Rethinking City Loop: What City Park needs now

Denver Parks and Recreation officials have been in high reverse gear in response to mounting neighborhood opposition to the proposed City Loop project in City Park, the subject of last week's feature, "Parks and Wreck." After critics raised a barrage of concerns about City Loop's cost, public input process, and impact on traffic, parking and the park's character, DPR formally announced that it was suspending fundraising for the $5-million "regional attraction," bringing in fresh consultants, and rethinking its size, scope and even whether it belongs in a different park.

A "multigenerational play space" that would have replaced a one-acre playground on the west side of City Park with a series of clustered areas featuring climbing boulders, water features, "talking tubes," a concert area and more, encircling 13 acres of the park with plastic tubing and a synthetic track, City Loop was envisioned as an "iconic" statement for Denver's busiest park. Although officials have been making public presentations about the project for eighteen months (and collecting many supportive online comments), many nearby residents only learned of the plan recently, and DPR officials have conceded that their public outreach wasn't adequate.

Neighborhood activists behind the Stop City Loop campaign contend that the park's bucolic character is already severely tested by the presence of two other regional attractions, the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, that draw more than three million visitors a year. Indeed, one of the most puzzling aspects of the proposal is the degree to which City Loop, in its current incarnation, is at odds with the city's own longstanding plans to improve park circulation and restore its historic promenades.

To understand better how zoo and museum expansion have altered the park over decades, check out the city's own 2001 study, Revitalizing the Legacy of City Park, described as "a comprehensive strategy for preserving and enhancing the urban gem of Denver's renowned parks and parkway system." That study identified numerous problems with the park's deteriorating infrastructure as well as increasing traffic and parking incursions.

Since that study, park officials have spent more than $50 million on improvement projects -- rehabilitating Ferril Lake and renovating the Duck Lake, building two underground parking garages, restoring the boat dock and repairing the Electric Fountain, irrigation upgrades, tennis court expansions, and more. But many of the park's other fountains, monuments and other historic features remain badly neglected or in need of repair, due in part to the economic downturn and budget cuts of the past few years. A 2010 plan reiterated one major need, discussed in the 2001 study but still not addressed a decade later: finding ways to improve park access and circulation, not just for vehicles but pedestrians and cyclists, and restoring the "grand promenade" effect of the original park design, which has been greatly diminished by all the car routes that fragment the park.

As presently conceived, the City Loop project would make that fragmentation even worse; routes that planners had considered closing to cars would have to be kept open just to accommodate folks wanting to drive to this regional attraction. By putting the project on hold and bringing in Mundis-Bishop Design to help re-evaluate the design -- the same folks who authored the 2001 study of City Park's legacy -- Denver's park officials have given themselves and park users what everybody hopes to find at a place like City Park: some breathing room.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast