When the Ash Grove Recreation Center "For People Over 50" in southeast Denver closed on September 4, the 1,200 seniors who relied on the facility were told they'd have a new recreation center within a few weeks. They heard the same promise in October. And in November.
But the seniors still lack a central gathering place, thanks to costly construction snafus at Cook Park Recreation Center, the newly remodeled "multi-age" complex at the corner of Monaco Parkway and Florida Avenue.
The city already has paid $200,000 to correct design and construction errors at Cook Park, and Denver officials are currently huddling over severe flaws discovered earlier this month, including one that could pose a danger to people with walkers and wheelchairs and may violate Denver building codes as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The $1.9 million remodeling job created slopes in the floors of the men's and women's restrooms and the men's locker room in order to allow water to escape through drains. But those slopes are "steeper than usual" and could cause problems for people with handicaps, says Frank Nelson, the city's ADA compliance officer and director of the Commission for People With Disabilities.
Center staffers are working with the project's architect, Slater Paull, to engineer a solution, according to Judy Montero, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation. "We are willing to make the changes. We're not fighting those changes," says Montero. "Why did we blow it? I don't know. I don't even know if [project construction manager] Dick Gannon knows." (Gannon referred all calls back to Montero.)
But Nelson says his office wasn't consulted during the design and construction process to see if plans conformed with ADA specifications. The city's building department is ultimately responsible for inspection and compliance, he says, and "sometimes contractors take some liberties [during construction] and the city or the building department picks it up on-site after the fact." W.M. Brown Construction was contracted to do the center's expansion, from 8,980 to 20,011 square feet.
Cook staffers also found a toe-stubbing discrepancy between the floor in the center's arts and crafts room and the threshold leading into it. Nelson decided the problem would be acceptable if the change in floor levels was marked with a colored safety strip.
Design problems aside, the remodeled center, set in the heart of Cook Park, has a cheery, postmodern interior with exposed metal beams and a glass-walled workout room chockablock with exercise equipment. A billiard table and video game face the vast, curved administration desk at the entry; the facility also contains classrooms, meeting rooms, gyms and a large, attractive kitchen.
It's swank, but it won't feel like home, say some of the seniors displaced from their former recreation headquarters at Ash Grove school. By contrast, the one-story building at 1700 South Holly looks like a red-brick relic; construction paper still clings to the classroom walls, the bathroom stalls are tiny and the building has no air conditioning. Several of the silver letters on the front of the building, meant to spell out "Ash Grove Recreation Center: For People Over 50," are long gone.
Ash Grove closed as an elementary school in 1982 and became a senior center a couple of years later, says Mark Stevens, spokesman for Denver Public Schools. A private program for kids with cerebral palsy still operates at the rear of the building. After some renovation work, Ash Grove might one day be resurrected as an elementary school, but there are no immediate plans for the building or the land, says Stevens. "We have good relations with Parks and Recreation and could have worked with them" to keep the senior center open, he says. "We didn't evict them. It was their own decision to step out of the lease."
Some delay was expected between the move-out at Ash Grove and the move-in at Cook, says Theresa Rash, recreation manager for northeast and southeast Denver. The city didn't want people in the building while boxes cluttered the hallways, and some equipment, such as billiard tables, had to be removed for refurbishing. "We wanted everything nice" for the new facility, says Rash. But the changeover was to take only two to four weeks. "We're frustrated with the delay," she admits.
With the exception of the billiards groups, all of the former Ash Grove programs have been temporarily moved to other city rec centers. The women's pool group now meets in the party room at a member's apartment complex. The men's group gets together on Tuesday afternoons at the Rack 'Em billiards club in Aurora.
"It used to be free [at Ash Grove], but here we have to pay," complains one group member as he slides his pool cue from its black zippered bag. Like the dozen other men here at the pool hall, all raised during the Depression and looking hardy in their polo shirts and jeans, he complains about the room's lingering odor of cigarette smoke. In the good old days, the players could drop by Ash Grove any afternoon and scare up some buddies for a quick game of pool.
Some of the older seniors rely on recreation centers for their only exercise, especially as the weather gets colder. They also worry about their now-scattered community: At Ash Grove, the "regulars" would keep an eye on each other and check on friends who didn't show up. During the holidays, the community center helped fill the gap left by the loss of a spouse or children who live far away. "If this was about daycare for kids instead of recreation for seniors, you can imagine how upset people would be," says one participant.
Ash Grove was completely dedicated to senior classes, senior programs and senior drop-in activities. At Cook, over-fifties will share space with under-fifties of all ages. The idea doesn't please many of the Ash Grove regulars. "We already raised our kids," says one. "In my case, eight kids."
"I know they want their own turf, but we spent several months dialoguing with the community about this," says Rash. A survey taken in the neighborhood three years ago showed broad support for a "multi-age" facility at Cook, she adds. "We wanted to be sure we were plugging into their needs. We're offering an enhanced package of resources."
The city now has only three recreation centers reserved for seniors--Platt Park, Highland and Newton--and all three are aging buildings with no room for expansion, says Rash. As the baby boom goes gray, the trend is to offer "mainstream" recreation programs that serve all ages, "including those over age fifty who don't want to be called seniors," she adds. "And that's a lot."
The Cook center still doesn't have a firm opening date--the reception desk say the first of they year--although the staff lets visitors stop in and nose around. By mid-January, with any luck, Cook will host dozens of classes for the fifty-plus crowd, ranging from quilting and watercolor painting to tap dancing, weightlifting, yoga, bridge, cooking, estate planning and literary discussion. Most require a modest fee, but seniors can still drop in the center for casual pool- and card-playing at no charge, says Rash.
Three weeks after Ash Grove's closing in early September, more than a hundred seniors turned out for an official farewell party. Even though they expected to see one another at their new community hangout within just a few weeks, the event was tinged with nostalgia. "People hated to leave there," says Pat Murray, whose two oldest children attended Ash Grove when it was a public school. "For a lot of people, especially people who don't drive, it was a second home.
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.