Homeless for the Holidays

As homeless go, the folks living along the banks of the South Platte River just west of downtown were never going to be poster children inspiring donations of holiday turkeys. They were hardly the stuff of weepy newspaper columns or wrenching TV news footage, far from the sad families trotted out by the shelters for touchy-feely Christmas coverage. In fact, many of them had turned their backs on the rules and regulations of those shelters in favor of roughing it along the river. They barely deserved the politically correct label of "homeless" at all. In a less sensitive era, they'd be considered hoboes.

But that's no reason to give them the bum's rush.
On Monday night Denver City Council approved the Webb administration's proposal--an eight-point plan that makes the invasion of Normandy look simple--to evict the people living along the Platte, making the riverbanks safe for bicyclists and runners and whoever feels like taking a stroll in the dead of winter. Making the area safe for developers.

The ordinance accepted by council didn't put things quite so crassly. It simply applied the rules and regulations now in place at city parks to the 10.5-mile river corridor. Camping and open fires are now outlawed there. So are tents and shacks.

Skyscrapers, however, should be just fine.
With the unsightly transients on their way out, the city can now turn its full attention to zoning changes necessary to realize plans unveiled last month by the Trillium Corporation--the Central Platte Valley's biggest landowner--for "the Commons." But there is nothing common about this proposed $1 billion development. Among other things, it calls for a half-dozen twenty-story buildings to someday rise above the Platte.

What's wrong with this picture?
The city did its best to paint the Platte cleanup as prettily as possible. In a confidential September 3 memo, Neil Sperandeo, director of long-range planning for the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, argued against moving too quickly in taking out the garbage. The city's initial goal of November 1 didn't allow enough time to "get a good plan together," he warned. More important, the bah-humbug pre-holiday schedule carried the "potential for serious negative publicity and possible lawsuit...There is a general feeling that this schedule goes against the spirit of the intent of generating a humane, respectful schedule."

Instead, Sperandeo pushed for the humane, respectful January 31 date adopted Monday night. This time frame would neatly "avoid posting before Christmas." (And, with any luck, push it right into the background during the flood of Super Bowl coverage.) The January schedule would also give the city the "ability to be proactive with media and public: it is important to tell the story of all the homeless services available, to let the public understand the reasoning."

As Sperandeo summed up that reasoning before council: "Once people are living in open space, it's no longer open space."

Sperandeo's memo putting the Scrooge to transients was addressed to Ken Salazar. He's the private lawyer who's collected over $200,000 working on Webb's South Platte River Initiative over the past two years. Although Denver's initial deal with Salazar called for simply getting the Platte project started, the jobs continue to flow out of the city attorney's office and into the law firm of Parcel, Mauro, Hultin and Spaanstra, which Salazar joined after three and a half years as Governor Roy Romer's director of natural resources. Now he earns $185 an hour helping the city "enhance the values" of the Platte. It was Salazar who drafted the ordinance to tidy up the riverbanks, enhancing the homeless right out of there.

In September, City Auditor Don Mares wrote a letter to City Attorney Dan Muse, questioning yet another extension of Salazar's contract that would bump his total from $175,000 to $215,000. "Just as it takes a special effort to christen and launch an ocean liner," Mares wrote, "so it was that I thought PMH&S was hired to help push the ship into the water. Now it appears PMH&S is going to be a passenger on board for the entire cruise."

But taxpayers are the ones being taken for the ride.
Muse's response to Mares was short--but then, as a city employee, he doesn't bill by the hour. "The Parcel, Mauro firm brings a particular expertise, not only in natural resources but also in governmental networking," he wrote. "Could our staff attorneys provide these services? Probably. But at what price--in terms of time and resources and at the expense of other important city business." (Important business, for example, like the lawsuit the city just lost against the architects of the terminal at Denver International Airport, which racked up another million in outside legal fees.)

Salazar is still on the job, and there's still plenty of enhancement to be done along the Platte.

Just up the river from the proposed Commons is the new Elitch Gardens Amusement Park, although there's nothing particularly amusing about that place, either. In 1989 a $14 million infrastructure package deal for the Platte Valley was sold to voters largely as a way to move the century-old amusement park from its home in northwest Denver to downtown; buttons for the bond measure urged Denverites to "Vote for Elitch's--it's Denver."

Today, of course, it's actually Oklahoma City. This fall Elitch's was sold to Premier Parks, an Oklahoma-based company (with corporate offices in New York City) that's now the fourth-largest regional amusement-park operator in the country. That's not precisely what Denver voted for back in 1989. But Splashwater Kingdom Fun Park--one of Premier's other possessions--is too long a name for a campaign slogan.

The Mayor's Office of Economic Development loaned Elitch's another $7 million to pave the way for the move to the Platte. Premier has told the city it plans to pay that off--which is convenient, since MOED plans to loan the same amount to Colorado Ocean Journey, the aquarium planned for a site just further up the Platte. That loan is contingent on Denver City Council approving the deal, but there's no reason to think councilmembers will suddenly come to their senses. When it comes to buying into a developer's dreams, this town is River City.

Financing for Colorado Ocean Journey finally fell into place last month--although "fell" is an understatement for the pushing, tugging and cajoling by corporate bigwigs inexplicably supporting the pricey project--and the long-postponed groundbreaking is now rescheduled for this month. When the $93 million facility is completed two or so years from now, it will feature river wildlife--a more fitting focus for a mile-high aquarium located a thousand miles away from any ocean than, say, a killer-whale or dolphin show.

Too bad that by then, all the native wildlife will be long gone from the Platte River.

As homeless go, those folks are gone.


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