After five-year-old Dustin Redd drowned in City Park's Ferrel Lake last June while attending a city-run day camp, Mayor Wellington Webb and parks manager B.J. Brooks rushed to name a new playground at the park in the boy's memory. However well meant, that gesture hasn't stopped Redd's family from filing a $600,000 lawsuit against the city. And it also has provided an inadvertent spark to a long-smoldering controversy in Denver politics: how to name parks, which often inspire strong emotions in the people who use them.
Two members of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board are now raising questions about why Webb and Brooks violated the city's own naming policy in the Redd case--and about the wisdom of naming parks or playgrounds after people whose sole claim to fame is having died a tragic death.
"We were left out of the loop on this one and I think that if it had come before us we wouldn't have approved it," says Royce Forsyth, who was president of the parks board at the time of the dedication. "It was a tragedy how the boy died, but [the dedication of the playground] still should have been approved by the board first."
Under normal circumstances, the naming of a park, or an amenity within a park, requires the approval of the parks board, a group of nineteen appointed volunteers. It's then passed on to the city council for a final vote. In the Redd case, Brooks and Webb made what Brooks describes as an "administrative decision" and went ahead with the dedication without consulting the board.
Current parks board president Donna Hultin says Webb and Brooks's move didn't bother her. "Aside from the Redd situation, every naming issue has come before us first," Hultin says. "But in this case the mayor wanted to announce the dedication in his State of the City address and it was a done deal by the time the board had its next monthly meeting. In this case, I felt that B.J.'s and Mayor Webb's decision was appropriate."
Brooks also defends her decision, saying that time was of the essence. "Under normal circumstances I communicate directly with the board on all naming issues," she says. "But in this case it was a timing issue. Not consulting the board wasn't done blatantly."
However, board member Bill Bessesen says he's frustrated by the way Brooks and Webb skirted the board. "The naming process is supposed to be complicated," he says, "and the fact that it can be so easily overridden must be disappointing to individuals who get deeply involved in it. As a result, the naming process has become one of the biggest issues we have to address as a board."
The board normally gives names only to lakes, buildings within parks and the parks themselves. Features such as playgrounds, ballfields and fountains aren't eligible for names, "unless a significant financial contribution is being made," according to the city's written policy. The Redd playground, whose $350,000 cost was bankrolled by the Denver Broncos and a local auto dealership, was one such exception, says Brooks.
Still, the controversy over the Redd playground recently prompted the parks board to set up a subcommittee to re-evaluate the naming process. The board's present policy is that a park can be named after an individual only if that person has been dead for at least seven years and the surrounding community endorses the dedication by signed petition. After those requirements have been met, it's up to the board to determine whether the individual's contribution to the community has been significant enough to warrant the dedication. If so, the board will make an official recommendation to the city council. "At first the seven-year rule seemed too long," says Hultin. "But since then I've reconsidered--I think it makes people think about that person's lasting impact."
And Bessesen says that's exactly why the Redd dedication, whether timely or not, went against every element of the board's naming policy. "It was convenient," says Bessesen. "I don't disagree with some sort of memorial [in Redd's honor], but it's kind of a tragedy that the playground was named on the spur of the moment to commemorate such a terrible incident. We usually name these things for people who have made major contributions beyond their death."
But an individual's contributions to the community don't always guarantee a park will be named in his honor. Although the family of Denver police officer Jim Wier, who was shot and killed in the line of duty ten years ago, has followed all the required procedures for dedicating an unnamed portion of Harvard Gulch Park after Wier, the family encountered neighborhood opposition to the proposal even before it had a chance to go before the parks board. The proposal barely squeaked by the local neighborhood organization, winning 7-6 in a vote taken last week by the board of the West University Community Association. The matter now goes to the parks board, which will hold a public hearing in October.
Dick Feather, president of the neighborhood organization, says some residents had reservations about the dedication despite Wier's obvious sacrifice. "There's lots of history with this park beyond one police officer," says Feather. "Even though the Wiers are just talking about dedicating a grassy area to Officer Wier, the basic concern in the neighborhood is whether or not it is in our best interest to name a specific area of the park after a police officer when there's already a memorial [dedicated to fallen officers] downtown." It also didn't help, says Feather, that the family gathered its petition signatures down at the police station and not in the neighborhood.
The Wier family's crusade, however, is a cakewalk compared to the fiery debate that erupted over Columbus Park in the 1980s. When that park was originally dedicated before World War II, the surrounding neighborhood was predominantly Italian. However, by the mid-1980s most of the Italians had moved out of the neighborhood and had been replaced by a largely Hispanic population that wanted the park's name changed to La Raza Park. City councilwoman Debbie Ortega led a fight to rename the park but couldn't muster the votes on council. In the end, the city compromised by naming a new amphitheater built in the park "Plaza de la Raza," keeping Columbus as the official name of the park. However, today locals overwhelmingly refer to it as La Raza Park.
According to former parks board member Tony Trampler, the Columbus/La Raza debate prompted the board to draft its first official naming policy in 1989. But even a recent dedication that Bessesen points to as a prime example of how that policy is "supposed to work" has encountered its share of snafus. In the case of Kunming Park, it was politics, not public sentiment, that jeopardized the dedication.
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Last month the city council suggested naming a south Denver park in honor of Denver's Chinese sister city of Kunming. "The naming of Kunming Park went through every detail the way it was supposed to be done," says Bessesen. But even though the parks board voted unanimously to support the naming, the proposal was held up by a hot-and-sour debate at the city council.
The residents near what had been informally dubbed "Sugar Bowl Park" widely supported the new name, along with the parks board. But councilman Bill Himmelmann objected, saying he didn't want a park in his district associated with China because he objects to the country's poor human rights record. As a result, Himmelmann vowed in a letter not to support the dedication "until such a time as the residents of Kunming are free to assemble, free to join independent trade unions and free to petition competitively elected government officials." Despite Himmelmann's broadside, the city council voted 9-2 in favor of the Chinese name.
Bessesen admits that politics almost always plays a role in the naming of parks. But he says he hopes the recently formed subcommittee can help eliminate conflicts in the future.
Tim Celesta, the parks board member heading up the naming subcommittee, says the group will attempt to clarify gray areas in the existing policy. But he adds that the subcommittee is crystal clear on one point. "The main thing that has come out of our meetings," says Celesta, "is a sense that we want to avoid dedicating everything and anything in a park after somebody who's died. If we did that, our parks could end up looking like cemeteries.