Land-use control in parks is important because city administration after city administration has eroded our fixed supply of places where you won’t be run over. Even though our essential problem is water, our parks are a demonstration of what makes Denver unique: They do not belong here.
We live in a semi-arid desert in the leeward of mountains that remove Pacific moisture from the air. Before there was Denver, this area was a short-grass prairie which was mostly brown until spring. Through the spring we were green. As soon as summer heat arrived, we went back to brown.
The only trees that grew here were along the banks of the usually dry creek beds. They were mostly cottonwoods.
The great mountains west of town meant we were not a stop on the way to California. When the railroad decided to go through Cheyenne, we teetered at the brink of being a little town out in the middle of nowhere forever. When the South Platte River shrank to a dribble, as was its habit now and then, water became a problem.
The people of Denver could have accepted their fate as a little town out in the middle of nowhere with little water and no traffic. Instead, they built a railroad to Cheyenne and drilled a tunnel to steal water from the Pacific Ocean.
They did not accept the fact that there weren’t any trees. They brought a forest of trees from elsewhere.
They planted these alien trees on every street in the city and grew lush lawns on dry land with water gathered from any source available.
They used the water tunnel to break through train travel to California. They carved highways through the Continental Divide.
In essence, the people of Denver created a town and city just like the ones they left in the American Midwest. Denver became Oz in a vast, dry desert through the efforts of its people, the Emerald City in a sea of brown grass.
Nothing marks the effort and results better than our parks. As our population grows, our needs for water will increase. Eventually, the cost of water will reduce our landscape to its native state with xeriscaping replacing trees and lawns. During our hot summers, our parks can still be green and lush for all to share in the middle of a concrete oven of a city.
And we can become the Mecca of the western plains, where people come to walk in the parks and smell our flowers and sit in the blessed shade of our alien trees.
As it stands right now, there is no way to protect our parks from the fanciful dreams of mayors who did not grow up in a semi-arid desert. History, which I have lived, suggests that our parks are eroding. As an example, City Park was 318 acres of publicly accessible land until I was about 35 or forty. You could walk right into the museum for free on a hot summer day and cool off in front of the polar bear diorama. You could walk right through the zoo for free and watch the monkeys on Monkey Island cavorting through the trees.
Now the publicly accessible green space in City Park hovers around 200 acres. There are no guarantees that the zoo and museum won’t continue to expand and replace green space with parking lots, fences and ugly buildings. Indeed, the operating agreement between the city and the zoo requires the city to provide any land the zoo needs for fifty years.
There is no guarantee that a future mayor will decide to move a new art museum or car museum or stadium into the park without allowing the public to know it is going to happen, nor have any opportunity to make a public comment about it. If I had not been aware of some regulations written in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, this administration would have installed a regional playground serving as many as 1,500 visitors at a time without any discussion of parking requirements. Parks still have no requirement to consider parking needs in connection with new projects.
If my wife had not been sitting in a mayor-council meeting in late 1982, the city would have built a fire station in the park, which would have added six long blocks to fire service for the main demand for its services and increased the fire protection for 200 acres of lawns and trees. The first the public would have known was when the arborists showed up to cut down the trees.
If one of the mayors had his way, the city’s aquarium would have gone toes up in the middle of City Park. The same administration allowed the construction of the warehouse that now surrounds the stately old Museum of Natural History without public notification or comment. The park manager still has a legal path to keep the public out of the decisions.
This same administration tried to move park headquarters into the pavilion, which would have required the park to tear out the Burns or Sopris gardens to park the visitors to the building. Sad to say, the same administration was the best administration parks have had since.
There was a proposal for a big music fest which would have fenced off so much of the park, visitors would be unable to walk around Ferril Lake for half the summer. Another proposal would have occupied the big meadow west of the museum with a movie screen and fencing for most of the summer. There is no existing legal control defining such proposals
While the public was able to block many of these ideas, each proposal required public outcry and confrontations with no rules and even lawsuits, some of which failed simply because the mayor wanted to do something.
The city charter assigns responsibility for land use in the city to Denver City Council. Since council has the power to pass ordinances, it produced the zoning ordinance, which describes various allowable land uses and contains a map that identifies the land upon which these uses are applied.
The charter assigns the manager of Parks and Recreation the job of maintaining the parks pretty much the way it assigns the duties of control to a home owner. The manager may manage the uses. The charter does not say that the manager can determine which uses are appropriate.
Since our parks are in the city, control of land use in our parks was assigned to city council by the city charter. Since the city’s founders believed land-use decisions are mostly local, citizens under the charter would have representation from council, which was viewed as the voice of the people by the charter.
Sadly, council voted in 2009 for a new zoning ordinance that ceded council’s control of land use in parks to the manager of Parks and Recreation. The charter was not altered to accomplish this. So whatever was in the charter before 2009 that assigned land-use decisions to the manager would still apply to a return of the control to council.
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The only ordinance that cedes this power is the zoning law. The only way to return control to council is to elect a council that sees parks as a local issue to be protected from control by a single branch of government without public participation to cancel local opinion with the mayor’s constituency of every uninterested citizen in the city.
Our parks are eroding at a faster pace since the 2010 zoning ordinance. The exploitation of our parks has denied their passive use as an escape from the pace of urban life. In fact, this exploitation has brought the hubbub right into the parks.
The only way to restore regular passive use to our parks is to replace the present city council with candidates who respect the desires of all Denverites.
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