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The City Loop Alley-Oop

City Loop concept drawings feature active and passive features and colorful play areas.

Denver skyline from City Park Golf Course.

Park activists worry about modernizing a beautiful, historical space.

Close collaboration and compromise between local parks services and neighborhood advocates may be the ticket as the re-imagining of Denver's beloved City Park is, well, re-imagined once more. Can the vision hurdle controversy and become a Rocky Mountain counterpart to Chicago's Millennium Park?
At the west end of City Park is where you're liable to stumble upon the ramshackle Dustin Redd Playground, a wood-and-bolt structure erected in 1996 by local volunteers -- funded on a measly budget, according to local lore -- to honor its namesake, the boy who drowned in the Park's Ferril Lake earlier that summer. 
 
Regrettably, maintenance on the playground was neglected, according to Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR) Director of Communications Jeff Green. Today, most of the structure's kinetic pieces are in disrepair. 
 
"Wood is tough to maintain," says Green. "There are parts that aren't currently being used because they are damaged." 
 
This is why, back in 2011, the city began discussing the need to replace Dustin Redd Playground, formulating a plan that ultimately became the 13-acre, $5-million vision of City Loop that's drawn criticism from some park lovers. 
 
You see, when weighing the options of repair or replace the existing structure -- DPR officials decided to think outside of the box revitalizing "the largest park DPR has in its system and the largest regional park -- one that defines Denver," Green says.
 
DPR invited several international design firms to "re-imagine what a playground could be," with an emphasis on multigenerational and multi-use features, he explains. "We wanted to meet a whole population's needs, not just the children's.
 
Vetting for the bid began in 2011, and eight firms were selected as semifinalists. From there, a panel comprised of playground experts, DPR staff, and neighborhood representatives chose three finalists, whose plans were presented to the public in various form, including online where Denverites could vote. 
 
According to Green, "City Loop was the overwhelming vote." With a reported several hundred votes cast, the currently proposed design, crafted by Denver's Indie Architecture and Chicago-based PORT Architecture and Urbanism, won by two-to-one margin. 
 
In October 2012, the firms were contracted to design Denver's newest distinct playground. The following spring, as concepts became more concrete, DPR held "a number of meetings and public presentations," which, according to Green, included a four-part series of public meetings covering various aspects of the project: everything from the definition of "play" to issues surrounding parking and circulation and maintenance. 
 
The first meetings were held at Bogey's on the Park, the latter two at nearby churches. "Those meetings weren't well attended," Green reports. Hence, the Department decided that, as City Loop continued moving forward, it would hold the four-part public awareness series again in the spring of 2014. On Sept. 21, 2013, the city aired a free movie in City Park; before the show, DPR presented a film on City Loop -- still in a conceptual phase. "A couple hundred people showed up, and the project was pretty well received at the time," Green remembers. 
 
As proposed, City Loop, described by PORT Architecture+Urbanism as a "fully accessible mobility loop with the capacity to activate and reorient the entire park", aims to vitalize City Park with a combination of active and passive features and colorful play areas with climbing structures, slides, and swings -- a cluster of play equipment that will likely be named for Dustin Redd. Based on feedback from park users regarding discomfort associated with hard surfaces, DPR proposed incorporation of a soft trail surface for runners and walkers around the outer loop.
 
For meanderers, there are hammock-like nets with room for child's play beneath. And then there's a quiet, shady section tentatively called "The Woods", complete with porch swings. 
 
"Playground," says Indie Architecture Director Paul Andersen, "doesn't do this justice."City Loop concept drawings feature active and passive features and colorful play areas.
 
Also proposed: a space conceptually being called "The Landing", according to Green. The spot might someday contain, say, a DPR-staffed kiosk housing rental sports equipment alongside restrooms and a book exchange. The plan allows space for food trucks to park, should food be desired for special events -- though Green clarifies that a daily row of food trucks has never been part of the plan.  
 
"We also envisioned working with Denver Urban Gardens to add an urban garden -- possibly even stage nutrition and cooking classes based on fresh ingredients grown in that space," Green says excitedly. "We'd like to activate the park in the winter, too, maybe incorporating ice skating and Nordic skiing." The important thing to remember, Green reiterates, is that the original drawings are "just conceptual."
 
Not so fast
 
Not everybody is pleased with the concept. And, although DPR had made approximately fifty different public appearances regarding City Loop since October of 2011, many City Park residents didn't learn about the project until November 2013 -- and that realization prompted heated debate along with the creation of a website called Stop City Loop.  
 
Those opposed to the project compiled a list of objections onto their website. Phil Hainline, one of the creators of the site and a volunteer who, according to Westword, helped build the original Dustin Redd Playground, refused to comment for this story, calling the Stop City Loop website and the associated activist group a "part-time" endeavor before recommending his website for more information on his personal views.
 
Naysayers are alarmed by the scope of City Loop and, also, its sizable budget – especially given that other parts of the park are in dire need of attention. The anti-City Loop contingent argues park funding is already well below levels needed to maintain today's City Park. 
 
Green says DPR recognizes this as "a valid concern" and describes a feature in City Park called Jefferson Gateway, a historic stone structure that's falling apart. "It needs to be renovated, and we are going to look at where we can put money into that," Green says. 
 
There's also an area that "is supposed to be ponds and waterways and has dried up." Green reports that DPR intends to preserve that while simultaneously searching for ways to subtract blacktop and add more green space into the park.
 
The original budget for the project was $5 million, which sounds like a lot if you're comparing the park to other local spots -- Stapleton's Central Park, which includes a large playground and splash fountains, was a $3 million dollar project -- but isn't so outrageous if you look at, say, New York or Chicago. Both destinations have major parks. Green cites Chicago's Millennium Park, which is "well-used and well-visited and doesn't have a lot of green space." 
 
But the current plan for City Loop would, in fact, have ample green space. "We've planned for 13 acres of park," Green explains of City Loop's scope. But, that number is deceptive since "the playground would be situated outside of those acres in order to preserve green space." 
 
"There was a misunderstanding that we were planning on taking up the entire 13 acres with a playground," Green continues. In actuality, the total footprint of the playground, as currently proposed, would be three acres. The current Dustin Redd Playground is approximately one acre. 
 
The local arm of the City Loop design duo, Indie Architecture, is well situated to preserve greenery while creating a more nature-inspired environment for park goers. The landscape architecture firm has done several projects for the Denver Botanic Gardens – including a pavilion and a series of canopies. They also did the playful -- and wonderfully simple -- nature-synthetic hybrid Bubble Garden at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art.
 
Child's playDenver skyline from City Park Golf Course.
 
Sometimes, simple is best. Childhood play, you see, falls into one of three categories, according to Kerry White, Principal at Urban Play Studio, who is not involved in City Loop. First, there's the non-integrated experience of viewing nature: going to a zoo, reading books. Next, there's structured play -- children are outside being physical but, whether there's a coach directing soccer or play equipment with known purposes, "there's something that's supposed to happen and the child can't control her experience," White says. 
 
The highest order of play happens in nature settings like wooded areas and open fields. "Children produce at a high-quality level of thinking because they're making up games, manipulating materials, and controlling the experience."  
 
All of which begs the question: Why didn't the original design take its cues from more natural playgrounds, like the Mordecai Children's Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens, a cutting edge playscape with soothing water and sensory sand features that maximize creative, high level play through the use of simple and organic elements children can manipulate freely? 
 
Andersen sheds some light on this critique. "Most of the images we used when presenting to the public were taken from inside the play areas and look very busy, colorful, and synthetic," he says. "But, when the design is taken into context and viewed in relation to the park as a whole, it is a much more subtle intervention." 
 
And, while Andersen says his firm is currently "cutting back and considering all kinds of adjustments," he explains that "there actually isn't that much as far as synthetic material" in the original design plan. "We have gone to great lengths to weave play areas into the existing sight -- nestling smaller structures in between and around nature to enhance trees and grass instead of replacing that with something plastic." 
 
Like White, Andersen subscribes to the school of thought that the highest level of childhood play occurs when the environment can be easily manipulated. That's why he steered away from designing a traditional play structure with consolidated jungle gyms and equipment (like slides) that has a clear and singular purpose. 
 
But, he wasn't interested in making a playground from natural materials like boulders and logs either -- something perhaps best exemplified by Lafayette Park's new playground in San Francisco and possibly more Colorado in spirit. Rather, Andersen was interested in a third type of playground: the abstract. "We went with an abstract design because it isn't prescriptive, and kids can be more imaginative in how they use the equipment," Andersen says, noting abstract equipment and design lends itself particularly well to multi-use and trans-generational features.  
 
Instead of a metal slide, for example, Andersen's plan includes an "oddly shaped mesh tube with holes in it" that invites kids to do a number of things -- not just slide. "We chose abstract, but are trying to fit that into the site and make it something that is part of the natural beauty of the park," adds Andersen. 
 
Another "extremely valid concern," according to Green, is the historical bit. Park activists worry about modernizing a beautiful, historical space. "We are working with the group Mundus Bishop Design to explore how we can better preserve historical elements," says Green. Tina Bishop, Principal at the Denver-based landscape architecture firm confirms that her team "just started undergoing work with Denver Parks. The idea," she says, "is how to redo new features and integrate them in the historic process." Bishop will be participating in the next design phase as DPR reevaluates everything, but cannot yet say what that redevelopment will look like. "It's hard to say anything until we get our teeth into it and start working on it," she says.

Following the money
 
Some anti-Loopers have raised concerns that, once completed, City Loop will be another for-profit, admission-based venture like the Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, both of which sit on leased park property. Green quickly debunks these fears, saying, "We want to attract people to City Park, but we won't have any of it be admissions-based. It is not going to cost you money to get into the park or to use the playground." Green chalks these concerns up to something that occurred "way back. The previous administration," he says, "did some admission-based events in the park" -- a concept that was "never successful."
 
There's also been speculation that the city intends to fund City Loop, at least in part, through corporate sponsorship. ("City Loop will be purchased by commercial sponsors, further reducing transparency and any influence by Denver's citizens," decry activists on the Stop City Loop website.) Since bond monies wouldn't be used for City Loop -- even at $5 million, it's much smaller than bond projects -- the city would raise 80 percent of the requisite funds. 
 
"We haven't talked to any corporations about it, but we wouldn't necessarily turn it down if somebody approached us," says Green. "People might worry about corporate branding and logos, but we actually have guidelines to prevent that. If corporate funding were the case, we would likely put up a plaque for our major corporate donor." Mostly, though, Green reports DPR plans to look to nonprofits and public-health entities for funding. "And," Green reminds, "a lot of that hasn't even started -- this is all just speculation." 
 
One of the strongest objections to the project has been that those opposed haven't had a voice because City Loop won't be taken to a vote. A vote isn't required for non-bond projects. But, that doesn't mean resident voices aren't valued and heard.  
 
"From our perspective," Green says, "We've never been involved in a more public process for a project of this caliber." Still, he adds that DPR is "going to make a point to involve more neighbors around City Park." 
 
Green refuses to make predictions about the future of City Loop. But, by spring -- likely March or April -- his team hopes to have made a decision as to how it will move forward with the project, whether is is "as presented, different, on a smaller scale, or should we look at different part of the city altogether," Green opines. DPR intends to compose a group of neighborhood stakeholders to brainstorm and will bring those ideas to the public. Also, Green reports that a "large, sweeping public meeting will happen in early spring." 
 
With a lot up in the air, one thing's for sure: Denver officials want  input from their constituents. "We want to hear concerns, we want to hear from supporters," says Green. If you have an opinion, send Green and his colleagues an email at cityloop@denvergov.org

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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