This summer has been no picnic for Elitch's.
The relocated amusement park has been criticized for its long lines, crowded walkways and general stinginess displayed in the lack of landscaping, the high prices and the prohibition against bringing food into the facility. Because of the above complaints, or perhaps becaue of the weather, or maybe because of nothing more than too-great expectations, attendance at Elitch's is down 15 percent from initial projections--and as a result, entrance fees have been dropped and picnic bans dumped altogether for this final week.
The problems won't end there, of course. The Total Tower--that Tinkertoy structure that looks like the music on the DIA train sounds (urban design by FAO Schwarz)--periodically shuts down when the wind is high. And on Monday, Elitch's was rocked by an unexpected gust from Mayor Wellington Webb. At a press conference arranged just that morning, Webb announced he was joining forces with City Councilman Dennis Gallagher to save the venerable Elitch Theater and had already sent a letter to the Denver Historic Landmark Commission urging it to give the building historic designation.
The only place hotter than the old Elitch parking lot where Webb made his announcement was probably Elitch's corporate office.
Gallagher and the Elitch's folks haven't been exactly close (close to blows, maybe). Even before the former state senator took over Bill Scheitler's District 1 council seat, Gallagher was briefed by the Denver City Attorney's office on the ramifications of an obscure rule known as Mount Airy, which, in the city's unique interpretation, essentially means a councilmember cannot take a public stand on a pending zoning matter--even if the city has a significant financial interest in the development. And, of course, the city does have such an interest in Elitch's, since its Platte Valley home won $14 million in taxpayer funds through a 1989 bond election (the sales pitch: "Vote for Elitch's--It's Denver"), as well as Denver Urban Renewal Authority money and a $7 million loan from the city itself secured by the 26 acres in northwest Denver that the park left behind.
Also left behind was the theater that Mary Elitch built a century ago. And on Monday Gallagher apparently was exempted from city rules long enough to quote Yeats and Shakespeare in extolling the merits of the property, "which is not just a piece of real estate." In fact, few pieces of ground have been trod by such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Grace Kelly and, in a particularly sorry spectacle, Jeff "Bobby" Conaway of Taxi, who shook his shag in a production of Foxfire. (Also speaking Monday was actor Dan McNally, who made his debut in 1951 at age nine as Our Town's Wally Webb--no relation to the mayor.)
According to Ellen Ittelson, the city planner charged with overseeing the preparation of a "concept plan" for the site, preserving the theater is "common ground" between the neighbors, the city, Elitch's owners and would-be developer Jerry Biehl. Originally, her plan was due in July; now it's expected by the end of September. But the neighbors, Gallagher and, surprisingly, Webb himself, weren't willing to leave the theater's fate in limbo so long, and instead urged that the structure be given landmark designation at the Landmark Commission's next meeting. Before the city's own plan was released. Before, even, Webb had a chance to talk with Elitch's owners, and lawyers, and lobbyists about his stand.
"In order to have a history," Webb said, "we must preserve the history we have."
For recent-history buffs who've followed the saga of Zeckendorf Plaza, Webb's words had an ironic ring. Before the May election, they understood Webb to have gone on record supporting the city's architectural heritage, if not the hyperbolic paraboloid itself. Three days after he won his second term, Webb recommended to Denver City Council that it reject landmark designation for the paraboloid.
Why does Webb deem the Elitch Theater worthy of salvation if the paraboloid was not? Even the mayor acknowledges that's a fair question. But while the theater building has age and tradition on its side, the paraboloid was a "tough call," he says.
After all, there's the debate over how much involvement I.M. Pei really had in the project, which is a handy way for politicians to avoid the more money-grubbing subject of how desperate Denver is to get a downtown convention-center hotel and inject some economic vitality into that part of town--and how willing it is to hand over potfuls of money and demolish old landmarks in order to do so.
Council followed Webb's lead in consigning the paraboloid to history, but DURA's design review group has since exhibited remarkable good sense in rejecting the out-of-town property owner's proposed design for the new Adam's Mark hotel. Webb says he met with hotel developer Fred Kummer for several hours last week, negotiating for a better design "by inches." Since Kummer's last proposal included using public sidewalks for lobby space, the city's got a long way to go before this proposal is anything but a bummer (rhymes with "Kummer").
Although preservationists are gratified by Webb's strong stance in support of the Elitch Theater, they're not entirely bowled over. Even Gallagher laughingly suggests that the mayor is "paying penance" for Zeckendorf. And Seth Rosenman, an architect who resigned from the Landmark Preservation Commission at the end of June, now notes that it's "easy to support designation when it's a mom, apple-pie, feel-good thing."
Rosenman wasn't feeling too good after Webb doomed the paraboloid. "The work that the commission performs is guided by a principled, positive value placed on preservation," he wrote in a resignation letter. "It is a value that exists even when property owners are in opposition. This value is borne of the understanding that preserving is neither peripheral to, nor in conflict with, economic development. It is precisely because of issues like Zeckendorf Plaza that this city has a landmark ordinance. If buildings were not threatened by developers and owners who only affect civic responsibility, there obviously would be no need for this protection under the law."
Elitch's officially has no comment concerning Webb's announcement, but it has protested before--loudly--whenever anyone has suggested that it does not intend to preserve the theater, in one spot or another.
Although preservationists say the theater could not survive a move, in Denver today anything's possible. Coming soon to an abandoned airport near you: a city-subsidized theme park devoted to relocated design dinosaurs. A true Jurassic parking lot.
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