Redefining and Redesigning Denver's Historic Civic Center Park

Just south of Denver's Central Business District at the intersection of two of the town's most prominent streets lies Civic Center Park, a diamond in the rough that's beginning to shine as city planners work to change public perceptions. 
Some days, Civic Center Park is overcrowded with food trucks and foodies or flooded by well-dressed yoga enthusiasts. On typical windy November weekdays, though, it's practically empty, except for a couple of skateboarders, a few commuters and a tourist taking a selfie with the backdrop of the Colorado State Capitol.

Park activity depends largely on when, exactly, you wander through the round green space anchoring Civic Center, Denver's first National Historic Landmark.

Technically, this park's history starts nearly two decades before it was actually formed. After being elected mayor in 1904, Robert Speer used the grounds as a focal point for his City Beautiful campaign, and that set off a gradual wave of development.

"When the McNichols Civic Center Building was built in 1909, there was no Civic Center Park," says Tariana Navas-Nieves, Director of Cultural Affairs for Denver Arts & Venues. Designed by Albert Ross and funded through a $200,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie, the Greek revival style building opened as Carnegie Library at a time when the surrounding landscape was "totally different," says Navas-Nieves.

The Pioneer Monument went up in 1911; in 1918, an open-air Greek Amphitheater debuted, followed by the Voorhies Memorial the next year. Before long, Denver had a 12-acre neoclassical park next to its capitol building. As the city grew, Civic Center Park would eventually unite other important cultural buildings, too, including the City and County Building (1932) and the Denver Art Museum (1971).  

The McNichols Building operated as a library until Central Library opened in 1955. You know those conveyor belts at the supermarket? "That's how they moved all of the books to Central," says Navas-Nieves. Then the Denver Water Board moved into the space, and a series of renovation projects "took away historic beauty," she adds.

By the time the building was renamed McNichols Civic Center Building in 1999 and subsequently shuttered, the surrounding park had fallen into a state of disrepair. "It was dormant," Navas-Nieves says, and largely avoided.

It's sort of a chicken-and-egg situation: People stopped passing through Civic Center Park, and the place caught a bad reputation as a gathering spot for vagrants and junkies. Or was it the other way around?

"Historians will often point to the advent of the automobile," says Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, executive director of the Civic Center Conservancy, an 11-year-old nonprofit organization that partners with the local government, but raises funds independently.

When people stopped walking places, there was less natural traffic through Civic Center Park. Over decades, lack of foot traffic led to subpar maintenance, and that, Lent says, "led to a space that attracted criminal activity that kept the public away."

"The Civic Center Conservancy really wanted to break that cycle," continues Lent, noting that the space has "come a long way in recent years" -- though, there's still work left to do.

The Conservancy's goal is to get people into the park again. "People make parks," Lent says. The plan calls for a three-tiered campaign focused on programming and events, infrastructure improvements and fundraising for capital improvements.  

Engaging the public
The Civic Center Conservancy pushed for the park's inclusion in the 2007 Better Denver bond.
"One of the greatest benefits of the city's partnership with the Conservancy has been the addition of programming," says Denver Parks and Recreation Downtown Area Planner Mark Bernstein.  

The Conservancy produces over 100 days of programming in Civic Center Park annually, and that started a decade ago with Civic Center EATS Outdoor Café, the once-weekly farmers market that morphed into a bi-weekly event Lent calls "a culinary convoy of food trucks."

May through October, Civic Center EATS dishes up superb grub with live music and shaded bistro seating. Last week, the Conservancy launched Civic Center Nosh & Posh, an experiment in keeping the foodie fest running year-round by convening food and fashion trucks the second Thursday of the month, November through April.

Most Denverites are familiar with Civic Center Park's other culinary tradition: The Downtown Denver Partnership's Taste of Colorado, the park's largest festival, now entering its 32nd season of celebrating local food, music and art. And, there's the Conservancy's annual Independence Eve Celebration, presented by Anadarko, and the organization's only program that doesn't run as a series.

Launched in 2011, the free Civic Center Bike-In Movie Series has been another crowd pleaser, with crowds ranging from a few hundred to 1,200. Civic Center MOVES -- a popular and free fitness series -- took off last year, and features yoga, boot camps and full body conditioning classes.

Looking ahead, the Conservancy is currently "shopping around the concept of a three to five concert music series," Lent says about plans to employ the underutilized Greek amphitheater, the venue for then-Mayor John Hickenlooper's 2009 State of the City speech.

In the short-term, ongoing programming "activates the park," Lent explains; long-term, city planners hope it will lead to positive park use capable of changing perceptions and, ultimately, drawing in visitors on days when there isn't anything planned.

That's working, according to Lent, who says, "Not only are we seeing more people at the programs at the park, but we're seeing more people coming to the parks … for a sack lunch or to exercise on their own. That change in behavior has been gradual, and has really taken off in the past four or five years."

Priorities include a central gathering place, food kiosks and improvements to the Greek theater.Welcoming visitors daily

"We know we can't program the park 24/7," says Lent. "What's been lacking is the infrastructure to support daily, organic usage."

If you're walking through the park on a regular day, you can't buy so much as a bottle water or use the restroom. The Conservancy, then, is looking at developing convenience features, and it played a key role in creating the 2005 Civic Center Park Master Plan, which identifies priorities for infrastructure improvements, amenities and enhanced connectivity.

Priorities identified in the plan include a central gathering place -- a sculpture or fountain, perhaps -- food and beverage kiosks, lighting upgrades and improvements to the Greek theater. There have also been ongoing efforts to keep the park clean.

"Graffiti, trash on ground -- that almost invites criminal activity," Lent says. From 2009 to 2011, the Conservancy partnered with the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) to expand BID maintenance and ambassadorial services (the purple shirts that keep 16th Street Mall clean). "They put in $50,000, and we matched it," says Lent. Funded services focused on litter pickup, graffiti removal and spot pressure washing, and were done in addition to the daily services provided by Denver Parks and Recreation.

Transit development

Civic Center Station is one of RTD's busiest regional bus transit centers, with eighteen routes that serve, on average, 15,000 passengers daily; as the park itself improves, the city is looking to boost its nearby transit.

Fifteen years ago, planners briefly discussed sinking Colfax. "Sinking Lincoln and Broadway was discussed about five years ago," says John Desmond, downtown environment executive vice president for the DDP. "Costs are enormous, and benefits are dubious at best, so neither idea got any traction."

The idea of running a streetcar down Colfax "was the subject of a very lengthy and detailed study that ended up recommending BRT [bus rapid transit] instead," Desmond continues, noting that the cost of a 10-mile streetcar line on Colfax was estimated to be about $400 million, versus $115 million for BRT, with very little difference in ridership projections.

As such, RTD and the city have partnered with the DDP and Downtown Denver Business Improvement District to develop the Civic Center Transit District Plan, a long-term vision for the station area.

"Essentially, this would provide new, more attractive buses, nicely designed stops, real time transit tracking information, traffic signal prioritization for the BRT vehicles at key intersections and a dedicated lane at some times of the day -- all of which will enhance service and comfort significantly," Desmond says.

As that plan is being developed, RTD intends to improve the facility's aging infrastructure as part of its Civic Center Station rehabilitation project, which includes nine bus bays, a glass-enclosed terminal building and a bus ramp extension connecting Broadway to Lincoln. Construction is anticipated to begin in spring 2016, if a proposal is approved within budget; once started, the project will take about a year to complete.

If you build it . . .

The Conservancy advocated for Civic Center's inclusion in the 2007 Better Denver bond initiative, and as a result voters approved over $9.4 million to restore the Greek amphitheater, Voorhies Memorial and Broadway Terrace. Those projects, Bernstein says, were the last major improvements -- until now, that is.

Over the years, the McNichols Building has slowly come back to life, thanks to Arts & Venues. "In 2010, there was some initial interest [in the building], and a first-phase renovation to host the Biennial of the Americas. It was opened, but just for that," explains Navas-Nieves.

The event sparked interest in the site, and, Navas-Nieves says, "The City added the McNichols Building to our Arts & Venues portfolio, which includes the Denver Performing Arts Complex -- not to be confused with DCPA -- the Colorado Convention Center, Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Denver Coliseum."

In October 2012, the McNichols Building re-opened "as a hub for art and cultural events," says Navas-Nieves. For nearly three years, it hosted private events -- weddings, fundraisers -- and supported a cultural partner program whereby "anyone in the community," Navas-Nieves says, "can apply to use the space . . . for an art, cultural or creative event" free of charge.

This September, though, the space closed to undergo a $6 million renovation that will include a newly designed courtyard, an enhanced entrance featuring public art, restroom relocation, a new first-floor event space, passenger elevator improvements and a new service elevator. "Believe it or not," says Navas-Nieves, "we hold over 300 events, but we don't have a service elevator!"

The space is expected to reopen by fall 2016, with a public celebration currently slated for Sept. 15.

"We are going full-force, and we're really moving fast," Navas-Nieves says, adding, "One of the most exciting parts of the renovation is that we've discovered original historic ironwork in the stairs . . . and on top of the building they found a beautiful entablature that had been covered." Arts & Venues will preserve these features in the national historic building.

"We want Civic Center Park to be an asset and an amenity for everyone," says Lent. "If we are successful, it will be a catalyst for economic and cultural vibrancy. It will be one of the many reasons why people want to work downtown."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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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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