously considered.

"We've always said our parks should be a refuge from commercialism," says Scardina. "That's why you don't see signs that say 'This trail is brought to you by REI.' But could you have a sign that said, 'This is supported by Coors'?"

Such ventures, however, could never come close to raising the huge amounts of money needed to deal with the maintenance backlog and parks expansion -- Denver voters would have to approve a tax increase to do that. Polling done as part of the Game Plan showed that 59 percent of them would be willing to pay $50 a year to improve the parks.

The parks plan is expected to go to the Denver planning board this fall, and will most likely be considered by the city council early next year. Traditionally, work on Denver parks has been funded through bond issues that are repaid with property taxes. While the council may make the plan official city policy, questions of funding and potential tax increases will be left to the incoming administration.

"The next mayor could take off with this plan and decide what to concentrate on," says city councilwoman Polly Flobeck, who serves on the Game Plan committee. "We're not going to get all of this accomplished immediately. There will have to be an evaluation every few years as to what is most important."

Several of the people running for mayor say the issue of upkeep can't be postponed much longer.

"The parks have always been the pride of the city of Denver," says former manager of safety Ari Zavaras. "We have something that's a real treasure, but there's a real maintenance problem." Denver will have to look carefully at future expenditures, he adds, especially with the economy still weak and city revenues down. A bond issue for the parks may be necessary in the next few years. "Certainly with the numbers I've heard, a bond issue would be a definite possibility," he notes.

City auditor Don Mares says he would emphasize maintaining current parks over adding new ones. "I would spend time focusing on making our existing parks the best they can be," he says. "In the future, we should be very cautious adding parks until we have a handle on caring for what we have now."

One candidate also calls for a higher level of professionalism in the parks department, pointing to the recent debacle that sent a deputy manager to jail. "I want to hire a manager, not a political associate, to run that department," says Elizabeth Schlosser. "I hear James Mejia is doing a great job, but his predecessor didn't."

The scandals that tarnished the department under former manager B.J. Brooks have not been forgotten, especially by employees.

Last summer, former parks department deputy manager Charles Robertson pleaded guilty to embezzlement for using $5,000 in city money to buy property for two restaurants he owned in southeast Denver. Robertson bought small items for his restaurants -- including fire extinguishers and grease filters -- with city funds, knowing that purchases under $500 didn't require the okay of city auditors. Three veteran department employees admitted they helped Robertson try to cover up the use of city property at his restaurants.

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