Denver plan for park access moves forward

Denver’s 2A measure generates money to ensure parks are a 10-minute walk away

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Update: This plan was approved by Denver City Council on June 17. 

Last November, Denver voters approved ballot measure 2A, ushering in a new era for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The measure, passed by a margin of about 60 to 40 percent of residents, will raise the city’s sales tax by a quarter of a percent, with proceeds going to Denver’s parks system. Even with that small increase, the new revenue source will account for $37 million to $41 million in additional funds per year for the department.

That’s a lot of money.

Parks department officials say they know what to do with it.

On May 30, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board was scheduled to have a hearing on the 5-Year Plan, which details a long list of projects, some of which have been deferred or delayed because of a lack of funding. The plan will move forward to City Council after the hearing. (The hearing came after this issue went to press. Go to https://bit.ly/2tbUEJP for an update.)

Councilmember Jolon Clark introduced the measure last fall in hopes of providing the department with the resources necessary to reinvigorate the parks system and get those projects back on track.

Having spent a lot of time in the Denver city parks before being elected to council in 2015, Clark said he knew just how bad the department needed the funding.

“I worked for 17 years for a nonprofit organization (the Greenway Foundation) that does a lot of work in our parks. I took kids on field trips to Denver parks along the South Platte River for years and years, so I worked in our parks on a daily basis,” said Clark, who represents District 7, covering the Platt Park, Overland, Ruby Hill neigborhoods. “I got to see, firsthand, all the things that we couldn’t afford to do and how hard we were working to scrape together funds and find grants to do some of the stuff we needed to do.”

Gordon Robertson, the department’s director of park planning, agreed and noted that as the city continues to expand — it’s grown by 20 percent since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — maintaining the system was only going to get more difficult.

“The reality is that we maintain over $2 billion worth of assets on behalf of the citizens of Denver,” Robertson said. “The ability to take care of them in a really responsible manner wasn’t happening. Our ability to maintain our park system was slowly but surely falling into disrepair.

“And while we were doing a good job of keeping things going, we weren’t able to keep up with the growth of Denver,” he said. “As new residents moved in, new needs were being created, and it was really hard to meet those new needs without the additional funding.”

5-Year Plan plans for future

Now, thanks to Denver voters, Robertson and his team have that funding.

As laid out in the 5-Year Plan, available in full at www.denvergov.org, the department will begin a multi-pronged attack to reshape the department and its offerings.

“We want to extend Denver’s park system’s legacy by taking care of what we have. We’ve been given some amazing parks and parks structures that have been built over the last 100-plus years, so reinvesting in the upkeep of those facilities and parks is critical and is a big part of the story,” Robertson said. “But the other part of the story is extending a new legacy for Denver Parks and Recreation going forward.”

That new legacy, as the plan states, will include the acquisition of new land, more robust and strategic planning efforts, adapting and preparing for a changing climate, expanded outdoor recreation programming, new and improved amenities, and a few signature projects, similar to the products of Mayor Robert Speer’s City Beautiful movement in the early 1900s, like the Cheesman Park Pavilion.

But one of the priorities, Robertson said, is simply creating parks in areas where residents, historically, haven’t had easy or safe access to them. The target is to make sure everyone is within a 10-minute walk from a park, no matter where they live.

“We’ll be working on projects throughout the city where we have a lack of access to parks,” Robertson said. “We have a pretty good map of where neighborhoods are that don’t have a 10-minute walk access to a park and we’ll be focusing on those areas to acquire land and create parks.”

That focus on increased accessibility, Clark said, means every citizen of Denver could feel the effects of the department’s increased budget.

“The entire parks budget last year was around $78-80 million. And this is an infusion of almost $40 million on top of that,” he said. “This is a game-changer for our parks system, and it will be felt in every nook and cranny of this city.”

“For people who currently live in an area where they don’t have a safe 10-minute walk to a park, they’re going to get a new park,” he added. “We’re going to close that gap.”

Park access for all ‘has been a dream’

Haley Jennings, who lives in the Cherry Creek neighborhood, could be one of those people.

Jennings walks about a mile to take her dog, Leia, to Washington Park.

“We live in an apartment and we spend a lot of times in parks, so I value it a lot, especially the green areas,” Jennings said. “If you move to Colorado, you’re going to want to live in this type of environment that’s nature-driven. And in apartment living, you don’t get that very often.”

Jennings specifically considered access to parks when she was looking for apartments. “Living close to a park is important to me,” she said. “But it’s difficult because everyone wants that, and that’s why it’s super expensive to live around one.”

But if all goes according to plan, the people of Denver won’t have to worry about their proximity to a park anymore, a fact that makes Clark, an architect of the plan, extremely proud.

“I was born and raised (in Denver), four blocks away from Wash Park,” Clark said. “I grew up with Wash Park as my backyard. We spent all summer catching crawdads in the ditch, climbing trees, playing on the playground and riding our bikes around.”

“I love this city,” he said, “and having the opportunity to make sure that there is not a kid born in Denver, not a kid growing up in Denver, that doesn’t have a park like Wash Park that they can safely walk to and use as their backyard has been a dream.”

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