Denver Direct: Commercial Use of Denver Parks
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
By Dave Felice
Denver Parks and Recreation Manager Kevin Patterson is reviving a controversial proposal to allow park lands to be closed for exclusive commercial events such as music concerts.
About nine months in his new position, Patterson is now summoning members of the Admissions-Based Special Events Policy (ABSEP) Task Force to a public meeting May 21 at La Alma Recreation Center to discuss moving forward on the policy which would prevent free and open public access to parks. The meeting, open to everyone, will be from 3:00 to 5:00 at 1325 West 11th Avenue.
Patterson earlier indicated he would pursue the development of a policy to govern closed commercial events in public parks, but declined specific comment. “Parks and Recreation has an admission-based special events task force that has been in place for several months. The department will continue the process already in place and continue to develop a policy,” said Patterson shortly after taking his new post. “Once the task force draft policy is completed, we will vet it through the proper channels, including neighborhood organizations, City Council and others.”
The policy would affect all Denver parks, but focuses on seven so-called “festival parks” where selling and serving alcoholic beverages is already permitted. The seven “festival” parks are Sloan’s Lake, City Park, Confluence Park west of lower downtown, Civic Center, Creekfront Park along Speer Boulevard between Lawrence and Larimer, Skyline Park along Arapahoe Street in downtown, and the DCPA Sculpture Park.
Former Parks Manager Kim Bailey set up the Task Force in late 2007 after promoter Chuck Morris proposed taking over the western two-thirds of City Park for a multi-day, multi-stage rock music festival. When the Denver Zoo and neighborhood advocates objected, that festival was successfully moved to a sports field complex in Commerce City.
“Last year Denver Parks and Recreation asked (the Task Force members) to consider the idea of allowing Admission Based events in Denver’s Parks,” now writes Patterson in his meeting notice. “This conversation was put on hold to allow me to get up to speed on the issues surrounding this subject. Though it has been some time since you all have met as a task force, I would like to ask you to come together again to review the final recommendations of each committee and discuss the viability of this policy moving forward.”
In 2008, ABSEP committees discussed organizational matters such as policy and legal considerations, fees, park locations, and site plans. The Task Force gives the appearance of public involvement.
Morris publicly presented plans for his festival in November 2007, even though documents show he was in private talks with Parks and Recreation as early as July of that year. Neighborhood advocates are outnumbered by about three-to-one by event organizers and city officials on the ABSEP Task Force.
Numerous neighborhood representatives contend it is improper to prevent open access to public park land. They declare parks are public property and should not be turned into sources of revenue. Other skeptical neighborhood representatives are concerned about the adverse environmental impact, noise, and congestion. Former City Councilwoman Cathy Donohue has said closing the parks for private, profit-making ventures would constitute a lease, in violation of city charter. Former Parks Manger Carolyn Etter has stated emphatically: “The parks are not for sale.” Cindy Johnstone, of Friends and Neighbors of Washington Park (FANS) and former Denver Parks and Recreation Advisory Board member, questions how Parks and Recreation actually determines the overall wishes of city residents. Larry Ambrose of Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association has repeatedly said that “there is a right place, right time, and right type of commercial activities charging an entrance fee”, maintaining that a new park like a “Red Rocks in the City” would be the only acceptable admission based park.
Bailey said there appeared to be little or no interest in development of a genuine permanent festival site in Denver. While some neighborhood representatives continue to suggest the city develop a specific site for commercial events, Bailey commented “I doubt Elitch’s is moving” and noted that a festival park has not been considered as new neighborhoods and city facilities were built in recent years.
Several neighborhood activists have also expressed strong sentiment that any draft policy should be presented to the public for approval, through public hearings and a vote. Cheesman Park area resident Steve Lang contends “it makes sense to find out what voters want,” since the policy would “take public facilities and convert them to private or semi-private uses.” He described the policy as “a significant change to the way public facilities are used and managed.”
Although allowing closed commercial events would be a major change in parks management, Assistant City Attorney Patrick Wheeler claims the Parks Department can make the change under its rule-making authority and a public vote is not required. Wheeler has said the “festival” concept is not defined in writing, but is part of the various categories of permits issued for the use of city parks. Generally, he says, a festival would involve some primary event, beverage sales, and vendor booths which would make up the “character of activities.” He also draws a distinction between a festival and an assembly which is considered an event for the expression of free speech.
Bailey said developing a policy on commercial closure of park lands was not on her agenda and was generated by the proposal from Morris as head of Anschutz Entertainment (AEG Live). “We are not pushing this (policy),” said Bailey. “When the (AEG) proposal was presented, it was a time to reconsider and rethink our policy.” Bailey acknowledged she was “not comfortable” with the idea of exclusive commercial events in parks, but said the city needs a policy to deal with such proposals.
Parks Marketing Manager Jill McGranahan has admitted that the exclusive commercial events policy is an effort to “look at alternative ways to offset the cost” of running the parks. She contends that current nonprofit events effectively result in closure of sections of parks anyway. Bailey also emphasized that Parks is not responsible for regulating alcoholic beverage sales. “(Organizers) have to follow (city) Excise and License rules,” she said. “It is the organizers’ hurdle to work with (beverage sales) regulators.” Denver Parks and Recreation has “internal guidelines” on what might be considered objectionable during a festival event. One requirement is that no permanent signage is allowed. Promotion of firearms, tobacco, or alcoholic beverages is not permitted. At one point, Bailey did acknowledge, however, that if nudists presented a proposal for a park event, they would be considered.
Architect Tom Morris, of the Capitol Hill area, is highly critical. “As a citizen who has expended years defending City Park mostly against the hair-brained schemes of municipal government, I urge you (Patterson) to join your predecessors…in keeping our parks for public access,” wrote Morris. “Please…stop the latest scheme to fence off parks for private gain. The public does not invest its treasure in our parks so that a few entrepreneurs can harvest the fruits of this investment.”
District 4 City Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann, chair of the Public Amenities Committee, and Committee member Marcia Johnson of District 5 have not commented publicly on the issue of exclusive commercial events in parks. District 8 Councilwoman, Carla Madison, also a member of the Amenities Committee, was an early and enthusiastic backer of the Morris festival proposal for City Park. Madison appeared in a promotional video prepared even before the proposal was made public. She is also a member of the ABSEP Task Force. Her husband, Paul Weiss, has been active organizing non-profit events in parks.
Parks analysts have presented comparisons of Denver’s City Park with Grant Park in Chicago, Zilker Park in Austin, and Piedmont Park in Atlanta. At Grant Park, the Lollapalooza festival runs three days with 75,000 people per day, nine stages, and 65 percent of the park is closed of 17 days. Austin City Limits handles 70,000 people per day over three days, with seven stages and one youth stage in half of the park space. The concert area of Zilker Park is closed for 19 days. Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, subject of continuing legal controversy over management, hosted one concert with attendance of 52,000. The concert section, 20 percent of the park, was closed for six-and-a-half days. The City of Milwaukee provides a dramatic precedent for a permanent festival facility. Milwaukee Summerfest is a yearly music festival held at the 75-acre Henry Maier Festival Park along the lakefront. The festival lasts for 11 days, and attracts almost one million people each year. The festival grounds have 10 permanent stages and a 23,000 seat amphitheater. Summerfest is run by the non-profit Milwaukee World Festival Inc. The Maier Park property on Lake Michigan is actually owned by the Port Authority. Milwaukee World Festival sub-leases the property to various other groups for other large festivals throughout the year. For example, Irish Fest in Milwaukee is the largest in the world, hosting up to 150,000 people over four days.
Patterson has no actual park experience. He comes to the post of Manager of Parks and Recreation after being the city’s Director of General Services. As Parks Manager, Patterson’s official salary is $130,531 per year. Patterson is also a member of the Denver School Board.
Residents can send comments to Parks and Recreation Manager Kevin Patterson. His name, address, and phone number are not posted on the Parks web site at www.denvergov.org. Patterson’s city e-mail is Kevin.Patterson @ci.denver.co.us. He can be contacted in his capacity as an elected School Board official at kevin_patterson @dpsk12.org. His postal address is Department 601, 201 West Colfax, Denver 80202. Patterson’s phone number is not listed. His assistant, Angela Casias, can be reached at 720-913-0741. Written and e-mail communication is a public document, subject to provisions of the Colorado Open Records Act.
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