Why Big Changes to Red Rocks Aren't Happening...Yet

On July 24, Denver's Landmark Preservation Commission was scheduled to consider a proposal by Denver Arts & Venues to make significant changes to the planter boxes placed along the edges of the seating section at the world-renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre. But days before the session, officials canceled the presentation in the face of opposition from the nonprofit citizens' group Friends of Red Rocks and plenty of others.

Note that a Friends of Red Rocks petition at Change.org titled "Preserve the Planter Boxes at Red Rocks Amphitheatre" has collected more than 16,000 signatures at this writing.

Steve Good, a Friends of Red Rocks founding member, isn't surprised that the City of Denver pulled the plug on its Landmark Preservation Commission showcase. "This is the third time it's been put off," he notes. "And I think it's probably as a result of the pressure we've been putting on."

Brian Kitts, director of marketing and communications for Arts & Venues, characterizes the situation differently.

"The Landmark submission is premature," Kitts notes via email. "We’ve been working on this for a couple of years — trying to find a balance between international building code, aesthetics and actual use of the planter boxes. (Are they just decorative? Should fans be allowed access to them?) We’re not ready to move ahead yet, so this isn’t going before Landmark."

In its proposal, Denver Arts & Venues uses this photo as an example of existing planter concert use.
In its proposal, Denver Arts & Venues uses this photo as an example of existing planter concert use.
Denver Arts & Venues

The proposal is far from dead, however. Officials haven't given up on the notion of tinkering with the Red Rocks planter boxes — a desire that helped give birth to this particular group of Friends nearly two decades ago.

"Friends of Red Rocks started in response to a plan in 1999 to rip out the juniper trees and convert the planter boxes into what were called corporate box seats," Good recalls. "We were a group of people who didn't like that idea, so we went down and protested it, and the Landmark Preservation Commission at the time decided that they agreed with us."

The latest approach to the planter boxes, described in a June 26 document accessible below, avoids any mention of big-money fat cats. One section describes the project's purpose like so: "This project will holistically rehabilitate the interior of 36 planters that comprise the north and south edges of Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Tree and shrub plantings will be restored and interior edges sensitively improved to accommodate concert viewing and gathering."

The proposal states that the goal would be accomplished by paving half of each planter "with exposed concrete aggregate" and a "twelve-inch sandstone band," plus "replace top 36 inches of soil and existing junipers with new soil, junipers, native shrubs and...mulch" and install 42-inch guardrails that would "prevent falling."

A 1933 drawing of Red Rocks by architect Burnham Hoyt.
A 1933 drawing of Red Rocks by architect Burnham Hoyt.
Denver Arts & Venues

The Friends of Red Rocks' objections to this concept, as described in a July 13 letter to the Landmark Preservation Commission also linked at the bottom of this post, are multi-faceted. But most of them are rooted in a desire to maintain the architectural integrity of the amphitheater, which was conceived by Denver architect Burnham Hoyt in the 1930s.

In Good's view, the railings in particular "are anathema to Burnham Hoyt's spirit of philosophy and design," as well as completely unnecessary from a safety standpoint.

"In 77 years, there have been no serious accidents reported in falls from the planter boxes," he maintains. "And if you put up railings, people will certainly be tempted to sit on them or stand on them — and that would increase the body-to-ground distance and might put the public in even more danger. The National Park Service, in evaluating the railings, called them an 'attractive nuisance' for that reason. So we don't buy the safety argument."

And then there's the risk of future greed.

This mock-up offers a look at proposed planter guardrails.
This mock-up offers a look at proposed planter guardrails.
Denver Arts & Venues

"We don't believe that Arts & Venues has any motive at present to sell seating in these areas at a premium," Good concedes. "But we think it's almost inevitable that a future administration would come in and say, 'Look at these nice areas. Let's put some seats in here and sell them.' Then they would be loges, and we think that would be a slippery slope back to corporate box seats."

In the meantime, the authors of the proposal stress that the planter boxes in today's Red Rocks are already different from the ones put in place by the amphitheater's builder.

One passage reads: "Burnham Hoyt originally designed the planter boxes as a visual barrier between amphitheatre seating and the edge of pedestrian walkways to minimize disruption during events and concerts. The architectural edge reinforced the geometry and is a defining feature of the amphitheatre. Uniform plantings originally assisted in providing the visual barrier, but were largely missing or modified by 1954."

This implies that opponents are against any changes to Red Rocks, which Good denies.

In 2003, a new visitor center was completed in an agora at the top of the amphitheater, and "we supported that, because it was part of the architect's original plan," he points out. "And we didn't object to the recent parking-lot paving. We just asked that it be covered with a red-chip seal that would echo the look of the park."

Another photo-illustration showing proposed alterations to the Red Rocks planter boxes.
Another photo-illustration showing proposed alterations to the Red Rocks planter boxes.
Denver Arts & Venues

But the suggested planter-box alterations were too much for the Friends, as assorted members expressed during a meeting earlier this month with facility manager Tad Bowman and Tina Bishop of Mundus Bishop, the landscape architecture firm with which the city contracted to do the actual work at Red Rocks.

"We explained to them that we just could not accept the paving and the railings — which sums up the whole plan," Good says.

With the Landmark Preservation Commission offering now spiked (Kitts acknowledges that "we don’t have a timeline or deadline for submitting the plans at this point"), it's unclear what will happen next. But when asked if the Friends will step up again if the city asks to alter the planter boxes along similar lines, Good offers a one-word reply: "Absolutely."

Click to access Denver's Red Rocks planter-rehabilitation proposal, dated June 26, and the Friends of Red Rocks letter to the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission from July 13.

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