It could have been a simple matter, this business of replacing a popular but time-battered playground on the west side of Denver's City Park. But the itch to do more, to radically transform what a playground might be and what it could mean, seems to have been racing through the blood of Parks and Rec staffers even before the mayoral election of 2011. And once Michael B. Hancock took office, the idea took off, evolving into something grand and infuriating.
"Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR) is challenging currently accepted definitions of play," declares a request for design proposals, "and is looking to rethink play as a unique, multifaceted experience in an urban, multi-generational space in Denver's historic City Park.... The new space will be unique and will include community context and advocacy."
An international design competition drew 26 entries, all of them laboring to redefine and reimagine play — a mysterious activity, apparently, that the city's Play Area Master Plan grimly describes as "child's work," an endeavor that "is flexible and changeable according to one's mood, the time of day or the season of the year." The children's work area that this bold new thing would replace, a modest clump of deteriorating wooden structures known as the Dustin Redd playground, occupies less than an acre of the park, but the designers were encouraged to think much, much bigger, as befits a regional attraction intended to draw up to a thousand visitors a day.
The winning design, submitted by Chicago-based PORT Architecture+Urbanism and Denver's Indie Architecture, is a $5 million reimagining called City Loop. It features a half-mile ring of brightly colored plastic tubing circumscribing thirteen acres of the park, flanked by a synthetic running/biking track and numerous spur trails; within the loop are clustered play areas offering the obligatory swings and slides, as well as talking tubes, climbing orbs and nets, a rain room, a manned activities kiosk, and a stage with terraced seating for concerts and special events.
A close examination of the garish illustrations accompanying the City Loop proposal suggests that this vibrant new "regional civic space" will offer something for just about everyone. Food trucks for families on the go. A soft track for jogging geezers. Hammocks for summer slackers and an ice rink for Winter Olympics hopefuls. Comfort stations for the uncomfortable. All it lacks is what the initial project description insisted it would have: community context and advocacy.
Although DPR staff have been making public presentations about City Loop since the spring of 2012, many residents who live close to the park have only learned of the project in the past few weeks. That has prompted heated neighborhood meetings, the creation of a website called Stop City Loop — and considerable backpedaling and re-reimagining on the part of park officials.
Two weeks ago, DPR manager Lauri Dannemiller and several staff members fielded questions about City Loop from nearly a hundred neighbors at a meeting at the Ford Warren Library — a much larger turnout than most previous public gatherings about the project. Many of the audience members were visibly agitated and upset; not one, it seems, had braved subzero temperatures in order to compliment Dannemiller and her team on their excellent work.
Dannemiller began by explaining that the project is "only at about 60 percent design phase" and still subject to revision. The city has raised a fifth of the funds needed and is talking to nonprofit foundations about contributions. No big corporate donors have been sought, and "we have not anticipated corporate advertising or naming on the site."
But the park's neighbors have a host of concerns about City Loop, starting with the traffic, noise and parking problems that might result. They're alarmed at the prospect of sacrificing such a huge chunk of green space in an overstressed park that's already lost open areas to the ever-expanding footprints of the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science; some, in fact, suspect that "reimagining play" is simply a pretext for adding yet another gimmick to boost visitor levels at both institutions. They wonder why the city isn't spending money on badly needed park maintenance projects instead of a new feature with yet more maintenance demands. And they don't see why the Dustin Redd playground — named for a five-year-old boy who drowned in the park's Ferril Lake in 1996, and built on a shoestring with the aid of neighborhood volunteers — couldn't be replaced for a hell of a lot less money.
"I worked five days to build Dustin Redd," Phil Hainline, one of the creators of the Stop City Loop website, told Dannemiller. By his estimate, a reputable contractor could repair the playground for around $50,000. "This is a huge facility, with no concept of the amount of money required to maintain it. It's closer to Water World than a kids' playground."