Civic Center Park is breathtaking at night. The moonlight illuminates the white marble of the Beaux Arts buildings, bringing out every curve, every cornice. There is a stillness that makes the park seem like its own insular world, with the sounds and rhythms of city life muffled far off in the distance. The old-fashioned lampposts glow like oversized fireflies, providing puddles of light that are strong enough to read by but not so bright that they create a noon-at-midnight spectacle. Very few people are in the park this late. Only one drunk is passed out in the trees near the Greek Amphitheatre, and the others who stroll by are convivial. Two men in all white run by with a puppy in tow, and although they are moving quickly, they slow down to greet my Rottweiler, Nina, whom I've brought to spend the night with me. Over the past two decades, Civic Center Park has gotten a reputation as drug-dealer central, but all is quiet on this Tuesday night. On a fear scale of one to ten, I'm sliding into negative numbers.
Why, I wonder, would anyone want to mess with this magical place, make it over in his own image -- even if that person is Daniel Libeskind?
The architect behind the Denver Art Museum's new Hamilton Building will unveil his vision for Civic Center Park at a public meeting on Thursday, June 15, at the Colorado Convention Center, thus ending months of speculation over the hundred-year-old park's future -- and no doubt starting another round. Last October, as part of an ongoing assessment of the city, the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation finished a master plan for Civic Center Park -- which encompasses all of the land from Broadway to Bannock Street and 14th Avenue Parkway to Colfax Avenue -- that details a $41 million wish list for resurrecting the area, including everything from removing the tagging from the balustrades to creating a restaurant in the old Carnegie Library. Taking a cue from New York, which revitalized Central Park with the help of a private, non-profit group, the master plan established the Civic Center Conservancy, a group of high-powered-but-hush-hush leaders who not only helped complete the plan, but will be in charge of raising the bulk of the money to subsidize its proposals. (Parks and Rec receives only $6 million to $8 million a year to fund capital improvements in all of its parks, and has a $70 million maintenance backlog.) So far, conservancy leaders have raised $80,000 from its members to have Libeskind outline his vision for realizing the master plan. Or revising it beyond recognition.
The sad reality is that the Civic Center has been messed with from the beginning. This patch of sometimes scorched earth has been a hotbed of political infighting, intrigue and unrest since 1906, when journalist/internationally known city planner Charles Mulford Robinson devised the first incarnation of a Civic Center plan at the behest of then-mayor Robert Speer. The State Capitol had been completed fourteen years before, and Robinson envisioned a grand park that would "emphasize and dignify" the structure with "the preservation of a very grand mountain view." There were few obstacles to his creative vision, as the Capitol, the Denver Mint and the Denver County Courthouse, at 16th Street and Court Place, were the only major buildings then in the area, although a Carnegie Library was in the works. Robinson anchored his grand new square at the northwest corner of Colfax and Broadway. To tie in the Mint, the Capitol and the courthouse, he proposed a series of small parks along Colfax Avenue.
After citizens turned down a bond issue that would have funded Civic Center Park, Speer went back to the drawing board and came up with a cheaper, scaled-down version of Robinson's plan. That failed at the ballot box, too. For his third attempt, Speer brought in sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, who completely overhauled the plan in favor of a plaza that would stretch from the Capitol on an east-west axis -- the foundation of today's Civic Center Park. In 1909, Speer again asked citizens to approve a bond project -- this time limiting the vote to those living in the district around the proposed Civic Center. The measure passed, but the results became the focus of a court battle between the city and stalwart opponents, who argued that more than 25 percent of the area's property owners had voted against the bond, which should have been enough to kill the project. The fight escalated all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled in the city's favor in 1911.
But nothing's truly settled until the wrecking balls and bulldozers arrive -- and maybe not then, either. Speer chose not to run for another term, and new mayor Henry Arnold brought in the Olmsted brothers -- sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for designing New York's Central Park and the White House grounds -- to re-conceive the town-square concept. When construction began, it followed this plan, and by 1914 there were gravel walks outlining the central lawn and the sunken garden; a site for the future Denver City & County Building had been platted, as well. The work stopped in 1916, when Speer was re-elected. He hated the Olmsteds' ideas and hired architect Edward H. Bennett from Chicago.
By the early '20s, most of Bennett's vision had been realized. His legacy still stands today, particularly in the form of the Greek Amphitheatre, which he planned as an anchor to the north-south axis leading into downtown, the central promenade rimmed by sprawling lawns and trees, the two terraces, the balustrades and the lampposts. He also suggested a lagoon, but this high-plains desert was spared that water feature when Speer procured a gift from local banker John Voorhies, who wanted to build a memorial gateway at Colfax Avenue and Acoma Street, where the city's two grids collide. To incorporate the huge structure into the new Civic Center, Colfax was rerouted around it, causing the avenue to swing out like a wing.
The tinkering began anew in 1924, when city landscape architect S.R. DeBoer proposed expanding the east-west promenade from Broadway to Speer Boulevard. But it never made it past Bannock Street, where the City & County Building was finally finished in 1932, establishing the fourth and final visual anchor for the park.
The air is electric in Civic Center Park this morning and has the smell of possibility. With the temperature already in the mid-eighties, the day's going to be a scorcher, but the park holds the cool of the previous evening. Looking south across the esplanade from the Voorhies Memorial, the Denver Art Museum's circa-1971 Gio Ponti building glitters in the sunlight, while the prow of the Hamilton Building, set to open in October, crests above the plaza between the DAM and the Denver Central Library. The proscenium of the Greek Amphitheatre perfectly frames Mark di Suvero's giant red sculpture "Lao Tzu," located across 14th Avenue Parkway in that same plaza. It is one of the most stunning views in the city.
The park is almost empty -- a lone sunbather, a woman reading on a park bench and a few drunks passed out in the grass. I slept it off at home in my own bed. At 11:15 p.m., the cops had rolled through to start hustling people out: Denver's parks all close from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., and the city is serious about enforcing that rule. The officers say the park has been relatively quiet since they started making regular nighttime sweeps. Back in the day, the scene was very different.
The only drug I'm looking for right now is caffeine -- and you can't get a cup of coffee anywhere near here. And even if you could, the park offers very few benches where you could sit and drink it. There's no reason to use the Civic Center, to experience its grandeur.
It wasn't always this way. Before the Civic Center was an official spot, the first Taste of Colorado was held here in 1895, under the moniker "Festival of Mountain & Plain." This was no boot-scooting, turkey-leg-eating event. In an odd homage to New Orleans, the city's leaders decided they would be kings for a day, and paraded through the area with their families playing queens, princes and princesses. Meanwhile, hundreds of people snaked through the streets under a block-long swatch of metallic fabric cut to look like a dragon.
In 1920, the Civic Center played host to the "Burning Issues Forum," where citizens could speak out on anything troubling them. That tradition had been quashed by 1947, when Denver refused to let President Harry S. Truman speak at the Greek Amphitheatre during his campaign swing, saying it violated a law prohibiting political speeches in public parks. Ironically, in May 1947, the city allowed then-congressman Richard Nixon to take the stage and speak about his experiences on the House Un-American Activities Committee. And late that summer, Denver City Council changed the law to allow political talks at the Civic Center.
The Civic Center Conservancy wants to build on that legacy. Even before the unveiling of the Libeskind plan, the group introduced a weekly farmers' market at lunchtime on Wednesdays -- complete with PeopleSpeak, a spot where folks can literally get on their soapbox. (Capitol Hill United Neighbors is co-sponsoring that feature.) And the conservancy will also offer free films in the park on Friday nights and free concerts on Saturday nights as the summer heats up.
The Denver Department of Parks and Recreation's master plan has a few tricks of its own for bringing people back to the Civic Center, including rehabilitating and putting a restaurant inside the original Carnegie Library -- now known as McNichols Civic Center Building and reserved for city offices -- and adding food kiosks at either end of the park on Broadway.
"Different people need to co-exist here," says mayoral communications director Lindy Eichenbaum-Lent. "The master plan is not about pushing people out, it's about bringing more people in. It's also about programming and activating the space and getting more people to recognize what we have here."
I'll be happy with a cup of coffee.
I see drug dealers. One dealer, actually, who's about sixteen and selling low-grade dope to her friends and other passersby. In the six hours I've been in the park, this is the first blatant drug deal that's gone down -- and she brought her buyer within four feet of where I'm standing with a reporter's notebook. Not exactly the brightest crayon in the box.
Otherwise, Civic Center Park is hosting a school group playing soccer on the great lawn, a church group having lunch under the red oaks, mothers picnicking with their kids after visiting the library, a few groups of friends lolling about on the grass (some smoking grass), a couple of girls playing guitar and some homeless men finding respite in the shade. What's so obviously missing are any city workers who could be using the park for coffee breaks, lunch breaks.
"The high concentration of vagrants and the perceived threats to personal safety are the most frequent complaints about the park experience from residents and visitors," reads the city's master plan. "Crime, especially drug dealing, is a persistent problem in the park."
At the moment, the biggest crime seems to be how the park looks at midday. The magical quality that it took on at night has vanished, leaving the brown grass and bare dirt exposed. The sun beats down on the great lawn and glares blindingly off the Greek Amphitheatre. The only real escape is under the grove of trees near Broadway.
Still, the master plan calls for culling the trees to expose more open lawn and adding a new "gravel promenade" along the upper terrace, which sounds like bad news for shade lovers and high-heel-wearers, not to mention those who'll have to clean cigarette butts out of said gravel. On the upside, the plan also calls for removing the porta-potties and replacing them with public restrooms. It also recommends a better crossing at Colfax and 14th avenues, since cars whip around those curves as though the Grand Prix were still taking place there. The Voorhies Memorial and Seal Fountain are also up for restoration, and there's a recommendation that a new, neo-classical pavilion be built near the Greek Amphitheatre, a feature that MacMonnies conceived of nine decades ago.
It's a very ambitious wish list, and one that Libeskind is supposed to have taken into account when creating his dream for the Civic Center. But so far, no one knows what he'll reveal on June 15 -- though rumors of a 330-foot tower refuse to die. "I haven't even seen it yet," says Parks and Rec spokeswoman Tiffani Moehring. "It's going to be a surprise to a lot of people. The fun thing is, that element of surprise will be there."
Libeskind's vision could even surprise the mayor. "He saw some kind of initial conceptual ideas that were very preliminary and gave some initial feedback so that it would be consistent with the master plan," says Eichenbaum-Lent, "but we haven't seen the final proposal."
After the open house at the Colorado Convention Center, the parks department will hold a series of forums, lectures and study sessions through the summer to collect public input on the vision and determine where it works for Denver and where it doesn't. And if none of his ideas work, the city will thank Libeskind for his time and return to the master plan. "The Civic Center Conservancy raised the funds for Daniel to come up with some kind of inspiration-type plan, but if it doesn't fit, we say sorry, that doesn't fit," Moehring says. "The city will have right of refusal."
Besides, it's up to the city to figure out how to pay for whatever is done to Civic Center Park. Although Mayor Hickenlooper pushed through a bond issue to build a new justice center (complete with jail) at the park's edge, any renovations will be funded by the standard city budget, as well as money raised by the Civic Center Conservancy to finance those pieces of the master plan and Libeskind's vision that make the cut.
"Daniel Libeskind is an amazing creative thinker who can bring in some fresh ideas," Eichenbaum-Lent adds. "Perhaps they'll get people to think in ways they weren't thinking before."
For the first time, I am scared in Civic Center Park. One giant-ass cockroach just scuttled across the steps of the Greek Amphitheatre, inches from my toe. Now, that's some scary shit.
My fear is short-lived, however. It has started to rain, and the skies have gone dark except for a small area of sky over the State Capitol. The dome is luminous in the fading sunlight. Slowly, a double rainbow appears, one end touching down just to the south of the dome, the other to the north.
The magic is returning.
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