A Hard Line on the High Line

Like a lot of residents of southeast Denver, Judy LaMar has come to embrace the High Line Canal trail as a refuge from the urban madness. Joggers and strollers, horseback riders and bicyclists all flock to the cottonwood-shaded trail, which offers a weathered asphalt path flanked by what LaMar calls a "nice amount of dirt" for those who prefer a soft parade.

"There's no other place like it around here," she says. "It's where we go for a head adjustment."

Last month, though, LaMar and several of her neighbors discovered that their favorite trail is slated for a major adjustment itself. Along a 1.8-mile stretch of the trail from Leetsdale Road to East Iliff Avenue, Denver officials want to replace the six-foot-wide asphalt with a ten-foot-wide concrete pathway. The $400,000 project is considered necessary to safely accommodate increasing numbers of bicyclists and rollerbladers, but critics say it will also change the character of the trail and jeopardize the last public bridle path within the city limits.

"Concrete paves our whole world," says LaMar, who's been helping to organize local opponents who don't want to give an inch--much less four feet of dirt--to the paving crews. "This is a country lane, not a high-speed bicycle freeway."

Funded by state lottery proceeds, the trail-widening is part of a $45 million package of recreational improvements planned along the Platte River and its various tributaries. Although the Denver Water Board owns the canal, the city's Parks and Recreation Department leases several miles of the trail and is responsible for its maintenance. The current project is being spearheaded by the mayor's office--an indication of how high the Platte River Corridor Project ranks on Mayor Wellington Webb's agenda.

Plans for the expanded trail have been kicking around city engineering circles for years, but many locals first learned of the impending concrete at heated neighborhood meetings last month. Since that time, LaMar and others have collected more than 300 signatures on petitions in opposition to the project. However, some nearby residents have also voiced their support for the expansion, contending that the cracked asphalt path is a safety hazard.

"The reason this became a hot topic so quickly is that nobody had a chance to comment on it," says Judy Kriss, president of the Indian Creek Neighborhood Association, an umbrella organization of homeowners' associations in the area. Kriss's group has "taken a position of no position" on the trail while awaiting the recommendation of a committee of "stakeholders" appointed by Denver City Councilwoman Polly Flobeck and Arapahoe County Commissioner Polly Page.

Mayoral assistant Andrew Wallach says the concrete path would be more cost-effective than asphalt and would better serve bikers and skaters; it would also leave a "dirt side trail" of roughly six feet or more for equestrians and other soft-surface users. "The core of people who oppose it just don't want people from other neighborhoods on what they see as their trail," Wallach says. "Our point is that regional trails don't belong to specific neighborhoods."

Wallach acknowledges that losing four feet of dirt would make things a little more crowded for horseback riders, whose numbers have declined over the years. "They want to squeeze the bicyclists and not have rollerbladers so there's enough room for two horses side by side," he says. "Given Denver's demographics, cyclists and rollerbladers outnumber equestrians by hundreds, if not thousands."

Critics, though, take issue with the city's assertions on several key points. They argue that laying down concrete would only further degrade a much-abused waterway while inviting high-speed "commuter" bicycle traffic on the trail, posing a greater safety problem than exists now. And they insist that the canal bank is too narrow in certain stretches for all the uses officials have in mind, leaving horses and pedestrians with hardly any "runout zone" to avoid collisions.

"Ten feet of concrete would narrow down the [bridle] trail to the point where it would not be safe for equestrian use," says Raylene Owen, a naturalist who represents the Colorado Horsemen's Council on the stakeholder committee. "Four feet is barely enough room for a horse, and if he decides to swap ends, you're going to be in trouble."

Owen, who's lived in the area since 1969, remembers when it was possible to ride horseback on city and suburban trails from the Denver Country Club to Cherry Creek Dam. The High Line was heavily used by equestrians, she says, "but we have slowly been pushed out. The asphalt trail was a compromise we reached twenty years ago."

Wallach suggests that the side trail might be expanded through regrading the embankment at its narrowest points, but the soft-side advocates are skeptical of the proposal. They question why the trail has to be concrete at all. Wallach says concrete has become "the standard for metro-area multi-user recreational trails," but a 1989 study by the Denver Water Board and various municipalities prompted the use of a type of crushed rock known as "crusher fine" along several miles of the trail in south suburban communities. The material was adopted because it slows down bikes and helps to preserve the canal in a more "natural" state. Wallach says crusher fine would make the trail even more difficult for touring bikes and rollerbladers than the current teeth-rattling asphalt.

The controversy has also led to dueling surveys of trail users. Wallach touts the city's survey, taken over two days last summer, which favors the concrete expansion by a wide margin. Local resident Bob Heiser, a marketing professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, conducted his own survey on the trail over two and a half weeks, in varying weather conditions; the results indicate a solid majority of users surveyed oppose a wider concrete trail.

"We consider that to be a more representative user range," Heiser says. "Their survey was flawed, and we think the city's been using a rubber ruler in marking out this project all along."

LaMar views the push for more paving as a kind of bureaucratic fiat. "I can't explain why this is happening, except that Mayor Webb wants to go out as the guy who improved all the trails in Denver," she says. But Wallach counters that it's simply a case of one user group's concerns having to give way to the rising demand for the great outdoors in a big city.

"If this was a street that was being expanded into a regional highway, I would say these people have a great point," Wallach says. "But the trail's going to stay pretty much the same. There are going to be more users on the trail. But from a citywide perspective, that's not a problem--it's the goal."

Will the High Line become a one-horse trail? The stakeholder group, which consists of neighborhood representatives as well as advocates for bicycle, rollerblade, equestrian and citywide recreation interests, is expected to make a recommendation concerning the trail next month, after a public meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 1 at Place Middle School.

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