Park and Parcel

A dispute over the future of a valuable piece of city-owned real estate across the street from Larimer Square has forced Denver officials to back down from plans to sell the property to developers. If downtown residents have their way, Denver will have a new park and history center instead of another hotel or an expansion of Larimer Square.

At issue are two and a half acres that Denver owns on both sides of Cherry Creek at 14th and Larimer streets. The property is commonly referred to as Bell Park, since it still houses the bell from Denver's first city hall, which occupied the site until it was demolished in 1936. The bell sits on a simple concrete pedestal just off Larimer. Besides a few trees and a stretch of grass, most of the rest of the property is taken up by parking lots.

Most people probably don't even notice the area when they drive across Speer Boulevard into downtown, but many residents think Bell Park could be an urban gem. "It's our position that this is a logical entrance into the lower downtown historic district," says Jack Houser, president of the Downtown Denver Residents Organization. "Once you lose green space in an urban area, you never get it back."

During the last few months a committee of downtown residents has been meeting to try to come up with a proposal for the site. Since Bell Park was one of the first settled spots in Denver, the committee decided it was a logical place to honor Denver's history. The group is now working on a plan to create some kind of Denver history museum in a parklike setting along the banks of the creek.

"We're trying to figure out how to make it happen," says Rob Hecht, co-chairman of the Historic Bell Park Committee. "We want to make a gift to the residents of the city by providing a historic and cultural center."

Later this fall the group expects to announce plans for a citywide fundraising drive to build a history center. Hecht says it's still too early to say how much it would cost, but the group is already talking with the Colorado Historical Society and Historic Denver about the idea. It may be possible to use funds from gaming taxes or from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority to support the project.

Denver floated the idea of selling the property last year. The land is worth an estimated $2.2 million, and zoning would allow buildings as tall as 100 feet. Downtown residents quickly mobilized against any sale of the land, arguing that every bit of publicly held open space downtown is precious.

At first the Bell Park committee simply wanted to turn the whole property into a park, but Hecht says the group now believes the history of the block merits something more ambitious. "I don't think folks realize what that parcel meant to Denver history," he says.

And city officials apparently didn't realize what the parcel meant to downtown residents; the strong objections to the idea of selling the land last year took the city by surprise. After some waffling, Mayor Wellington Webb told residents he would support their efforts, but so far the city hasn't offered any money to pay for development of a park and history center. The owners of Larimer Square are reportedly interested in the property as a possible place to expand, and hotel developers also have looked at the site.

One surprise to the residents pushing for a park has been the active involvement of lower-downtown developer Ray Suppa. His ten-story Palace Lofts project at 15th and Blake Streets enraged many LoDo residents who thought it was too tall for the neighborhood. But Hecht says Suppa is playing an important role on the Bell Park committee, and Suppa has pledged to provide seed money for the project from the sale of lofts in his development.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers