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The Outsider



It's too bad Albert Speer, the architect for Hitler's lunatic scheme to recreate Berlin as the capital of the thousand-year Reich, isn't alive today. Had he survived, his talent for the impossibly grandiose and impractical could be put to good use by the boosters of Confluence Park and the Downtown Entertainment District.

If you can spare a few moments to dream the impossible dream, take a look at the latest iteration of these plans. We're going to have a convention center; a ballpark; an arts district; a millennium fountain; acres of freshly-minted fake warehouses, pre-converted into apartments; pedestrian bridges and underpasses so people can get there; a glittering retail strip, and don't forget about the kayak run down the muddy Monument to its confluence (get it? Confluence Park!) with the equally muddy Fountain.

It looks as if city government, downtown property owners and even intermittently sane folks like developer Earl Robertson are determined to take this dismal stretch of ground and transform it into LoDo south.

And when I say dismal, I do so advisedly, because of the intrinsic unattractiveness of the site. It features the soon-to-be eight lanes of I-25 to the west, Highway 24 and a giant coal-fired power plant to the south, and, near its eastern boundary, multiple railroad tracks usually occupied by mile-long coal trains (17 or 18 daily). Not exactly the site ole Walt might have chosen for our very own Disneyland.

Now all of this would make absolutely no difference if this were a private sector project. In boom times, developers tend to come up with outlandish schemes (remember the guy in the '80s who was going to turn 100,000 acres of antelope pasture between Colorado Springs and Pueblo into a spaceport for the 21st century?), but hey, it's their money, and so what? If they go belly-up, at least they've given us some innocent amusement.

Moreover, city government is well-equipped to deal with private developers, whether their schemes are nefarious or beneficent. The project is analyzed impartially and skeptically; changes, if appropriate, are negotiated; neighbors are consulted; public meetings are held and, if all parties involved can't settle their differences, they go to Council.

It's expected and understood that the developer wants to make a profit, the neighbors don't want to be inconvenienced, and that the city and the developer may have to do some serious head-butting over off-site impacts, open space allocation and the like.

Ideally, then, city staff's role is both to make sure that the development conforms to relevant plans and ordinances, and to serve as a neutral advocate for the overall good of the city, mediating the inevitable conflicts between developer, neighbors and other interested parties. It's not a perfect process by any means, but it works reasonably well.

But that's not the case with this particular project. The city, in developing Confluence Park, is becoming the master developer for the entire area.

After all, Confluence Park is not a park at all, as the term is generally understood. It's meant to be a kind of festival downtown. As it develops, the city will enter into all kinds of development deals with private parties (or private-public partnerships, as they're euphemistically called). Far from being devoted solely to the public weal, the city is now an active player and deal maker.

We've already seen one of the consequences of this new role; the city's refusal to adequately compensate Utilities for the forced relocation of the Gas Department from Confluence Park. You can put that down to inside baseball, I guess, but what happens when the city both advocates for and participates in projects that its planners need to examine?

Whether it's a baseball stadium, or a convention center, or the purchase of some overpriced real estate for an arts district, you can bet that the word will come down from the fourth floor of the City Administration building: this baby has a free pass. That means, in all probability, that none of these plans will ever get the critical scrutiny they deserve. It looks great on paper, but we ought to look at the city's track record as a developer.

A generation ago, the city leveled several square blocks of perfectly sound Victorian commercial buildings in an ill-fated stab at urban renewal. And in the '80s, bungling bureaucrats took a somewhat shabby working-class neighborhood around Lowell School and transformed it into Beirut.

Has the city learned from its past mistakes? Maybe. Let's hope they haven't simply learned how to do them over again.


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