THE PLOT THICKENS
On the surface, the battle for the Denver Botanic Gardens is nothing if not polite. The genteel institution on York Street has long been the pet project and preferred playground of Denver's blueblood elite. Even after months of prim political fisticuffs, the prominent Denverites scuffling over its future decline to speak ill of each other.
"In all reality, we're friends," says Barbara Knight, the Denver publicist and Vine Street resident who serves as president of the neighborhood group Friends and Neighbors (FANS), which has spent the last few months bedeviling the Gardens' executive director and board of trustees over expansion plans that include the construction of a giant new parking garage and a "meeting house" named for the family of a trustee. "Our parents know each other, our grandparents know each other," she says of the opposing sides. "I just think we're very civilized people."
Behind the scenes, however, what began as a dust-up over the institution's desire for a liquor license hasn't been fought with kid gloves. Instead, it has blossomed into a full-fledged feud over the Gardens' entire master plan, along the way sparking a turf war in the upper levels of city government and bruising more than a few egos on the Denver social circuit.
Displays of power politics have become commonplace: Shortly after a group of FANS members met with two high-ranking officials in Mayor Wellington Webb's administration, the Gardens was slapped with an unprecedented cease-and-desist order instructing it to pull the plug on its popular summer concert series. The Gardens' attorney, Don Hopkins, of the powerful downtown firm Holme, Roberts & Owen, is appealing that order; a hearing is set for October, and in the meantime, this summer's shows will go forward as planned. Next year's concerts, however, have been put on hold.
Denver Manager of Parks and Recreation Bruce Alexander, who was the Botanic Gardens' interim director before being appointed to his present post, also has been drawn into the fray. As the scion of a longtime Denver banking family, Alexander is socially acquainted with many FANS members. But that hasn't stopped some of them from suggesting that Alexander was guilty of a conflict of interest when, as parks manager, he approved the Gardens' master plan in 1992--shortly after helping draft the document as the facility's director.
Alexander, who still sits as an ex officio member of the Gardens' board of trustees, vigorously denies any conflict, noting that under the city charter, the manager of parks has to review proposed changes at the facility. And he's still smarting over the cease-and-desist order, issued with the approval of city planning and zoning boss Jennifer Moulton after a meeting with FANS earlier this summer. "Cutting out those concerts altogether" would be a terrible mistake, he says.
Ever since FANS hired a lawyer late last year, the prospect of legal action has hung over its dealings with the Gardens. Representatives from FANS and the Gardens held a series of secret negotiations this summer in the offices of their attorneys, both sides agreeing to keep what was said out of earshot of other neighborhood groups such as Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods--which didn't appreciate the snub. "We weren't invited to participate," says CHUN zoning and transportation chairman Mike Henry. "I have no idea what was said between the two."
At one point, the sessions grew so testy that a professional mediator hired by the Gardens to the tune of $5,000 was forced to conduct "shuttle diplomacy," going back and forth between two groups of acquaintances who may have brunched together in the recent past but at the moment were too miffed to speak to each other.
Taking advantage of the considerable financial resources of its members, many of whom live in the posh homes that lie just south of the Gardens in the Morgan Historic District, FANS has hired its own consultants to do parking studies and measure noise levels at the summer concerts. Earlier this summer, a city health inspector summoned by the neighbors perched on the second-floor balcony of a mansion adjoining the Gardens to measure the decibel level of a children's concert being held in the amphitheater below. He'll be back soon--but FANS doesn't want to say when: Its leaders are convinced the Gardens turns down the sound when it knows they're listening.
Floyd Ciruli, a veteran Denver political consultant hired by the Gardens to help smooth over the situation, describes FANS as a "handful of folks" who, though they may have legitimate beefs, have managed to exert influence beyond their numbers thanks to their wealth and political connections. "There are a lot of neighborhoods in the metro area that have problems with growth and expansion and traffic and noise, many of which do not get much of a hearing," says Ciruli. "Given that this is a relatively small group, they've definitely leveraged their power."
Knight rejects the suggestion that she and a small group of influential people--FANS numbers among its ranks powerful political consultant Jim Monaghan, a strategist for governors Romer and Lamm--have been given special treatment. "I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that we're well connected," she says. "I think it's because we're smart and we worked hard." If anyone has behaved arrogantly, she insists, it's been Gardens officials who've refused to respond to anything less than a show of force. Her group only resorted to hiring an attorney, she says, because Gardens officials "kept avoiding us.
"This isn't a power trip at all for FANS," adds Knight, who says her group now boasts 83 households, including several lower- to middle-class members who live in the more modest neighborhoods north of the Gardens. Gary Michael, an artist and FANS member who lives east of the Gardens, says he's heard grumbling on his block about the southsiders who've been calling the shots.
"Some of my neighbors say it's just those spoiled rich people on the other side of the park doing this," says Michael, who had his own feud with the Gardens over the commissioning of an annual poster. "Well, their wealth is irrelevant. If the Botanic Gardens is keeping them up at night and interfering with their lifestyle, it's wrong. They have the same rights as members of the neighborhood as we middle-class people over on this side do."
By taking the time to truly examine the Gardens' expansion plans, Knight adds, FANS sees itself as striking a blow for neighborhood groups across Denver. The cease-and-desist order, she says, "is a wonderful victory for all the citizens."
Claude Maer, a gentlemanly tax attorney who lives on Gaylord Street and is one of the powers behind FANS, still remembers the "nice ladies" who founded the Gardens in the 1950s. One of them was his mother-in-law, Ruth Porter Waring, whose family also played a key role in developing Porter Hospital. "Mrs. Waring"--the respectful appellation is still preferred by both FANS members and the Gardens staff--purchased and then donated the mansion on the corner of York Street and Ninth Avenue to the botanical institution she and her friends created. The 23-acre plot in the middle of one of Denver's most elegant neighborhoods included an abandoned cemetery; the coffins were dug up and packed off to Mount Olivet when Mrs. Waring and her friends decided to plant a garden. And, says her son-in-law, she wouldn't have approved of the Gardens' practice of holding musical concerts and renting out space for weddings and other potentially disruptive functions.
He has friends on the board of trustees, acknowledges Maer. Trustee Edward P. Connors of Cherry Hills Village--"a fine man"--once taught his son at the exclusive Kent Denver School. But those friendships haven't prevented him from taking on the board over what he perceives as crass attempts to commercialize the Gardens.
"I guess my perception is that, in their zeal to do good things for the Gardens, they lost sight of how much that little space could handle," Maer says of the trustees. "It's like they're putting a supercharged engine into a little Volkswagen." The attorney, surrounded by law books in his Logan Street office, pauses for a moment. "But," he adds, "they are nice people."
Despite the fragrant flowers that ring its grounds, the Denver Botanic Gardens is no stranger to political stinks. In the late 1980s the facility weathered a staff revolt that boiled over when 34 staff members signed a letter calling for the head of then-executive director Merle M. Moore, whom they accused of being ineffectual. Shortly afterward, Moore resigned to take a job as the staff horticulturist at the Denver Zoo. Around the same time, an international incident was narrowly averted when a cherry tree planted by the Prince and Princess of Japan during a 1981 visit was summarily chopped down as part of a controversial makeover of the Japanese Gardens. And in April 1991 the City of Denver and the board of trustees negotiated a 25-page legal agreement as part of an attempt to plow under another longstanding dispute over who controls the facility, which sits on land owned by Denver and gets roughly 15 percent of its annual budget from the city but is operated on a day-to-day basis by and funded primarily through the nonprofit board.
That contractual agreement, along with the hiring of veteran botanic gardens administrator Richard H. Daley three months later, brought a brief period of relative calm to the Gardens. But it didn't take long for Daley, an Oklahoma City native who came to Denver via a position as executive director of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Boston, to get caught in a political Venus's flytrap. The new executive director, whose mannerly style is typified by the bow ties he wears, arrived just as the board was readying an ambitious new master plan.
The narrow geographical confines of the Gardens--bounded on the east by busy Josephine Street, it's hemmed in by residential neighborhoods on the other three sides--didn't prevent the board from thinking big. The voluminous Master Plan Report it issued on June 30, 1992, described a veritable botanical bonanza. A children's garden was recommended. A vintage-style meeting house that could be closed off for use by wedding parties was proposed (the board now refers to it as the Gates Meeting House, after the Denver family whose rubber fortune is providing the seed money--and one of whose matriarchs, June Gates, is a Gardens trustee). And the coup de grace: a 700-car parking garage sunk into the narrow traffic island between York and Josephine and connected to the Gardens by an overhead pedestrian bridge. The $50 million vision, to be phased in over twenty years, even detailed such flourishes as a rooftop cafe for the parking garage and, in the butterfly exhibit, an artificial tree decked out in orchids and designed to disguise an exhaust fan.
The plan represented years of work by the board and its paid consultants. And the trustees weren't inclined to compromise their notion of cultivating a national reputation for the Gardens--an ambition perhaps symbolized by the Garden of the American West, a grandiose exhibit atop the parking structure designed complete with skylights intended to "simulate" the Rocky Mountains.
Initially, it appeared that little compromise would be necessary. As called for by the agreement between the board and the city, the Gardens' master plan was reviewed in the fall of 1992 by the manager of parks, Bruce Alexander. Despite his personal involvement with the plan, Alexander says, he made a point of turning it over to his design construction team for review "without making any recommendations to them." The plan also made it through the city's parks advisory board.
The Gardens chose to handle the public review that followed primarily through CHUN, the biggest neighborhood organization in the area. "I'll try not to be too defensive, but in our defense, we went through a large community process," says Daley. Though CHUN never took an official vote endorsing the plan, items such as the parking garage were seen in a mostly positive light, since they would presumably help cut down on visitor parking in the neighborhood on concert nights. "People who lived in the area knew what was going on," says Alexander.
Not everybody in the area, insists architect and FANS member Robert Alan Bowlby. "We didn't even know they took place," he says of the Gardens' public meetings. And when word of the master plan did begin to filter down, says Claude Maer, he and other residents, already irked by concert noise, parking overflow and a plan to rip out the popular community gardens on York Street to make room for a relocated backshop, became increasingly concerned about what they perceived as the Gardens' growing tendency to associate progress with activities that had nothing to do with botany.
FANS held its first organizational meeting in August 1993, primarily because Knight learned that the Gardens was planning to apply for a liquor license. Daley says the liquor-license issue has been "blown out of proportion," in part, he believes, because the document is officially known as a cabaret license, a term that may have conjured up lurid images for neighbors. The Gardens has no immediate plans to apply for a liquor license, he says, though ultimately it would like visitors to be able to "come in and have a glass of wine."
Knight, however, says she was told during a meeting at the Gardens the previous May that the facility intended to have a liquor license by the end of summer. Protest leaders emerged, among them George "Mickey" Cannon, a former Gardens trustee whose family still maintains a plot in the community garden. And as FANS began meeting in earnest, the initial question of the liquor license was left in the dust--and the entire master plan became fair game.
As FANS began putting heat on the Gardens, Daley says he and other officials made it clear they wanted CHUN present at any formal meetings. FANS, however, wanted an exclusive. And feeling "significant pressure" to accommodate them--partly, Daley says, from a sense of loyalty to the family of Mrs. Waring--the Gardens agreed.
From the beginning, FANS appeared much less prone to compromise than CHUN, whose Mike Henry notes that while his organization doesn't want to see neighborhoods harmed, it considers the Botanic Gardens a neighbor as well. When the FANS brain trust got the feeling Daley and other Gardens officials were ignoring them, they didn't hesitate to bring in a lawyer, Dan Himelspach. "As far as FANS is concerned, this is not a neighborhood situation, this is a lawsuit situation," says onetime CHUN president and recently elected city councilman Ed Thomas, an outspoken critic of both the Gardens and his former neighborhood group. "Then I think the rules change a little bit."
The seeds were sown for a highly charged confrontation. At the first meeting between the groups, says Dick Koeppe, the retired Denver school superintendent who now serves as president of the Gardens' board of trustees, "there was a lot of misunderstanding and strong feelings on both sides. We needed someone to say, `Let's not get personal.'" The groups brought in a professional mediator--a good thing, says Koeppe, since without a referee "things might have been said that hurt people."
Four confidential sessions were held beginning in late May. Knight, Cannon, Maer, Bowlby and, at times, Monaghan lined up on behalf of FANS, while Daley and Koeppe represented the Gardens, with Edward Connors and Floyd Ciruli dropping by on occasion. The groups met in the two lawyers' offices; FANS had rejected the Gardens as a venue, says Daley, since it didn't consider the facility a "neutral site."
Even with the Boulder-based mediator present, tempers ran high. Trustee Dick Kirk, a former board president, was "a little more emotionally involved than probably would have been helpful," says Koeppe. It was agreed that Kirk wouldn't take part in further discussions.
The overall tone of the sessions was "very professional," says Maer. But tensions went off the scale at the June 30 session, held the day before the city issued its cease-and-desist order. When Gardens officials got wind that the order was coming--a development they rightly assumed resulted from political lobbying on the part of FANS--they hit the roof.
"I think the initial reaction to the cease-and-desist order was, `Why does this have to come in the middle of negotiations?'" recalls Koeppe. "Certainly there was some anger that went with that." The FANS contingent waited in the meeting room for two hours while Maer performed damage control on the other side of the building.
It was little wonder that the cease-and-desist order came as a surprise to the Gardens. The facility has hosted amplified concerts for fourteen years, slowly ratcheting up the number of annual shows without drawing so much as a peep of protest from city officials. Planning head Jennifer Moulton explains the sudden action by noting that her department "is not in the habit of going out and finding violators." This year, for the first time, she says, the department received complaints from neighbors that obligated it to act--an apparent reference to a meeting Moulton had earlier this summer with Knight, Bowlby and Webb chief of staff Stephanie Foote.
The complaints lodged by FANS also prompted Moulton to take a closer look at the Gardens' overall master plan and the process through which it was approved by the city. Moulton says she has "no opinion" on whether Alexander had a conflict of interest when he approved the plan; Foote, who notes that the parks boss "was not part of the discussion" over Gardens zoning issues, says she "really can't comment" on a possible conflict. Alexander, who confirms being left out of the loop on the cease-and-desist order, insists he had no choice but to make the call on the master plan, which he refers to as "a superb design."
The split in the administration over who should control the Gardens' planning process isn't just a tug-of-war between two city agencies, says Ciruli. It could also lead to a political power struggle between the mayor and Denver City Council. Since the parks manager works for the mayor, Ciruli notes, the administration has an inherent interest in keeping planning for the Gardens under Alexander's control. But if Moulton is successful in reopening the planning process with her agency at the helm, the buck would no longer stop with the parks boss but would be passed to city council, which has the authority to approve comprehensive plans.
However, the Webb administration doesn't appear anxious to rush to Alexander's defense. Foote, for instance, defends the decision to issue the cease-and-desist order. Mayor Webb, she says, "is very supportive of neighborhood concerns. Anytime a facility, whether public or private, is impinging on a neighborhood, he wants to see those kinds of issues resolved."
With the mayoral election less than a year away, Webb may be eager to placate neighborhood groups any way he can. And FANS may have its own political agenda, suggests one longtime Gardens employee. "They're opposing everything we want to do," says the staffer. "Webb has let it be known through the chain of command that anything neighborhoods want, they get. He'll appease anybody."
Political considerations certainly played a role in the dispute's most recent development: the issuance of an unusual "joint statement" by FANS and the Gardens last week. In the statement, the Gardens announced it had agreed to submit to a new "public input process" about the master plan, reopening discussions on the parking garage, the Gates Meeting House and the future of the community gardens, among other issues. That process, which will bring CHUN, elected officials such as Councilman Thomas and other neighborhood groups back into the fold, will get under way August 18 at Good Shepherd School.
The board agreed to back off, says Koeppe, in part because it didn't want a dispute with FANS to reflect badly on the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District tax, which voters will be asked to extend in November. The Gardens, which gets roughly 30 percent of its annual budget from the SCFD, recently contributed $14,000 to Citizens From Arts to Zoo, the group headed by Ciruli that is working to extend the tax. "We're very genuine in saying that FANS may have raised some legitimate issues in terms of restudying this," Koeppe says. "Their bottom line was, `You may have been too ambitious and put too much on this small site,' and they may be right on that."
A new round of talks, however, may become a forum for a whole new round of grenade-launching. Thomas, for example, says he's against any and all amplified concerts, against the parking garage and against the idea of tearing up gardens to make room for the Gates Meeting House, which he refers to as "a wedding chapel."
"I think we're just fine right now, thank you," Thomas says, adding that he would only approve of the Gates facility if "Elvis marries Liz Taylor there."
The new "input process" will also pit Thomas, a longtime friend of FANS' Monaghan, against more old friends at CHUN, a group he now describes as "never having met a concession they didn't like." CHUN, meanwhile, may be hard-pressed to contain its irritation at being left out in the cold this summer. "Frankly, we were wanting to do this several months ago and got blocked by the mediation process," says Henry, who insists that his organization is now devoted to "facilitating a serious neighborhood-wide planning effort." And FANS--whose Knight insists she gave CHUN an opportunity to get involved months ago--will have to relinquish the privileged role it enjoyed this summer as the only neighborhood group allowed to communicate directly with the Gardens.
Knight says her group is actually looking forward to welcoming a wider range of participants, confident the talks will be more "in-depth," thanks to the pressure FANS has applied. After all the work it's put in, her group has no intention of dying on the vine, she adds. "We're not going away," vows Knight. "Period."
Daley and other Gardens officials, however, have made no concessions other than to promise to keep talking. And they're unlikely to give up their parking garage, their meeting house or their beloved garden concerts without a fight. "The public votes with their ticket sales," says Daley of the concert series, which last season attracted 30,000 music fans and potential Gardens members.
Of course, he adds, that doesn't mean things need to be unpleasant. "Truth is discovered by differences among friends," says Daley, reciting a favorite quote. "Because we're friends and acquaintances doesn't mean we can't disagree.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Dear Stoner: Is It Legal to Sell Clones on Craigslist?
Fri., Sep. 4, 7:00pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:30pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 7:30pm
- An Open Letter to Colorado Natives From a Transplant
- How to Avoid Being a Parking Douchebag