From What River? to River Vision: South Platte Getting $25 Million Upgrade

On the South Platte River in Denver, numerous projects known collectively as River Vision are underway, aiming to improve both recreation and ecology. While the river remains a work in progress, it's unrecognizable compared to the mess it was 50 years ago.
Once again, the South Platte River is entering a new era.

With $24.5 million worth of improvement projects underway in Denver, the once-forgotten waterway is blazing a trail for urban river restoration. The South Platte also represents one of the biggest economic opportunities for the city, according to Mayor Michael Hancock, with the riverfront poised for a boom on both the north and south sides of town.

But it wasn't always that way, says Jeff Shoemaker, Executive Director of The Greenway Foundation. "Growing up in this town, the concept of 'Let’s go down to the river' did not exist," says Shoemaker, who has helmed the foundation for the past 32 years.

He remembers a family vacation with his late father, Joe Shoemaker, who was a state senator when the South Platte flooded in 1965, resulting in the costliest natural disaster in city history. "He said, 'I have to go home -- the river's flooded,’" says Jeff. "My comment to my dad was: 'What river?’"

From essential to anonymousThe riverfront remains largely industrial in Denver city limits.

The South Platte River was instrumental in Denver's beginnings, as its confluence with Cherry Creek gave downtown its tilted downtown street grid.

In the 1880s, the river boasted River Front Park, Denver's first amusement park, and a steamship that ran to Brighton.

But the river became Denver's garbage disposal. With five landfills along its banks, it served as the de facto dumping ground for everything from carcasses to rubble to toxic chemicals.

Then came the 1965 flood. The river's flow hit 150,000 cubic feet per second; 300 is normal. "In one fell swoop, it gave back to us what we'd been giving to it for 100 years," says Shoemaker.

The flood catalyzed a movement to clean up the river and make it human-friendly again.

Joe Shoemaker helped launch a city committee in 1974 that evolved into the 501(c)3 Greenway Foundation as it exists today. He later co-wrote a book on the river's revival, Returning the Platte to the People.

The first projects were Confluence Park, featuring the world's first urban whitewater park, and Globeville Landing, with a multi-use trail connecting the two, for a cost of about $2 million. Before the former park, the junction of the South Platte and Cherry Creek was "marred by broken concrete dumped haphazardly with twisted old iron and timbers from Lord knows where," according to Returning the Platte to the People.

More parks and trails followed. Hundreds of sources of pollutions were eliminated. Fish and wildlife populations rebounded.

Estimates hold that the city has seen a $10 billion return on a $100 million investment into environmental and recreational improvements on the river.

A vision comes into focus

By 2007, revitalization on the South Platte had hit a plateau. The Greenway Foundation went to the drawing board and brought a wide range of stakeholders to the table. It all added up to the River Vision Implementation Plan, with short-, medium-, and long-term goals that begin with $25 million worth of river improvements and park projects at five sites in city limits. Funding comes from city and state sources, Great Outdoors Colorado and a variety of philanthropies and other organizations.

The River North Master Plan calls for an "Art Bridge" in River North (RiNo) that is slated to be built by 2016, a $4.3 million update to Confluence Park and a new park and improvements to Weir Gulch in Sun Valley. The River South Master Plan includes improvements to several parks and a corridor enhancement near Ruby Hill.

As the river was dredged and deepened for flood control after the 1965 disaster, many of the new projects involve bringing the channel to a closer-to-natural level, as well as reintroducing native plants and eradicating invasive ones. Jeff Shoemaker calls it a "green wall" of remediated riverbanks. The work will also make the river better for outdoor recreation and add more accessibility to the parks.

"We have two parts to our philosophy: enhancements and engagement," says Shoemaker. "These projects are both."

Denver Parks and Recreation Senior Landscape Architect and Project Manager Michael Bouchard says the South Platte is never going to be returned to a truly natural state, but the goal is to "restore ecological functionality."

"Historically, it was 'a mile wide and an inch deep,'" says Bouchard, dubbing the modern river "a combination of hydrology and infrastructure."

But that doesn't mean that the infrastructure can't better approximate nature. Instead of the old method of riverbank stabilization -- a thick layer of concrete -- the new method is vegetative reinforcement. A mix of gravel and topsoil is seeded with cottonwood and willow trees, and the roots interlock to form "a much more resilient" and "more cost-effective" system, says Bouchard.

It follows that vegetative reinforcement is standard throughout the River Vision projects, and it's already been used to great effect at Lakewood and Weir gulches.

Slated for completion in spring 2015 is Johnson-Habitat Park, located on the west side of the river near Virginia Avenue. Bouchard calls it "the flagship" of River Vision.

The home base of The Greenway Foundation's South Platte River Environmental Education (SPREE) program, the park will feature a central green space surrounded by several areas that allow for "natural play." One example is a "wickiup" jungle gym made of salvaged trees that were taken down on the riverbank. Smaller branches have been repurposed as movable elements. Kids "can create forts and their own play environments," says Bouchard.

Other park features include a campground on a high point that can accommodate groups of about 30 for "small-scale urban camping" and an amphitheater created from faux boulders, centered on a fire pit.

Bouchard says target campers are underprivileged urban kids who "frankly wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to have that experience," adding, "It will be unlike anything else in the city and metro area."

Echoes Shoemaker: "This former landfill becomes this urban outdoor education center, a campground, a place to get out and play."

At Grant-Frontier and Pasquinel's Landing parks, respectively south and north of Evans Avenue, the plans call for removal of literally thousands of dump trucks of soil and concrete, carving river channels and restoring native plants.

"Historically, it would have been this huge, wide riparian zone," says Bouchard. "Where we have space, we're trying to restore that, and the only place we have space is parks."

The Grant-Frontier plan calls for the removal of 15,000 to 20,000 cubic yards of soil and adding interpretive exhibits to the site of Montana City, established in summer 1858. It was the first settlement in what is now Denver, predating St. Charles, Auraria and Denver City at the South Platte-Cherry Creek confluence by a few months.

At Pasquinel's Landing, named for a character in James Michener's historical epic, Centennial, the plan involves redeveloping what is now "a bunch of bluegrass" into an island with endemic species separated by a new channel.

For the stretch of of river just north of Pasquinel's Landing between Asbury and Florida avenues, River Vision will bring what Bouchard labels "the most dramatic" restoration, taking down a rock dam and widening the river. "We're resculpting the river, bank to bank, for about half of a mile," he says.

Greenway Foundation Associate Director Jolon Clark says the ultimate goal "is a South Platte River that's swimmable, boatable, recreationally vibrant and ecologically sound."

Todd Fehr of Denver Trout Unlimited says the fishing has improved markedly in the new millennium, partly because local anglers have realized how big the fish are.

"It has been a place where I went and was often frustrated to where warmwater and coldwater species are being caught on a regular basis," he says. He points to a 16-inch rainbow trout caught in Denver city limits this summer.

Fehr says the habitat has improved, in part because of new paradigms in urban drainage and stormwater management. He points to work near the Carson Nature Center in Littleton that narrowed the channel, increased the depth and added boulders to better approximate the river's natural state.

"The water flows through there more quickly," says Fehr. "It's better for fish." He says he's also seeing more and more insects on the river, noting, "Those creatures need clean water."

He's hopeful the work in Littleton can be replicated in Denver. "We can do flood control, habitat improvement, boating and swimming all at the same time if we take a collaborative approach."

It's a complicated task. The South Platte is "absolutely critical" for Denver's flood control, says Bouchard. "It's the one thing you couldn't remove from the system and have it function."

David Bennetts, Urban Drainage and Flood Control District (UDFCD) Design, Construction and Maintenance Manager, says that that the river's floodplain has been brought into check through a variety of projects over the last 30 years.

"There's a few lingering issues, but it's mostly contained," says Bennetts. "What we're trying to do now is back up and see things from a health-of-the-river perspective, an environmental perspective and a parks/recreation perspective."

A work in progress
In Sun Valley, the jetty at Weir Gulch represents a return to a more natural state.
While the floodplain work is nearly complete, the river's water quality is not yet where it needs to be for everyday recreation. Water sampling by the Denver Department of Environmental Health indicates that more than half of the summer days at Confluence Park have E. coli levels exceeding the "safe recreation" threshold. While Cherry Creek has shown marked improvement over the past decade, the South Platte's E. coli trendline has been flat, according to DEH's 2013 report on water quality.

UDFCD sampling has shown "downward trends" in metal contaminants, nitrogen and phosphorous from stormwater, says Senior Project Engineer Holly Piza. To further filter microscopic contaminants, UDFCD is installing wetland benches at antiquated storm drains that empty into the river, and the organization is looking at trash-collecting devices like Bandalong Litter Traps to get rid of visible debris.

"Is the water quality of the South Platte where we want it to be?" says Shoemaker. "Not yet. Is it far better than it was 40 years ago? No question."

He highlights a trio of long-term goals: improving the river from Park Avenue West to the Adams County line; establishing a permanent minimum flow between Chatfield Reservoir and the north end of the metro area; and eliminating or greatly reducing trash in the river.

Lofty goals, yes, but impossibilities, no.

Shoemaker looks back a half-century for proof. "There was not a single park along the South Platte River prior to 1975. There was not a single inch of trail along the South Platte River prior to 1975. What this represents is the next evolution, as my father's book states, of returning the Platte to the people."

Shoemaker sees the current slate of projects as catalysts to development on the South Platte, and points to Commons Park and the chic residential developments in the Central Platte Valley as a template for change. Arkins Court in RiNo and the 2100 block of South Platte River Drive, adjacent to Grant-Frontier Park, have been identified as prime redevelopment opportunities.

This mixed-use vision contrasts with the industrially-oriented riverfront of today. Nonetheless, says Clark, "Part of it is a balance, and not making the whole river like the Central Platte Valley, which has the second highest per-square-foot real estate value in the entire state, after Aspen. We need the light industry and the jobs that it creates." 

But the mix is off. Overland, Sun Valley, RiNo, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are neighborhoods that could see residential booms on the river as the pendulum swings away from industry as the most profitable land use -- especially in a state where the largest natural body of water is 500-acre Grand Lake.

"Look at what RiNo is going to be," Shoemaker says. "What we've got to do is reimagine, rethink and recreate."

Clark points to the Overland neighborhood for some out-of-the-box thinking. "Grant-Frontier Park was created by cul-de-sac-ing Platte River Drive on two ends."

River Vision's park projects will catalyze "connectivity" from neighborhoods on both sides of the river, he adds. "When it's just a landfill covered in weeds, those connections don't go anywhere." 

The people's river

Aside from Riverfront, Denver's stretch of the South Platte still lacks public-facing businesses. But that's starting to change.

Great Divide Brewing Co. is expanding from the Arapahoe Square neighborhood to RiNo in the coming years. Founder Brian Dunn says the river is part of the rationale for the move.

Groundbreaking on the new brewery warehouse took place in August, and Dunn anticipates opening a small bar and canning line there in 2015. The next phase adds brewing operations to the site by 2017, when Great Divide will open a beer garden bordering a yet-to-be-developed riverside park.

"I think the river is beautiful, and we're excited to be closer to it," says Dunn. "We're also excited to be by the bike path."

He says he's included The Greenway Foundation in the brewery's giving program -- 100 percent of proceeds from sample sales go to nonprofits -- and hopes to see the South Platte get a bit "nicer."

Shoemaker is quick to note that, as long as there is trash in the city, there will be trash in the river. The South Platte is a work in progress, as it has been for a half-century, and its turnaround involves more than a one-time cleanup -- it involves long-term systemic and behavioral change.

And that's a slow and iterative process, with countless moving parts. Notes Shoemaker: "When you're in the tall grass of this, it's hard to see the full impact of what your work's going to be."

As 2014 is the 40th anniversary of The Greenway Foundation, he says he's often hit up with the same old question. "We're asked, 'When are you going to be done?’ I say, 'We're just getting started.’"
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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