Guest Post: To save Denver’s parks, we must change the system

Denver's City Park with view of downtown skyline (Photo by Kari via Flickr:Creative Commons)
Denver's City Park with view of downtown skyline (Photo by Kari via Flickr:Creative Commons)

Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb has warned that losing the Park Hill Golf Course as open space would mean that “no park in Denver will be safe.”

The fact is no park in Denver has ever been safe from development, exploitation or loss. But nobody cares until it’s too late. Only when it’s your park do you discover that it’s really none of your business.

Because I lived near City Park from 1964 until 2015, I have considerable experience with disputes with the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation. (If you’d like a list, I’ll start compiling it.)

I have also been a spectator to disputes in City Park. The reason I avoided getting involved in them was my faith in the people who carried on and a feeling of exhaustion and a palpable fear of falling down that rabbit hole one more time. 

These disputes are not good for our parks, for Denver Parks and Recreation, for the city or for the people who have to rise up and express themselves in public in defense of their own neighborhood against any administration that uses its sole zoning power to do whatever the hell it wants to do.

However, the disputes are very good for neighborhoods. Nothing creates a community more than a threat from outside. The second dispute is always the hardest because you add memories of the stress to your fond memories of victory or the anger at your defeat in the first battle to save your park. You know how to do your job the second time, which is easier, but your mind suddenly remembers the effort it took.

The reason for this insane rendering of Einstein’s discussion of repeated efforts is that there are no rules about how, where and when we use the parks. The executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation makes the decisions. Your influence over that person is indirectly derived from your once-every-fourth-year vote for mayor in the municipal election. Your influence is indirect in that the head of parks and rec is an appointee of the mayor. The only voice that department head is now required to hear is the mayor’s.

While the city charter assigns responsibility of land use in the city, the City Council of 2009 passed a new zoning ordinance that, among its numerous alterations, assigned the authority for how, where, and when we use our parks to the head of the park and rec department.

Recent demonstrations of that new ordinance have resulted in efforts to limit public outcry, win positive rulings from the courts and teach the citizens that they should keep their noses out of their local parks.

As a direct result of this change in zoning, we have built a Denver Public School in the Cherry Creek flood plain, traded 11 acres of the last native landscape adjacent to the creek for an asbestos-infected office building in the Golden Triangle, and seen the post-land swap purge of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, which voted against the trade.

The City Park Golf Course has been destroyed to provide space for a flood control pond which started at 17 acres and ended up being 45 acres. The new golf course will be designed by former University of Colorado safety and PGA Champion, Hale Irwin. It will be shorter than the old course and two strokes easier.

The Overland golf course was shut down last year to make way for a HUGE music concert with no parking. This year’s show is now on hiatus. 

An experimental gasifier/incinerator was approved for the zoo as an “appropriate park use” by the executive director of Denver Parks and Rec. In 2015, the zoo dropped plans to build such an incinerator, which was supposed to convert animal waste to energy, but the underlying approval still stands.

Events have now taken over weekends to “activate” City Park. This encourages crowds from all over the metro region to drive to the park and park their cars in the local neighborhoods while neighbors flee to avoid the crowds by finding another park somewhere which is under-activated to escape from the hustle and bustle of strangers everywhere.

Our parks are irreplaceable. What we have now is the only guaranteed park land we have to pass to the next crop of Denverites. We can no longer use our parks as cheap development land. We can no longer rely on any decision any executive director makes. The next department executive director will have the same right to make her/his choices without timely public notification as the current one does.

If we are to be included in these decisions, and if these decisions are to apply to our parks and be protected from uninformed decisions made by a single public appointee, the new Denver City Council must amend the existing zoning ordinance to reclaim our parks under zoning. It must approve zoning requirements that describe what uses are approved and when and where those uses are legal. It must require zoning regulations that include notifications, opportunities for citizen input and a final approval by the City Council.

All zoning is local. The branch of government making these decisions should be should be located as close to the park facing a zoning change as possible. The executive directors of our parks and recreation department are separated from the park in being appointees of the mayor, who has 650,000 constituents, who frankly don’t give a damn. The council representative depends on the votes of 65,000 people, and they have to live with the result. 

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact tips@coloradoindependent.com or visit our submission page.

1 COMMENT

  1. Tom – I loved your opinion piece and thank you for your good and continuing work. How do we keep informed on this issue?

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