The Platte Thickens

From my back yard -- a polite term for "mess of weeds overlooking a highway interchange" -- the history of the city stretches wide. When gold was found at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek almost 150 years ago, that discovery inspired the Rush to the Rockies and this city's start.

People are still chasing after gold in the Platte Valley.

All too often, though, their schemes prove nothing more than fool's gold.

Even so, today the Platte Valley is a far richer place than it was a century ago, a generation ago -- even five years ago. Back in 1995, when development schemes were running faster than the Platte after a gully-washing summer thunderstorm, it looked like the area might become one big parking lot. Instead, the city has added park after park, and just last month, it displayed a real commitment to Denver's younger residents -- and a certain bravado on liability issues -- when it opened the Denver Skatepark. This is a concrete dream of a place, an urban hangout where local kids can shake, rattle and Rollerblade not far from where they once busied themselves rolling bums.

The skate park is just at the edge of my view -- the cutting edge. Beyond it stands Coors Field, another home run for Denver. Fittingly, the sun seems to rise right over the $215 million ballpark (taxpayers picked up three-fourths of the cost -- sound familiar?) that opened in 1995 to raves from baseball fans and absolutely no controversy over its name, even though the naming rights were sold at a bargain-basement price to a beer company that just happens to share a name with a local family. And despite the Colorado Rockies' present in-the-basement status and dim future, their home continues to look golden. (Fallout from President George Bush's visit Tuesday could tarnish things a bit. The carefree vision of the baseball-owner-turned-World-Leader enjoying the game wasn't enough to whitewash the White House's blunder in holding a fundraiser at the Adam's Mark hotel -- the scene of one of Denver's more shortsighted subsidies, given owner Fred Kummer's disregard for historic buildings and his hotel chain's historic disregard for race relations, which currently has the NAACP calling for a boycott of all Adam's Mark hotels.)

Moving right from Coors Field, the view takes in blocks of renovated warehouses -- some fixed up before baseball moved to the edge of LoDo, but many more rehabbed as the demand for downtown housing exploded in the late '90s. In front of them are "lofts" now under construction, massive projects that promise to bring thousands of new residents into the Platte, if only the economy would bounce back. But despite the financial uncertainties, the bulldozers bite into more of the old trainyards every day. (In the early '70s, Burlington Northern looked at its land behind Union Station and saw "New Town," a giant housing development, but voters busted the railroad's dream. Thirty years later, the Burlington Northern plan seems nothing short of prophetic. A decade from now, will another Platte Valley scheme -- to build a platform of housing over I-25, an idea floated in the early '80s -- look just as brilliant?)

Union Station is barely visible behind all the new construction. But big plans are afoot for the old terminal, too. This month, the Regional Transportation District will seal a $50 million deal and buy the station from its assorted railroad/developer owners, turning the building into the focal point it deserves to be -- and was a century ago. Sadly, the Terminal Annex next door will soon be history; the U.S. Postal Service is selling the facility, making way for another mega-development.

But there, just a bit farther along the skyline, is proof that some mega-developments go right: The Pepsi Center not only brought Denver its second Stanley Cup, but it did so in a building constructed without public funding (unless you count a few million for streets and other amenities).

It's at this point that my view of the Platte Valley begins to get murky.

"A miserable yellow melancholy stream" was how Mark Twain described the South Platte. In Roughing It, he wrote about his first encounter with the pathetic little trickle, which fellow travelers had the nerve to say was "up." If that was so, Twain replied, he'd hate to see it when it was down.

It must have looked very down to the folks stuck in Elitch's tower a few weeks ago. That tower, of course, was once known as the Total Tower, but that was before the offices of the company that sponsored the amusement-park landmark were wiped off the Denver map. And by then, Elitch's original owners -- another old local family -- were already gone.

Back in 1989, when the city was promoting a $14 million bond measure to help provide infrastructure in the Platte Valley, it sold voters on the idea of moving Elitch Gardens from its century-old home in northwest Denver to the Platte Valley. "Vote for Elitch's -- It's Denver," the campaign chirped. And that was true -- for about another half-dozen years.

In 1996, the brand-spanking-new amusement park -- made possible by a subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and a loan from the city, in addition to the original bond issue -- was sold to one of the country's largest chains of amusement parks. Today it's Six Flags Elitch Gardens.

And tomorrow, perhaps, Six Flags Elitch Gardens and Water Attractions?

Among the ideas being floated for saving the foundering Ocean Journey is a possible sale to the amusement park across the melancholy stream. Or Ocean Journey could sell off a few extra acres of now-prime Platte Valley land. Or it could be bailed out by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. As it is, the aquarium -- whose attendance revenue is millions below what was projected when Ocean Journey sold itself to a fish-hungry public -- has already announced that it will default on $57 million in bonds and a $6 million loan from the city. Had Ocean Journey's founders paid closer attention to its next-door neighbor's economic plight, it might be more buoyant today: At the same time that Ocean Journey was postponing its groundbreaking to scrounge up more cash, Elitch's original owners were saying that a sale was the only way to make certain the amusement park survived as a top-notch facility.

The Platte Valley is full of fish stories, tales of the one that got away -- and Ocean Journey just may prove to be the biggest non-catch of all. But just down the river, after years of uncertainty, things are going swimmingly for the Children's Museum, which worked out its financial woes without having to renege on debts.

All that glitters is not sold.

But much of it is. Across the highway, at the edge of the horizon, stands the new football stadium, also known as Pass the Buck (Three-Quarters of It From the Taxpayers') Field. From the hillside a mile away, the stadium looks like a space-age, silvery bowl, just the place to stuff $320 million and all the blame and half-baked arguments over everything from sound systems to grammar that you can fit. Like the Platte itself, the controversy doesn't promise to dry up anytime soon. Someday a Stadium Village may surround the structure -- but right now, it's just surrounded by overflow from the recent flap. Are we having (Invesco Group) Funds yet?

Finally, at the far right and almost out of the picture, stands what's left of the real Mile High Stadium, a structure that dates from the days when the Platte Valley was nothing more than a dusty railroad yard cut through by a miserable trickle of a river that, like everything else in this city, sometimes spills out of all proportion.

"I wouldn't leave it out at night," Twain also said of the Platte. "Some dog might come along and lap it all up."


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