The April 6 announcement that city planners had settled on Denver's City Park Golf Course as the logical place to build a thirty-acre "detention area" for stormwater runoff — a move that will involve closing the course for more than a year and bulldozing hundreds of trees — wasn't exactly a surprise.
At public presentations, backers of the Platte to Park Hill Stormwater Systems had clearly been pushing that alternative as cheaper and less politically hazardous than shoehorning that component of the project into a residential area and having to buy up peoples' houses.
Still, that bit of news, as well as the revelation that the entire stormwater diversion project is now estimated to cost between $250 million and $300 million, about $100 million more than previously disclosed, have set off some animated conversations among a far-flung array of neighborhood interests that have been critical of the project. Several of those groups are now comparing notes, consulting lawyers, filing open-records requests and gearing up for what may be the most significant challenge to Mayor Michael Hancock's giddy-up, breakneck pro-growth policies since he took office nearly five years ago.
As reported in last month's feature "Is Denver's Stormwater Fix an Engineer's Dream — or a Neighborhood Nightmare?," the project has been described by the city's Department of Public Works as a necessary move to solve long-festering drainage problems in the northeast part of the city — water that flows north and west from Fairmount Cemetery through the Montclair, Park Hill, Cole and Whittier neighborhoods to Elyria, Swansea, Globeville and ultimately the South Platte River. Officials have stressed that some of the city's poorest neighborhoods will benefit from the improvements, which include a fifteen-block open channel along East 39th Avenue, an expanded outfall area at Globeville Landing Park, and the sizable detention "pond," which won't fill up except in the worst storms.
But residents in the affected areas have raised lots of pesky questions about the plan. Several have wondered whether the long-term benefits of the project, which would be chiefly apparent during a hundred-year storm, outweigh the sizable impacts it will have on the neighborhoods it claims to serve — particularly since the primary beneficiary of the improvements appears to be not the neighborhoods south of the open channel, but the controversial I-70 expansion through east Denver planned by the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is helping to fund the drainage work. Not so coincidentally, the project also offers flood relief for industrial areas flanking the highway and targeted for future development, as well as for one of Mayor Hancock’s legacy projects: a billion-dollar makeover of the National Western Complex.
If the proposed detention pond is built on the City Park Golf Course, planners say, neighborhoods downstream will benefit — but the primary flood protection will be in the industrial area along I-70, north of the open channel on 39th Avenue.
Funding the project, as well as future stormwater upgrades needed in Park Hill and Montclair, will involve a stiff increase in wastewater fees — but a fee hike requires only a nod from city council rather than a vote of the citizenry. That's left opponents lamenting the lack of public debate over such a significant expense, the appropriation of park land for other uses, the advancement of development schemes around I-70, and Hancock's much-touted "corridor of opportunity" at the expense of struggling neighborhoods — and hinting that they just might sue.
Recently, City Attorney Scott Martinez has heard from at least two lawyers — one representing Cole residents and another inquiring about the plans for the golf course on behalf of former state attorney general JD MacFarlane. The attorneys asked some pointed questions about whether city wastewater funds could be legitimately used for other purposes (say, expanding a highway) and whether the golf course could be appropriated for "a use inconsistent with the purpose of its dedication." In response, Martinez noted, among other points, that Denver and many other cities have used all sorts of park areas for stormwater detention, including City Park's Ferril Lake.
"As currently proposed, the Two Basin Drainage Project will add park land to the City," Martinez replied. "Within the City Park Golf Course, we anticipate that the vast majority of storm events will have no impact on the playability of the golf course. Even a 100-year storm event is anticipated to drain in less than a day."
The city has, of course, prevailed in court before when it chose to turn a formerly designated "natural area" into something unnatural; the Hentzell Park saga doesn't necessarily bode well for other legal challenges to Hancock's open-for-business approach to open space.
But quite apart from the legal issues, questions persist about whether the project's real goal is to protect neighborhoods from flooding — and if so, if it really is needed to achieve that goal. At public meetings and in media interviews, backers of the project have insisted that they need to acquire an additional 100 or 140 acre-feet of detention in order to provide hundred-year-event flood protection. But in an April 4 letter to city council, Congress Park resident John Van Sciver, a civil engineer with thirty years' experience in dealing with dams, reservoirs and floodwater detention structures, points out that the primary study behind the stormwater project uses extremely conservative figures for the runoff that's already being held in various areas of City Park. In fact, the study specifically chose not to include in its calculations certain areas of "inadvertent detention," notably the ball fields.
By Van Sciver's reckoning, the existing detention in the park is as much as three times the figure the city's engineers are using. While that wouldn't eliminate entirely the need for more, it could greatly reduce the scope of what's now being proposed on the golf course.
Another civil engineer has reviewed FEMA data dealing with hundred-year-flood scenarios in the Denver area and concluded that the neighborhoods the project is supposed to protect really aren't facing any significant threat — at least not from the federal government's point of view. (Other neighborhoods farther south have more substantial issues.) "By all this data, it does not seem the Platte to Park Hill is a true flood mitigation project," the engineer declares.
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What is clear is that the hundred-year level of protection is needed for the below-grade I-70 expansion, despite protestations from the planners that the two projects are entirely separate. In one memo, I-70 East project director Tony DeVito referred to the city's stormwater project as "key elements of the drainage system needed for I-70 East." Another planning document, prepared by the multi-agency team assembled to consider how to best handle the drainage issues in the Montclair Basin, kicks around the idea of building an open channel through the Coliseum parking lot, which would be dubbed "Montclair Creek."
"I-70 needs to have assurance that the open channel will be built," one participant reported.
Will any of this make a difference when the stormwater project heads into its next phase this month — the point at which the planners go to city council to seek a hike in wastewater fees? Stay tuned, and stay dry.