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City Loop Redux: Re:imagine Play at Paco Sanchez Park

Paco Sanchez Park is located just off of Federal Boulevard on 12th Street.

Paco Sanchez Park is 33 acres.

The playground aims to encourage abstract play and encourage creative and critical thinking.

Paco Sanchez Park was recently chosen as the site for the yet-to-be-named successor to City Loop.

The light rail stops near Paco Sanchez Park.

After the City Park neighborhood rejected the abstract playground dubbed City Loop, the search was on for a new site. Now the hunt is over, and the project is moving across town to west Denver.
Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR) tried reinventing childhood play once before with City Loop, the $5 million, 13-acre mobility loop that aimed to bring abstract play to Denver's historic City Park. After being jilted by neighbors who thought the playground's design wouldn't jive with the cadence of their neighborhood, DPR searched for a new site, and recently selected Paco Sanchez Park. 

Located off 12th Avenue near Federal Boulevard, Paco Sanchez Park might not have the brand recognition of City Park, but whatever it lacks in terms of history and notoriety, it compensates with topography, accessibility and neighborhood demand. 

Measuring in at 330 acres, City Park buries 25-acre Paco Sanchez in a square footage contest. But, at City Park, the playground was confined to one portion. At Paco Sanchez, it isn't limited in that way, so the project will have more space at its disposal.  

Indie Architecture was one of three firms selected to design City Loop, and Paul Andersen, the company's founder, will lead design on the project, Re:imagine Play at Paco Sanchez Park. (The playground itself has yet to be named.) Denver-based Mundus Bishop is no longer involved -- they'd been selected to assist with City Park for their historic expertise -- but Chicago's PORT Architecture + Urbanism is still on board, and Denver's Dig Studio will assist with landscape architecture.  

This time around, however, Andersen and company aren't planning on a sprawling playground. Preliminary drawings are being crafted, and the plan, Andersen says, is to keep the play structures densely packed. "We learned a lot from what we did at City Park," he continues.

A different approachThe playground aims to encourage abstract play and encourage creative and critical thinking.

It's back to the drawing board, to a certain extent. While portions of the design will transfer, there are parts that must be reexamined given Paco Sanchez's unique physical characteristics. Andersen intends to use the new site's hills to his advantage, for example, by subtly incorporating them into the play area. He's also exploring was to utilize the park's mountain views. Because the new site has fewer trees than City Park, shade structures are being considered. 

A lot is undecided, but one thing's for certain: Andersen's controversial abstract theme remains. The architect envisions colorful, modern, synthetic equipment permitting local kids to manipulate their environment and control their play experience -- two factors that produce the highest, most intellectual order of play. The oddly shaped jungle gyms, super-sized swings and vibrant mesh tunnels that City Park's anti-Loopers loathed are being welcomed in by Paco Sanchez's neighbors, who have, thus far, unanimously supported the project.
   
"When City Loop became untenable, we all took a step back," says DPR Project Manager Michael Bouchard. "We still really believed in the idea." It follows that, after the plan fell apart in City Park, DPR began a comprehensive site selection process, pulling a list of every regional or community-scale park in its system, and then narrowing those 24 results using three pre-selected criteria that looked at existing play structures, the prevalence of childhood obesity and accessibility. Paco Sanchez ranked high in all three categories.

"Re:imagine Play is a concept that's been long overdue for families in West Denver," Councilman Paul D. López says. "It's a project that is significant to the health and vitality of West Denver residents."

"This is a spot where the positive impact could be significant," Andersen says, adding that, "The character of the park is right, too."

For starters, the park's existing playground is outdated. "A lot of children around here don't have access to modern equipment," López notes. What's more, the communities surrounding Paco Sanchez struggle with childhood obesity, according to DPR findings. 

"The more people who can get to the park and use it, the better," says Andersen. Paco Sanchez sits three blocks from Colfax, making it accessible by car, and the light rail stops nearby. The site is also within biking distance to the Platte River Trail, and the two are connected by a path. And, the Denver Housing Authority's Sun Valley Homes development plan will mean even more residents within walking distance.

Most importantly, the neighbors are excited. "Probably the biggest thing is that it has fantastic political backing," says Bouchard. 

Paco Sanchez Park is 33 acres.Open arms

DPR learned a lot from the City Loop skirmish last winter, and this time, city officials have been even more systematic, deliberate and cautious in public interactions. "We had, from the start, involvement from surrounding neighborhoods," says López. Community groups, area schools, stakeholders and children were all consulted "before we even got to point of putting pencil to paper," says.

In addition to a public media event last month, there have been two meetings for Re:imagine Play, and they have seen significantly better attendance than preliminary City Loop meetings had. At the initial stakeholder meeting, around 30 people showed up. That number more than doubled at a community meeting held last summer, where every one of the 70 attendees supported moving forward with the project, López reports. 

At the larger community meeting, one neighbor expressed concern over vandalism, and whether money should be invested into a space that's susceptible to destruction. It was López who fielded that question, explaining people tag property because they feel like nobody cares. By investing in underserved communities, we can let folks know they are valued. 

There were also basic questions about parking, and how the new playground might impact traffic, adds Bouchard. "Those are crucial questions that will be a huge part of the planning and design process."

Bouchard doesn't have firm numbers yet, but he says funding is also better with Re:imagine Play. With City Loop, the plan had been to raise money and supplement proceeds with city funds, if needed. "For Paco Sanchez, we are bringing money to the table to start," says. City dollars will be augmented with donations and sponsorships that anticipates will be, "less corporate, and more on the health and nonprofit side." Potential sponsors include Bellco Credit Union, LiveWell Colorado or the Colorado Health Foundation. 

As for development and implementation, Andersen says the goal is to have construction begin by the end of next year. He says he expects to spend the next five or six months on schematic design and public engagement, before preparing technical drawings for construction, which will likely take the first half of 2015. 

"What may work in one neighborhood may not work in another -- that's what we figured out with Re:imagine Play," says Lopez, noting that his constituents "embrace the idea, the concept and the activation of one of [their] most underutilized parks."

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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