On One Hand

December 5, 2006

Denver

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 3:32 am
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I’ve been an architecture junkie since I was 14 years old, always turning to the business section of the newspaper for the sole purpose of seeing if any new skyscrapers are being proposed downtown. In light of that, I just stumbled across what is probably the best website in the world when it comes to urban planning. It’s: DenverInfill.com, which advocates the need for redevelopment and expansion of Downtown Denver from a smart-growth, anti-parking lot perspective, and gives a block-by-block breakdown of what’s built now and what’s being proposed. The site is incredibly detailed, and I have probably spent about 8 hours today memorizing all of the projects in Denver. If you know of any development downtown built since 2000, it’s on the site.

Downtown Background:

Downtown Denver is in the midst of a construction frenzy, and in addition to massive new neighborhoods and redevelopment projects in and around the city that will house thousands of residents (think of Riverfront Park, a solid half-mile stretch along the Platte River of nothing but cranes and construction trucks, building 7+ story lofts and ground-level shops), there are several new skyscrapers being proposed for the cities Central Business District. For reference, Denver hasn’t gotten a new skyscraper in over 15 years, and nothing hugely significant in about 20 years.

Because the now-redeveloped Stapleton airport was once so close to downtown, there was a height restriction on skyscrapers in Denver, keeping the skyline low like San Diego’s. Because of the restriction, the three tallest buildings Downtown are almost exactly the same height, butting up against the height limit. Those buildings are Republic Plaza, the cuboid, white buiding off of 17th Street, the Qwest building (whose obnoxious blue neon sign can be seen hundreds of miles away if you’re on a hill), and Wells Fargo Center, or the “Cash Register Building” which has a unique, off-set curved top that is recognizable as a Denver landmark even to those who have never been to Denver. Stapleton has been bulldozed as an airport to create DIA miles away, so office towers in Denver can go higher now. But current city policy still bans any tower that blocks a park’s view of the mountains, adding further height restrictions to the city and encouraging a harmonious, flowing skyline of tall buildings that are mostly the same height, without disproportionate monoliths like you see in Nashville or Las Vegas – one tower lurching far above the rest, with a boiling sea of parking lots down below.

Planned for Denver:

Browsing Denver-infill.com I found proposals for two new skyscrpaers in Denver that would come close to matching the three tall buildings, making the “big three” into a “big five”: a 50-story Four Seasons hotel (read about it in 5280 Magazine or see the plans at denverinfill.com) that could be built near LoDo, and a 50-story Trump Tower Denver that doesn’t have a location yet and keeps getting bumped around. I don’t really care about the Trump Tower, but the planned Four Seasons hotel is beautiful and I hope it works out.

Six Flags in Trouble:

I also noticed – something I already knew of but had forgotten – that Denver’s Six Flags/Elitch Gardens is struggling and Six Flags wants to get rid of the property. I can’t imagine how that place isn’t turning enough profit – every time I’ve been to Elitch’s it’s been swarming with about as many people as it can hold – so if there’s a problem it’s the park’s business model. But as a person who was born and raised in Colorado, I find it pathetic that this outside, Texas-based company had the nerve to buy out one of Denver’s most distinguished landmarks, the old Elitch Gardens, shut that down and move it to a place where it can expand, saying what a boon it would be for Denver to be the only city in the nation with the amusement park right downtown, and then close it down, pack up, and leave less than ten years later.

If they don’t think they’re attracting enough visitors, maybe it’s because they charge more than thirty dollars per person to get in to the park, which is absurd.

If Six Flags sells the park, I propose that the City of Denver buy it, re-name it Elitch Gardens again, consider it a public recreation area, and run the park itself. The city does, after all, own the Winter Park ski area and maitain it under its Parks and Recreation department. I don’t know what precedent there is for cities buying amusement parks, but I look at it this way:

The price is good: If Six flags sells the park as a lost cause, it obviously isn’t going to be like selling a lucrative business. The price would be primarily for the land, which would continue to be valuable even if the city later decides to shut down the park and re-sell it as real estate for redevelopment, so there’s nothing to lose, even in a worst-case scenario.

Denver would profit: The city should charge, say, seven dollars a ticket and give discounts and occasional free tickets to Denver Metro Area residents. Visits would double, maybe triple. The land buyout would pay for itself in less then five years, and after it’s paid off then Elitch’s would fund the maintainence of itself and of every public park in Denver. The project would be slated under the Parks and Recreation department. Then when Denver wants to build a new park or buy open space, City Council doesn’t have to put it on the ballot and wait for people to vote for it, because they already have the money. If the city ever grows broke in the future, it can sell the park as a bail-out.

The city has an economic interest in keeping the park open: Eliches is great for downtown. Denver is the only city in the nation that has an amusement park downtown, drawing in tourists and visitors who spend money in Downtown’s shops and markets, providing not only sales tax revenue but also jobs.

Keeping the park open to the public provides a city service: If the park were actually affordable, it would be a place for residents to recreate, increasing the general aura of the city. Lowering the price for Denver residents makes it affordable to low-income residents of Denver. The park is good for Denver residents already and would be even better if it was affordable.

The city has an interest in preserving Elitch’s history: Granted, Six Flags already got rid of the old Elitch Gardens and moved it, when they renamed it Six Flags and gradually disposed of its old trademarks and character. This is probably the weakest argument for Denver buying the park, but no one would deny having some pride in the fact that Elitch Gardents, with its old namesake back, is up and running in Denver.

The city wouldn’t have to invest anything into the park: The park is basically brand new – about ten years old – and the rides aren’t even rusty. Since it’s been expanded so many times since then, most sections of the park are even newer than the park itself; maybe five years old at most. The park’s infrastructure is modern and sleek, and wouldn’t need a single thing to be built.

The park provides jobs: The park employs hundreds, if not thousands, of people. You don’t need a college degree to sell refreshments or work the rides, so the park provides jobs to the very people who are most likely to be otherwise unemployed, and it’s open in the summer, so for the teenagers and young people who are just looking to work seasonally, it’s a great place to be. What if the city offered scholarships to employees? How many kids could it put through school then? What if it gave discounts to working mothers, so that they could send their kids to Elich’s to be physically active all day, using the park as a babysitter rather than the TV as a babysitter? There are all sorts of creative social opportunities to be explored through the park’s workforce.

We know it’s possible for the government to own a recreation area; Hyland Hills already owns Water World and that is succesfull: Hyland Hills is a special recreation district for the north part of the Denver area suburbs, and in addition to running the water park, Hyland Hills operates runs parks, rec centers and golf courses as a public service. Water World is popular and highly profitable, and money made there helps Hyland Hills fund the other recreational centers that do not charge as much.

If Denver lets Elitch’s fall apart, there’d be a huge vaccuum in the market for an amusement park, and someone else would build one in some suburb – probably some rapid-growth boomtown with poor planning like Broomfield or Highlands Ranch. Then that tiny suburb would gain all the tax dollars, and development would be funnelled into increased urban sprawl, and Denver would lose it’s asset. Maybe Lakeside would do better, but to get the run-down, creaky amusement park back in shape, someone would have to invest a lot of money into it. In Six Flags, on the other hand, the investment is already there.

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3 Comments »

  1. Do you know what’s on the old Elich’s land? Maybe it’s the lens of childhood, but that place was always so pretty, and just felt like someplace special. The Six Flags version feels like every other amusment park. I hope someone does buy it and make it nice. I’m guessing, though, that they’re talking about getting out of it because of the millions (maybe close to a billion?) of dollars of condos the land represents.

    It’s my understanding that Denver still owns part of Winter Park, but that Intrawest owns most of it.

    Comment by 477150n — December 5, 2006 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

    • Well luckily they incorporated some of the few remaining old Elitch Gardens structures into a nice urban re-development with lofts and whatnot.

      A billion dollars of condos – maybe – but the thing is, there are hundreds of acres of parking lot space throuought downtown that can be built out before something useful has to be torn down to make more space. In addition to that are the hundreds of acres of parking lot space immediately surrounding the amusement park, which could be shrunk into 1/10 the space with parking garages, and the rest of the land could be used for better things.

      I’m sure the space the amusement park is on would reach a billion dollars in 10+ story residences. But the amusement park itself is profitable, unlike the surrounding miles of parking lots.

      Follow the link I added to the story about the situation. The designer of the denverinfill blog made a nice plan for the area that saves the park and utilizes the parking lot space for development.

      Comment by ononehand — December 5, 2006 @ 7:48 pm | Reply

  2. …There is a Six Flags in Denver. O.O

    No idea…

    Comment by uriebaz — December 6, 2006 @ 5:21 am | Reply


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