A Tale of Two Cities

From a royal mess to a people's playground, Denver's parks grounded the Webb years.

 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...

At noon, it's hot as hell in the gardens of Versailles. From the halter-packed Six Flags Elitch Gardens just to the south, a pirate song floats over on a breath of breeze. To the west, Rollerbladers race along the South Platte River, whose desultory flow doesn't come close to drowning out the traffic of I-25, of Speer Boulevard. But here, in the five acres of Centennial Park, in the heart of a city that's home to the most recreation-mad population on the planet, I walk alone amid the gray-and-beige gravel and fleur de lis plantings and stands of curl-leaf mountain mahogany, whose leaves do not curl high enough to provide even the smallest suggestion of shade.

"Mayor Wellington E. Webb and First Lady Wilma Webb were inspired by a tour of the gardens at Versailles to initiate a formal garden in the South Platte River Corridor Project," announces the sign at the back of Centennial Park, right by the iron fence overlooking Invesco Field at Mile High and Landry's Fish-and-Chips Ocean Journey and a Porta Pottie on the other side of the Platte. "In the 1690s, Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a political leader and patron of the arts. In his era, Versailles become the capital of France and the ideal formal garden. A formal garden represents human perfection. Symbols of construction appear to dominate the chaos of nature."

Screams echo from the Sea Dragon.

Yes, nothing says Denver like a $2.7 million French-fried formal garden, its drought-tolerant plants baking in the sun. Nothing captures the imperial edge to Wellington Webb's twelve years as mayor like an homage to the Sun King, plopped right alongside a pillaging pirate of an amusement park.

"Reminiscence of Elitch's Garden further inspired Denver Parks & Recreation to develop Centennial Gardens," the sign continues, explaining that the project was designed to honor a Denver institution that more than a century ago was "an elegantly landscaped park where people gathered to picnic and promenade."

Like so many of the attractions that have sprouted in the Platte Valley over the past decade, Elitch's required some fertilizer from the city before it could take root -- a multimillion-dollar load from both the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and Denver taxpayers, who approved a $14 million bond issue sold with the tag line "Vote for Elitch's -- It's Denver." The first thing Elitch's did after relocating to the Platte Valley in 1995 was ban the picnics that had been so popular at its original home. The second was to sell out a year later to the corporate Premier Parks, then the very non-Denver Six Flags.

Let them eat cake!

"Emulating the formal garden style of Versailles, Centennial adds to the variety of parks along the 10.5 mile South Platte River Corridor," the Centennial sign concludes. "Ideal for urban recreation, the corridor also includes naturalized ecosystems used as wildlife habitat."

And nowhere is the life wilder than a mile farther down the Platte corridor -- past REI, past Confluence Park, past Commons Park, past the old trolley on one side of the river and the new light rail on the other, past a scattering of vintage buildings and a half-dozen half-empty new "loft" projects -- where another park captures the populist touch that's also been so much a part of Wellington Webb's twelve years in office.

At noon, the Denver Skatepark is hot, hot, hot. And we're not talking temperature. The two-acre park is filled with kids on skates, kids on boards, kids on bikes. Kids large and kids small. Kids pierced and kids preteen. Where Centennial was sucked dry of all energy, the skate park sizzles.

Last Friday, the city dedicated Phase II of this park, which added 10,000 square feet of skateable terrain to a $1.8 million project that was completed just two years ago this month but is already legendary across the country -- in part because skaters played a major role in helping design the space. At 60,000 square feet, the Denver Skatepark is now the largest free, outdoor skate park in the country. The $1.1 million addition was funded by proceeds from the public-private cooperative deal that Webb engineered between the city and Winter Park's most ardent suitor -- a deal that was only struck, however, after the people protested the imperial Webb's attempt to sell the resort altogether.

There's a sign at the Denver Skatepark, too. But it doesn't mention Wellington Webb, or Wilma Webb, or any of their travels. Instead it offers eighteen simple rules for using the facility, starting with this: "Warning: Know your abilities and use this facility at your own risk." The park is self-policing -- and self-protecting. In two years of countless kick-flips, crooked grinds and wicked crashes, the city has yet to receive a complaint from a dissatisfied customer -- or a subpoena from an injury-chasing attorney, rule one be damned.

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