Civic Center Park is located in central Denver just south of the Central Business District; it was an idea that originated with Denver mayor Robert Speer in 1904 when he proposed a series of civic improvements based on the City Beautiful ideas he discovered at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The 16-acre park has historically been considered the front yard of the city and its gathering place. But over the years it has become harder to connect this formal space to the daily routines of twenty-first century downtown activity – a problem faced by many cities in rejuvenating their classic old downtown parks.
The Civic Center Conservancy, founded in 2004, is taking on that challenge with its mission of enlivening the area and figuring out ways to connect the growing Golden Triangle neighborhood to the park.
“The challenge for us is to make a link between the park and the growing number of residences downtown. None of the city’s residential districts are located on the park. It’s our job to give these city residents compelling reasons to come to the park and make the connection to this historic district,” says Lindy Eichenbaum, the Conservancy’s Executive Director.
Civic Center Park connects the Colorado State Capitol with the City and County Building via open lawns crisscrossed by symmetrical paved walks, formal flower beds, and numerous memorials. It is ringed with architecturally significant cultural and governmental institutions. In 2012, Civic Center – not just the park – was designated as Denver’s first and only national historic landmark.
It was a fitting end to a process that started with it being named to Colorado’s Endangered Places list in 2007, when almost everything in the park needed repair and restoration. Over the past few years, about $15 million — mostly from the 2007 Better Denver bond initiative — has been invested in restoring structures in Civic Center.
The park is a jewel in the city but is challenged by its protected historic design and its distance from the commercial city core. It is also at the center of regular discussion about the value of making changes to the site versus protecting its historic legacy. All of which make the job of conserving and managing the park a balancing act for the conservancy.
The park, defined by the Denver city government buildings, sits apart from the city’s commercial and residential neighborhoods making it somewhat off the beaten track especially during times when government workers have left their offices for the day.
The Downtown Denver Partnership created a business improvement district in 1982 that focused on the city’s 16th street pedestrian mall. In 2002 it expanded its boundaries to serve its current 120-block focus. Civic Center Park is just outside of the district’s boundaries presumably because the area generates no commercial activity to pay its way and the challenges of keeping it clean, safe and lively are more challenging.
In some ways the challenges facing Denver are not dissimilar from other cities – Sister Cities Park in Philadelphia, where the local BID linked the park to Philadelphia’s
Museum District along the Ben Franklin Parkway – a cultural trail that receives 3 million visitors a year – to attract more users; or, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s efforts to unify Public Square where the streets have sliced the big space into four quadrants since 1796, in the name of moving traffic through the city.
But Denver’s Civic Center is more government than private and therein lays the challenge. Even with a new masterplan for the site, private partners and resources must be found outside the park to implement the plan – the goal of which is to transform the landscaped gardens and public spaces around the architecturally significant buildings from something that frames the buildings into something that serves the people who visit the site.
Says Eichenbaum, “We are working on shifting the paradigm about how people think about the center – and engaging them in thinking about the future. Activation is key to safe spaces and we’re focused on how to generate organic activity – more programs and reasons to visit the park on a daily basis.”
The 2005 Civic Center Park Master Plan identified the Civic Center Conservancy as “the primary private non-profit fundraising arm for [Civic Center] rehabilitation as well as new construction projects.” A 2006 cooperative agreement between the City and County of Denver and the Civic Center Conservancy officially charged the Conservancy with raising the funds necessary to implement the Master Plan’s priorities around infrastructure improvements, amenities, expanded programming and enhanced connectivity. With Civic Center’s centennial birthday approaching, the Conservancy is currently working to translate the Master Plan into a forthcoming Centennial Campaign.
Recently, City and County officials have proposed changes to make the area more accessible to the downtown population in the north and the museums towards the south. Some of these changes included adding newer pedestrian crossings, bus areas and kiosks.
The area has also seen a lot of new civic development in the last ten years, including a new home for the Denver Post. Voters in 2004 approved a new Denver Justice Center, two blocks away from Civic Center Park; and in 2006 a major addition to the Denver Art Museum which also sits in Civic Center.
“The leadership for the conservancy is a group of city leaders who are passionate about the downtown and inspired by what is going on in other cities around the country, including learning from New York City’s experience with park partnerships. Collectively they understand the connection between place-making and healthy downtowns,” says Eichenbaum.
The conservancy receives no funding from the city. Private donors put up start-up funds for the conservancy and many of them continue to support the organization. A three-year pilot project – a partnership with the Downtown Denver BID to bring some of its clean and safe programs to the park – ended when the Conservancy couldn’t raise the needed funding to support the program. A limited partnership exists now where the BID supports the conservancy’s goals on a limited basis after big events. “The funding for a higher level of maintenance was hard to sustain,” says Eichenbaum.
The Value of a Private Partner
The cooperative agreement between the conservancy and the combined city and county of Denver outlines the responsibilities of each including various reporting requirements. The conservancy focuses on activating the space, engaging the community and raising funds to implement capital projects. But their primary focus is on programming.
“The Conservancy is not the only organization that produces events in the park; the park has historically been the site for many large festivals – Denver Cinco de Mayo, Pride Fest, and Taste of Colorado,” Eichenbaum says. “It’s the rest of the days – that’s where the conservancy is focusing its attention.”
They’re focused on smaller scale program series that get people coming to the park on a regular basis and changing perceptions about the park. That includes managing its homeless population – still at a size that makes many uncomfortable. “Denver’s decision to concentrate homeless service providers in the downtown area has made the park a destination for the homeless. It’s their right to be there, but our goal is to balance the needs of the community at large with the homeless users by getting the larger public to use the park as well,” says Eichenbaum.
And they’re working on a $25 million capital campaign to add infrastructure that would support more daily use, e.g., updating the park’s iconic central feature, the Greek theater with improvements that would make it usable for performances; or making improvements to the old library; adding food kiosks and maybe a restaurant. “You can’t even buy a bottle of water in the park right now,” says Eichenbaum. “We know that food activates spaces.”
Given the discussions and debates around the country about the value of private park partners the work in Denver around Civic Center Park being led by the Conservancy makes a strong case for how the private nonprofit sector can bring energy and an entrepreneurial vision with a plan for embracing the park’s historic roots within a twenty-first century context. They are leading an effort that allows a rethinking of transportation, transit and higher density land uses that can showcase the historic architecture and the original ideas behind the city beautiful movement.
Eichenbaum wants to inform that discussion with a new way of thinking. “When the conservancy first started there was some confusion and concern about our intentions – even though the park’s master plan had identified the need for a private partner. Our focus has been as a catalyst and convener for engaging all the agencies and interests whose work touches the park and in building the idea that place-capital – like human capital and business capital – is as important for our park as it is for our downtown.”
Kathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.