From an old brick building overlooking the South Platte, Susan Baird is quietly redesigning Denver.
Peering over maps and diagrams of pipelines, she traces the routes of long-forgotten creeks and gulches and imagines a lush trail running through a battered industrial zone. Under her steady gaze, downtown streets disappear underground, giving birth to new festival sites in the shadows of skyscrapers. Run-down avenues sprout rows of maples, new bike trails emerge to make it easier to commute downtown, and wildlife areas transform dilapidated commercial zones.
With her conservative glasses and soft- spoken manner, Baird looks like she might spend her time planning church socials rather than an overhaul of the Mile High City. But for the past two years, Baird, a senior landscape architect with the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, has been coordinating the first comprehensive plan for the city's parks system since 1929. Known as "A City in a Park" -- or as the department calls it, the "Game Plan" -- the blueprint is farsighted, visionary and undoubtedly expensive, although its actual price tag is uncertain. It calls for the most ambitious expansion of Denver's parks system in a generation, as well as substantial renovation of the city's existing parks.
Specifically, the proposal calls for a park within six blocks of the home of every Denver resident, along with a network of new nature trails throughout the city. Downtown, Speer Boulevard would be buried between the Auraria campus and the Denver Performing Arts Complex, creating a new downtown park to host street festivals. Along the Platte, on the city's southern boundary, a ragtag collection of brick factories and power plants would become a huge nature refuge, with hundreds of acres given over to cottonwood groves, native grasses, herds of deer and foxes. New pedestrian paths would crisscross the city, "green streets" would bring parkway-style boulevards to neighborhoods that have never had them, and existing parks would sparkle with gardens and ballfields that would enliven turf that may now be little more than lawns -- these days, brown lawns -- with clumps of trees.
The idea, Baird says, is to create a city where every resident has access to nature and open spaces just outside his door, turning Denver into a high-plains garden of delights.
"It's all about cities and how people define nature in a city," says Baird. "The early parks plans were about what kind of city people wanted Denver to be. They wanted an urban oasis, a little bit of Paris on the plains."
The parks department is aiming to guide development over the next fifty years, although many of the biggest projects would be done over the next decade. For this to happen, Denver's new mayor and Denver City Council would have to embrace the plan and ask voters to approve a multimillion-dollar tax increase to fund it. (Mayor Wellington Webb and ten of the thirteen councilmembers will leave office next spring, unable to run for re-election because of term limits.)
City officials gave the okay to develop the plan three years ago, deciding that the parks department -- with over 1,400 employees and a budget of $56 million to care for 20,000 acres -- needed to outline its project wish list over the long term. Baird has been working with a 23-member advisory board appointed by the parks manager to develop "City in a Park."
"It was clear we didn't have a strategic plan, and should," she says.
The strategy harks back to the heady days of the previous turn of the century, when the city's gifted landscape architects created the topography that now defines Denver. City Park, Cheesman, Washington and Civic Center didn't happen by accident. They were born from the often messy union of grand dreams and backroom deal-making. Denver's present-day parks and parkways system was guided into existence under the skilled leadership of Mayor Robert Speer, a machine politician not averse to stuffing ballot boxes, but who had a passion to turn Denver into a "Paris on the Platte."
"Denver's parks were a product of extraordinarily ambitious plans from the past," says John Huggins, co-chair of the advisory committee for the Game Plan. "Those plans took years to fulfill. We think this plan will guide the department and the next administration in deciding what its priorities are."
While being in favor of parks may seem like supporting motherhood and apple pie, it takes huge amounts of money and political will to create the spectacular public spaces that define cities. Central Park in New York, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Forest Park in St. Louis -- all of these landmarks required massive commitments and were often the centerpieces of nasty political brawls.
While Denver's politicians love to talk green, too many times the parks system has been used as a way to pay off cronies and reward political allies. Recent history has been no exception. Despite Webb's determination to be remembered as the man who added more than 2,000 acres to the system -- by setting aside huge areas for parks at Stapleton and Lowry, and building several new parks along the Platte -- the mayor allowed the department to be caught up in a series of scandals. First, department manager B.J. Brooks, a Webb appointee, was discovered awarding a $4,000 consulting contract to a training company run by her sister; then, her deputy manager used city funds to buy equipment for two restaurants he owned. Brooks was removed as manager last year and replaced by James Mejia, but the department's reputation has suffered. And just last week, a Denver grand jury wrapped up an investigation of the department that was highly critical of its purchasing system.
Still, the parks system's lofty heritage remains. Denver's forefathers found the courage to create one of the best urban systems in the West, as well as a novel network of city-owned mountain parks. Whether present-day Denverites can muster the same idealism -- and open up their wallets to pay for it-- is still unclear.
"We can look back at previous plans and assume they just happen, but they don't," says Baird. "The will has to come through a mandate from the people of Denver."
In 1889, a young German immigrant stepped off a train at Union Station, and Denver would never be the same.
The city wasn't much to look at: a dusty hodgepodge of buildings hastily erected following the gold rush of 1859, more substantial commercial buildings near the train station, and residential neighborhoods ringing downtown that ranged from the Capitol Hill mansions of mining moguls to the sorry shacks along the Platte built by impoverished Italian immigrants. Just over 100,000 people lived in a city that hadn't existed thirty years before, and Denverites were struggling to understand a climate and topography that were radically different from what they had known back East. With few parks or trees, Denver was an isolated, high-plains upstart trying to establish an identity.
No one could have predicted that Denver's cityscape would spring from the traditions of the Prussian royal court. Certainly not the 28-year-old German, Reinhard Schuetze, who was beginning a new life in a place with weather that was far drier and more unpredictable than anything he had ever known. But Schuetze was bringing a gift to Denver that wouldn't be fully appreciated until years after his death: a formal training in European landscape design.
Schuetze had been born in northern Germany, where his father worked as estate manager for an aristocratic family. The elder Schuetze had studied forestry, and his son followed in his father's path, working as an apprentice for the court gardener at an estate owned by the Grand Duke of Oldenburg. The Duke had commissioned an elaborate renovation of the estate's grounds, and Schuetze learned how to design formal gardens and monuments and to construct irrigation systems. He also studied landscape architecture at the royal horticultural school, before working on gardens in Berlin and other cities.
In 1887, he had to quit working because of an illness that may have been tuberculosis. At the time, it was believed that dry, high-altitude climates like Denver's were the best treatment for the disease, and thousands of people came to Colorado for the "climate cure."
"I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was a factor" in Schuetze's moving to Denver, says Don Etter, who with his wife, Carolyn, wrote Forgotten Dreamer: Reinhard Schuetze, Denver's Landscape Architect. (The couple also served as co-managers of parks under Mayor Federico Peña.)
"He had probably heard about the opportunities in Denver from (developer) Baron Walter von Richthofen," says Etter. "At that point in Denver history we were in the middle of an extraordinary real-estate boom. One might expect that would be a place where a young landscape architect would find his way. I can't imagine he just coughed twice and then threw a dart at the board, but a lot of German tuberculars did come to Denver."
After arriving here, Schuetze undertook a dizzying number of projects that would ultimately reshape the face of his adopted hometown. Because of Schuetze, the raw frontier village at the foot of the Rocky Mountains developed a European-style network of parks and parkways that distinguished it from other cities in the American West.
According to Etter, it was fortunate for Denver that a man educated in Europe wound up here just as the city started assembling its public grounds. "There's no question the Europeans were way ahead of us in terms of education and practice in landscape architecture," he says. "When Schuetze was done with his education, he was an engineer, a horticulturist, an architect and a forester. The formal training was the strongest anywhere in Germany."
His first project was one that would change his life and keep him busy for twenty years: Schuetze was hired to create a home for Denver's deceased on a piece of barren prairie at the eastern edge of town. His design for Fairmount Cemetery won rave reviews from the public and established him as the preeminent landscape architect in Denver.
The layout of Fairmount presaged Schuetze's design of Denver's parks. A looping series of "carriageways" and paths flow through a landscape that shifts from open meadows to forested stands and lakes. Each turn of the road or path opens up a new vista, and it's this sensual unfolding of landscapes that Schuetze tried to create in all of his designs. Well aware of the arid environment he lived in, Schuetze designed the cemetery grounds to retain water, and his knowledge of irrigation was invaluable in creating a lush sanctuary for the bereaved.
Schuetze won a competition to design the State Capitol grounds in 1890. His plan called for wide sandstone walkways with views of the mountains, all framed by formal rows of trees and terraced gardens. The strength of the design was enforced years after his death, when Denver brought in celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. to help design Civic Center Park and he chose to continue Schuetze's landscaped axis across Broadway to the foot of the planned City and County Building.
In 1893, Schuetze went to work for the parks department, and he was soon appointed Denver's first landscape architect. A soft-spoken man with the ability to charm potential critics, Scheutze now began the most productive period of his life. He worked on designs for the parks that are still regarded as the best in the city: City Park, Washington Park and Cheesman Park. Each park displays Schuetze's trademarks: curving roads and paths that guide visitors through a landscape of wide lawns, lakes and grand gardens radiating from the water's edge, all intended to create a soft-focus landscape that would change as a visitor strolled along the path. At the crest of a hill, a meadow would cascade downward, fringed by clumps of trees and ending in riotously colorful gardens. Lakes and fountains would be centerpieces, a cool underpinning to spectacular views of the mountains. Each of the parks highlights a view of the Rockies; at Cheesman, the highest spot in the park is topped by a neoclassical pavilion, while the most prominent bluff at City Park hosts what is now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
"The beauty of a park is in its simplicity, and still in its variety," wrote Schuetze. "Groups of trees and shrubs, bodies of water and stretches of green meadow give the idea of greatness, and well-developed specimen trees the idea of beauty. The groups of trees should be arranged so that you cannot see the whole park or garden at one glance. Just as you have to stroll through a wooded glade to appreciate all its beauties, so it should be with a park."
Twenty-four parks were added during Schuetze's tenure, and he designed many smaller parks in addition to the big three. Highland, Jefferson and Platte parks are all his handiwork, and he is also largely responsible for the design of Argo, Berkeley, McDonough and Observatory parks, as well as the City Park Esplanade next to East High School.
Denver's proposal for a comprehensive system of parks linked by landscaped boulevards was also influenced by Schuetze. That 1894 plan called for a series of lake-based parks at the city's edge (including parks now known as Sloan's Lake, Berkeley and Rocky Mountain Lake) and a network of parkways radiating out from central Denver (including Speer Boulevard, Seventh Avenue, Monaco Parkway and Montview Boulevard). Several other blueprints for Denver's parkway system were created over the years, but they retained many of the key elements of the 1894 plan.
After Schuetze's death, another European soon emerged to take his place as Denver's predominant landscape architect. S.R. DeBoer was a Dutchman who had also studied landscape architecture in Germany. DeBoer had fought off tuberculosis for much of his life, and in 1908 doctors told him he would soon die. Like thousands of others, DeBoer sought out the "climate cure" and headed for the American West. It must have worked, because he lived to be 91 and played a prominent role in shaping the landscape of his adopted city.
Almost immediately after moving to Denver, DeBoer took a job with the parks department, working in the city nursery. He impressed then-Mayor Speer with a plan to convert a dump along Cherry Creek into a park now known as Sunken Gardens. (At one time, that park featured an elaborate fountain, pool and gardens, all designed by DeBoer, but they were later taken out and replaced with a ballfield.) Speer appointed DeBoer to be the city's chief landscape architect in 1910, shortly after Schuetze died.
In many ways, DeBoer was a Renaissance man, with a passion for horticulture, parks and city planning. It was DeBoer who drafted the city's last comprehensive plan for parks in 1929. He experimented with dozens of varieties of trees to see which ones were best adapted to Denver's often extreme climate. (DeBoer popularized crabapple trees here.) After Speer's death, DeBoer went to England to study urban planning and became convinced that Denver was in dire need of orderly expansion that recognized the dawning automobile age. Returning to Denver, DeBoer persuaded Mayor Ben Stapleton to adopt the newfangled concept of zoning to guide development. In 1923, voters approved Denver's first zoning ordinance, and DeBoer became Denver's first city planner.
DeBoer had a remarkable ability to understand urban trends, and he had a prescient knowledge of the impact of cars and traffic on Denver. Even as he argued that the city had to prepare for the automobile by expanding roads and highways, he despaired over the impact of cars on the city he loved. DeBoer even foresaw the rise of a scourge familiar to modern-day Denverites: urban sprawl.
"To make room for the ever-growing needs of this civilization, beautiful spots of natural scenery were destroyed," wrote DeBoer in the 1920s. "Highways were cut on mountain sides, leaving scars such as those a soldier receives in battle. Along the highways, stores of the cheapest construction and ugliest design were built, as well as homes...until what was once a road of great beauty is now often a continuous row of unsightliness."
The influence of Schuetze and DeBoer extended well into the twentieth century, Etter notes: "If you start in 1893 and you go to 1974, when DeBoer died -- he continued to do work for the city right up until the end -- you're talking about 81 years with only two people at the helm. There was a consistency of people with the same roots in terms of training. You see DeBoer's patterns all over town and Schuetze's patterns all over town."
Of course, the extraordinary work of Schuetze and DeBoer wouldn't have been possible without the thoughtful leadership of a strong mayor. Speer, the turn-of-the-century mayor who would become Schuetze's and DeBoer's employer and patron, also came to Denver to cure his tuberculosis. Despite a reputation for shady electioneering that outraged reformers, Speer would come to be regarded as Denver's greatest mayor, in large part because of his determination to build a beautiful city of parks and landscaped boulevards -- the "city beautiful." It was because of Speer's convictions that we have the Civic Center and many of the other public spaces that define Denver. Talented designers like Schuetze and DeBoer depended on Speer and other supporters, who were willing to fight for their exalted plans.
Speer faced down angry taxpayers who said parks weren't worth paying for and a hostile press that portrayed his dreams of civic grandeur as an egotistical boondoggle. The Denver Post's Frederick Bonfils attacked Speer with a front-page editorial in 1912: "You have built miles and miles of boulevards -- with the people's money -- along which there is practically not a single house," wrote Bonfils. "You will be known as the most inefficient and corrupt mayor Denver ever had, as the stuffed prophet."
But Speer was vindicated. Webb has invoked the Speer tradition in his own grand plan to turn the Platte into a park-lined oasis and to create huge new green spaces at Stapleton and Lowry. It will be up to the next mayor to decide whether Denver truly becomes a "City in a Park."
Today, Denver's park planners often feel like they're under attack from Denverites with conflicting ideas of what a park should be.
Residents want new parks in their neighborhoods, but they also want the existing parks to be refurbished. Ballplayers demand new fields, while other neighbors lobby to get rid of soccer fields that attract "undesirable elements." Upscale residents who paid a lot of money to buy a house across the street from a park are horrified when a group of immigrants gathers to roast a pig and drink beer in the sun. Some City Park neighbors want all cars banned from the park, which would bar teens who like to hang out in their muscle cars. And residents of north Denver, west Denver and southeast Denver probably have the biggest gripe: their neighborhoods have far fewer parks than other areas of the city.
Experts predict that Denver will add 132,000 residents in the next twenty years, as people flock to the central city to avoid traffic congestion in the suburbs. Existing neighborhoods will grow more dense, and downtown Denver will be home to 40,000 residents. Many of the areas Denver has targeted for new residential development -- including places like Brighton Boulevard that are now semi-industrial -- have few parks. The people moving into the core city probably will live in condos, lofts and homes with very small yards, and they will demand more open space. In new subdivisions, the developers are usually expected to pay for parks. At Stapleton and Lowry, much of the park area is being funded by the developers, but Denver hasn't made a similar demand in urban parts of the city.
"Denver is becoming more dense, and development is happening in a more vertical fashion," says Baird. "We have to talk about a developer's responsibility to provide open space."
The pressures of population growth and changing demographics have already led to conflict in some of the city's best-known parks. Helen Kuykendall is a landscape architect who works on parks in fast-changing neighborhoods like Curtis Park and Globeville, and she's seen the disputes firsthand.
In Mestizo-Curtis Park, many recent immigrants from Mexico gather to play soccer. The drinking and partying that sometimes accompany the games alarmed some of the neighborhood's newer residents, leading to a proposal to end soccer games in the park. "There's a lot more gentrification in Curtis Park and people moving there and fixing up houses," says Kuykendall. "They want to be urban-chic people, and they're very involved and vocal. That neighborhood has a fair number of Hispanics with a long history there, and black families with a long history there, and new immigrants on top of that."
Kuykendall has been shocked to find that some of Denver's established Hispanics look askance at the recent arrivals from Latin America. "It's really something when you see a longtime Hispanic resident who's assimilated, and they look down on the new immigrants," she says. "There was an older Hispanic woman who said she was against the Hispanics who don't speak English."
In Globeville, many of the established residents are of eastern-European descent. In recent years, the neighborhood has become a popular place for Mexican immigrants, who often hang out in the area's parks. Some urinate outdoors. "That just disgusts the older residents," says Kuykendall. "There's not a lot of sensitivity or understanding on either side."
Kuykendall found herself in the middle of an unusual ethnic dispute when she was designing a playground in the Whittier neighborhood. That area has been home to some of the city's most prominent black people, including Webb and city councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, but in recent years, white families have been moving there.
In her design for the playground, Kuykendall proposed a theme based on the Mother Goose stories. "When I presented it to the neighborhood association, they were outraged I would use Eurocentric cultural figures," she remembers. "It never occurred to me anybody would object to Mother Goose. It was a real eye-opener."
Eventually, she replaced that theme with several animal figures from African folk tales. She says the white families in Whittier have made a point of trying to honor the area's black history, and they supported giving the playground an African theme.
Similar conflicts rooted in ethnic and class differences have emerged in other parks, including Sloan's Lake and City Park.
"In City Park, there's a strong contingent that would like to see every road closed and cars banned from the park," says Baird. "There are a lot of African-American teenagers who hang out there. Should a teenager be able to blare music in his car to impress his girlfriend?"
One of the reasons Denver's parks see so many conflicts is their popularity. Compared with similar cities, Denver ranks about average for the number of acres of parks per resident (excluding the mountain parks). But Denver residents use their parks more often, with 80 percent reporting they'd visited a park or recreation facility in the last year; the national average is 67 percent. Forty-two percent of Denverites said they had visited a city park at least ten times in the past year, while another 36 percent reported one to nine visits per year.
With a growing population and denser neighborhoods, Denver must move now to expand its parks system, Baird says. Many of the conflicts that have cropped up in neighborhood parks are the result of a shortage of places for people to play soccer or softball, and she fears those pressures will grow worse as Denver's population expands. She's especially alarmed that some of the fastest-growing areas -- downtown, the west side and southeast Denver -- also have the fewest parks.
"We're saying, 'Here are these neighborhoods that are park-deficient; let's target those neighborhoods,'" says Baird.
The "City in a Park" plan begins at the front door of every Denver home and expands outward. It calls for planting 50,000 trees, to ensure that each street in the city is leafy and green. The goal is to increase the "tree canopy," which now spreads over about 6 percent of Denver's land area. Baird thinks 18 percent of the city should be covered by trees.
The plan's most ambitious goal may be to create some sort of park space within six blocks of every resident. Surveys conducted by the department indicate that what Denverites most want are small parks, just down the street. This highlights one of the greatest injustices in Denver's parks system: while east Denver, in particular, has a wealth of parks and parkways, other areas of the city have been shortchanged.
The National Parks and Recreation Association recommends that cities have ten acres of parkland for every 1,000 people. Although Denver as a whole meets that standard, several neighborhoods fall well short of that goal. According to the city, the most park-deprived neighborhoods include West Colfax, Villa Park, Westwood, Harvey Park and Harvey Park South in west Denver; Highland, West Highland and Sunnyside in northwest Denver; Park Hill and East Colfax, and parts of southeast Denver including University Hills, Virginia Village, Cory Merrill and Southmoor Park. (Several of these neighborhoods also rank among the fastest-growing in the city, with large numbers of young families; many neighborhoods on the city's east side are now populated largely by "empty nesters," whose children are grown.)
There are several explanations for this inequity. During the Speer era, the city was divided into different parks districts, and residents on the wealthier east side were more willing to vote for bond issues to build parks. Developers of swanky subdivisions were also more likely to set aside land for a park, and most of those developments were in east Denver. Building a parkway on Seventh Avenue was an ideal way to sell expensive homesites. (That tradition continues at Lowry, where the Sixth Avenue parkway is already home to some of the most expensive new houses.) At one time, the west side had its own lavish parkway along Federal Boulevard, one of the most beautiful in the city. But the automobile age doomed the huge elm trees along Federal, which were destroyed in 1955 to make room for additional lanes.
Creating new parks and parkways will be a challenge in already developed urban areas, but Baird believes the department can achieve this goal by being creative.
"I think when you're a built-up, older city, you have to be very inventive," she says. "Northside Park is a good example. That's an old sewage-treatment plant, but now it tells a story." The park, which has garnered national attention, left many of the walls from the old plant standing, creating a strangely beautiful landscape of trees and lawns folded into the half-buried remains of treatment tanks.
Landscaping schoolyards throughout the city would be an ideal way to increase neighborhood park space, says Baird, who estimates that 750 acres of park-land could be added if the city works with public and private schools and colleges to help fund landscaping. The department has already targeted fifty elementary and three middle schools in the Denver Public Schools system that could become neighborhood parks.
The other great opportunity for adding neighborhood park space is along neglected creek beds. The parts of Cherry Creek that run through southeast Denver navigate an odd landscape of run-down commercial buildings and empty lots; this could be transformed into a greenbelt.
"The Cherry Creek corridor is a tremendous opportunity," says Tina Scardina, deputy manager for parks planning.
Westerly Creek, which runs along the Denver-Aurora line, could also become a protected wetlands area. The section of Westerly Creek that crosses Stapleton is already planned as part of an open-space corridor, but the creek could become a natural resource for other areas, as well. "The creek is now in a pipe that goes under old apartment buildings," says Scardina. To bring it up from underground would require the cooperation of the Denver Department of Public Works and the City of Aurora.
The Game Plan also calls for upgrading existing spots by adding gardens, running and bike trails, natural areas and new ballfields. "We have a lot of bland, boring neighborhood parks," says Baird. "We need to jazz them up."
With the drought forcing cutbacks in watering, Denver must also reexamine the idea that every park should have a huge, water-slurping lawn, Baird says. Redesigning neighborhood parks to include more natural areas would save water and also make them more interesting.
"We've lost the shrubs and small trees in a lot of our parks," she notes. "What happens underneath the trees is much more open. Do we need turf underneath all the trees? Probably not. We're seeing this tested at Stapleton and Lowry. We're talking about using a different plant palette."
Denverites are also increasingly demanding new recreational facilities. Some neighborhoods have no rec centers, and many of the existing ones are in need of major renovations and new equipment. Dog owners have been pushing the city to find areas where dogs can run off-leash, and Frisbee players and others who need large fields for impromptu games say they often can't find enough space to play.
The biggest complaints come from softball and soccer players, who say Denver has a chronic shortage of ballfields.
"The suburbs are building a lot more ballfields, and they're better than ours," says Ernie Perez, executive director of Denver Softball, which organizes leagues in the city. Aurora recently built more than a dozen ballfields, he notes, while his group constantly struggles to find space to play, even though it pays hundreds of dollars in fees for every team that uses Denver's facilities.
"They collect the money but don't seem to put anything back," he says.
The Game Plan calls for fifty new baseball and soccer fields by 2025. The city will have ample space to construct new fields in east Denver at Stapleton and Lowry, but finding sites in other parts of the city may prove difficult.
The parks department recently proposed doubling many of the fees charged to use recreational facilities. Children would pay $1 to go swimming in a city pool, tennis lessons would jump to $60, fitness classes would cost $2, and motor-boat permits for non-residents would climb to $400. Most fees haven't been raised in sixteen years, and officials say they have to raise them or cut back on services.
"There will be a proposal before city council to look at those fees," says Scardina. "We have to catch up."
While neighborhood parks are at the heart of the plan, two proposals would create park space that could attract people from throughout the metro area.
One idea is to put Speer Boulevard underground, between the Auraria campus and the Denver Performing Arts Complex. That would link the two sites and create a new venue for community celebrations. "The Auraria campus would be a great festival area if it were connected to downtown," says Baird.
Burying Speer would be expensive and would disrupt traffic during construction, but the city did the same thing successfully at the intersection of Speer and Broadway. That project also added a park atop the underground thoroughfare.
The other big proposal is to create a huge, natural park along the Platte on the city's border with Englewood. Currently, that area is home to a power plant, a brick factory and lots filled with scrap metal and other debris. Baird believes this is the place where Denver has its best opportunity to create a park like no other in the city, Denver's own answer to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Balboa Park in San Diego. A place where city-dwellers can disappear into a riverside grove.
"When you go to other cities, there are 1,200-acre parks where you can get lost," says Baird. "We don't have that. We think the southern reach of the Platte has the potential to be something spectacular. We could flood the river down there and have cottonwood groves. If you start to think about a 600-acre park -- imagine what that could be like."
Creating such a park would require the cooperation of Englewood. The city would also have to acquire large amounts of land, which might involve condemnation if owners refuse to sell.
Of course, none of this will come to pass unless Denver's civic leadership rallies round the plan. Baird points out that Denver spent years talking about remaking the land along the South Platte into a greenway -- DeBoer proposed the idea back in the 1920s -- but it wasn't until recently that the idea really took off. The debut of the downtown Commons and Cuernavaca parks along the river marked a milestone in Denver's effort to reclaim the river, something Webb has cited as one of his proudest achievements.
Because it was built on expensive land just a stone's throw from Union Station, Commons Park cost $26 million. The city garnered financial support for the park from Great Outdoors Colorado and the developers of the land immediately adjacent to the park (having Commons Park across the street made the residential high-rises now being built there appealing to buyers). It's that sort of inventiveness that will be necessary in order to give Denver a truly remarkable parks system.
"It takes political will to make it happen," says Baird. "The last administration has really been bold. We're looking for a new administration that continues that."
One thing almost everyone who's familiar with the parks system agrees on is that basic maintenance has been deferred for too long. Fifty-year-old irrigation tunnels are crumbling, and the department has been patching together makeshift solutions on an emergency basis.
Denver voters have approved several bond issues over the last fifteen years that included park projects. But that money didn't really deal with the maintenance problem. That's largely because city councilmembers are much more willing to add projects to bond issues such as new playgrounds and picnic areas in their districts than boring things like replacing gutters.
"You don't see a bond issue for invisible things like $50 million for irrigation systems," says Baird. "Maintenance isn't very sexy. These expensive, non-glamorous projects keep getting deferred. We've underfunded the infrastructure, and now we have a $200 million backlog of capital costs."
Josh Brodbeck is the president of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, and he serves on the advisory board for the new plan. He says most residents of Capitol Hill, Denver's densest neighborhood, are pleased with the parks they have, but want them to get more care.
"The parks department is so strapped for maintenance, they only have money for a crisis," he says. Parks are "our crown jewels, and they should be maintained. Why is it that it's easier to fill a pothole than get a sprinkler head fixed?"
The department is exploring the possibility of raising funds for renovation by allowing businesses to buy naming rights to pieces of the parks. While Denver has ruled out selling names -- sparing us from "Xcel Energy City Park" -- the idea of inviting businesses to sponsor playgrounds and trails is being seriously considered.
"We've always said our parks should be a refuge from commercialism," says Scardina. "That's why you don't see signs that say 'This trail is brought to you by REI.' But could you have a sign that said, 'This is supported by Coors'?"
Such ventures, however, could never come close to raising the huge amounts of money needed to deal with the maintenance backlog and parks expansion -- Denver voters would have to approve a tax increase to do that. Polling done as part of the Game Plan showed that 59 percent of them would be willing to pay $50 a year to improve the parks.
The parks plan is expected to go to the Denver planning board this fall, and will most likely be considered by the city council early next year. Traditionally, work on Denver parks has been funded through bond issues that are repaid with property taxes. While the council may make the plan official city policy, questions of funding and potential tax increases will be left to the incoming administration.
"The next mayor could take off with this plan and decide what to concentrate on," says city councilwoman Polly Flobeck, who serves on the Game Plan committee. "We're not going to get all of this accomplished immediately. There will have to be an evaluation every few years as to what is most important."
Several of the people running for mayor say the issue of upkeep can't be postponed much longer.
"The parks have always been the pride of the city of Denver," says former manager of safety Ari Zavaras. "We have something that's a real treasure, but there's a real maintenance problem." Denver will have to look carefully at future expenditures, he adds, especially with the economy still weak and city revenues down. A bond issue for the parks may be necessary in the next few years. "Certainly with the numbers I've heard, a bond issue would be a definite possibility," he notes.
City auditor Don Mares says he would emphasize maintaining current parks over adding new ones. "I would spend time focusing on making our existing parks the best they can be," he says. "In the future, we should be very cautious adding parks until we have a handle on caring for what we have now."
One candidate also calls for a higher level of professionalism in the parks department, pointing to the recent debacle that sent a deputy manager to jail. "I want to hire a manager, not a political associate, to run that department," says Elizabeth Schlosser. "I hear James Mejia is doing a great job, but his predecessor didn't."
The scandals that tarnished the department under former manager B.J. Brooks have not been forgotten, especially by employees.
Last summer, former parks department deputy manager Charles Robertson pleaded guilty to embezzlement for using $5,000 in city money to buy property for two restaurants he owned in southeast Denver. Robertson bought small items for his restaurants -- including fire extinguishers and grease filters -- with city funds, knowing that purchases under $500 didn't require the okay of city auditors. Three veteran department employees admitted they helped Robertson try to cover up the use of city property at his restaurants.
Robertson, who'd been earning $90,000 per year, was sentenced to a month in jail and two years' probation for embezzlement, and ordered to reimburse the city for the equipment he stole. The three employees who assisted him in defrauding the city lost their jobs.
Instead of firing Brooks, in May 2001 Webb transferred her to a planning position with the Community Development and Planning Agency. That same month, he appointed Mejia, a former economic-development official, to replace her.
In a sharp rebuke delivered last week by a grand jury appointed to investigate the department more than a year ago, jurors found evidence of "multiple instances of abuse" of the purchasing rules for items costing less than $500 -- which is how Robertson stole from the department.
The grand jury said it believes abuse of small-ticket purchases is still going on in the parks department. In response, Mejia said he has cut the number of employees authorized to make such purchases in half, to about 75 people. He also said a management staffer has to approve each requested purchase, and the city would "provide ample documentation and accountability for every purchase."
Still, the tarnish remains for Webb, who appointed Robertson to the deputy manager's post on the basis of a recommendation from a friend.
The use of the parks department for personal gain or as a way to repay political allies has been a problem throughout Denver's history. Mayor Speer directed contracts for work on Denver parks to political supporters. George Cranmer, the father of Red Rocks Amphitheatre who ran the parks system in the 1930s and '40s, was widely criticized when he built Mountain View Park across the street from his home in Hilltop.
Scardina says the department was hurt by Robertson, but it's making a fast recovery: "We took zings over that, but that was temporary. We have good leadership and management now. People have seen a change in the last year."
The challenge, according to supporters of the Game Plan, is for Denver is to turn a good parks system into an extraordinary one. Because of the legacy left by visionaries such as Schuetze and DeBoer, Denver has the opportunity to become a true urban Garden of Eden at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
Huggins says the first thing the advisory committee did was spend several weeks reviewing the history of comprehensive plans for Denver parks. They were amazed by the foresight of the people who created the parks system.
"They gave us our civic identity with parks and parkways and tree lawns," he says. "We felt a strong need to get back to that history of great, ambitious plans."
Get the Weekly Newsletter