Denver Direct: Ruby Hill – A Jewel Of A Park Or A Crown Of Thorns?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Ruby Hill – A Jewel Of A Park Or A Crown Of Thorns?

Reprinted with permission

by Paul Kashmann
Ruby Hill Park could become one of Denver’s most active performance venues under a plan supported by District 7 City Councilman Chris Nevitt, Denver’s First Lady Mary Louise Lee and several area non-profit agencies.
The proposal has drawn objections from those opposing the spread of alcohol sales in Denver parks as well as those who believe that public parks should remain open to all – not fenced off for fee-based events.
In 2010, seven Denver parks – City Park, Civic Center Park, Confluence Park, Parkfield Park, Ruby Hill Park, Skyline Park and Stapleton Central Park – were designated as “festival parks,” allowing portions of those green-spaces to be permitted for occasional fee-based events. All of the parks but Ruby Hill were also given a go-ahead for the sale of alcohol in such cases. “I blame myself for being asleep at the switch,” said Nevitt. “I actually don’t remember why Ruby Hill was passed as a festival park without liquor sales. It doesn’t make sense to me. It was a bad idea.

“My idea has always been to make Ruby Hill a jewel in Denver’s crown of parks. To make it the citywide destination that it ought to be. It’s a perfect park with perfect views, and largely it sits empty. As a result, it’s a target for vandalism, and other nasty stuff. We’ve done a lot to turn that around. Ruby Hill has a state-of-the-art playground that would be the the envy of Stapleton. The Ruby Hill Rail Yard has been fantastically successful when the winter weather has cooperated. We have a beautiful new pavilion up there.”
The community has “invested a great deal of time developing a Ruby Hill Master Plan, which calls for a performance space in the natural bowl” just west of Platte River Dr. and south of Florida Ave., said Nevitt. He has sought out several entities who might make use of such a venue.
“Swallow Hill (Music Association) partnered with the city in celebrating Denver Urban Gardens’ (DUG) 100th garden at Ruby Hill, but they’re not in the business of losing money. They charge comparatively little admission for their shows and one of the ways they can make that up is on beer and wine sales at outdoor concerts.”
A recent public meeting hosted by the Denver Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (DPRAB) drew “a lot of folks from Ruby Hill, Godsman and close by,” said Nevitt. “They get it. Largely they like the idea. There’s always a little nervousness about concert events. Neighbors afraid of folks urinating in their yards, backing into cars. But that’s not our experience elsewhere. Then there are concerns about parking, but we parked multiple hundred cars at the DUG event without going into the neighborhood.
“We feel good about the idea (of a concert space and liquor sales at Ruby Hill). We are getting push back, but not from people in the neighborhoods. The people who’ve been opposed are the folks who have been against ticketed events and alcohol in the parks in the first place. I get where they’re coming from. They’re opposed on principle. If it’s a principle it’s a principle, and I’m not sure we can change their point of view.”
Dave Felice is an at-large delegate of the Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. and a charter member of Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation’s Parks Committee (PARC). He has been active in opposing admission-based events and increased availability of alcohol in Denver parks.
In an April 12 letter to the DPRAB, Felice stated, “The legality of alcohol consumption was settled by the 21st Amendment, but government continues to have an obligation for responsible regulation. Those who do not drink responsibly can have a serious detrimental impact. The sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages sets the stage for under-age or excessive drinking, audience conflict, undesirable behaviors, and intoxicated driving.
“The Ruby Hill neighborhoods … deserve a rejuvenated park. Overwhelming the area with disruptive alcohol sales and admission-based events is not the proper approach.
“It is also highly specious to suggest that this is a matter only for Ruby Hill.  Parks belong to the entire community, not a specific neighborhood or council district. 
“You are appointed stewards of the public good. Your responsibility is to protect enjoyable public parks. It is not your job to run taverns or concert venues. Reject the alcoholic beverage proposal and admission-based events. Keep parks for the public, not profit!”
One group that Nevitt hopes shows  support for the performance space idea is Levitt Pavilions. According to its website, the California-based foundation “partners with cities to build and transform outdoor music venues into community treasures. Our goal is to inspire the best of American city life by bringing people together in beautiful, open green spaces to enjoy free, live music.” Levitt pavilions in Los Angeles and Pasadena, Calif.; Westport, Conn.; Bethlehem, Pa.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Arlington, Texas each offer more than 50 free concerts each year by musical artists in all genres.
“We’re at the top of their list for their next pavilion,” said Nevitt. “They’re talking a $5 million deal. They provide $2.5 million toward the structure, which we need to match, and then another $2.5 million in ongoing support.”  
Among the organizations hoping to make use of a Ruby Hill venue is the Platte River Greenway Foundation, which guides the reclamation and revitalization of Denver’s historic South Platte River corridor. Executive Director Jeff Shoemaker told The Profile, “We are, indeed, in support of (Nevitt’s) request to the DPRAB to allow Ruby Hill Park to allow beer and wine at permitted events.
“It is the Greenway Foundation’s desire to expand our summertime concert series from having all four concerts occur at Confluence Park to having two concerts at Confluence Park; one concert at Ruby Hill Park; and one concert in the River North neighborhood on the TAXI development property.
“For this goal to occur, beer and wine sales, which help offset the costs of providing the ‘free to the public’ concert series, need to be a part of the package. These concerts have a huge following – feature local bands and musicians – and are absolutely a blast.”

Jan Marie Belle is president of the Ruby Hill Neighborhood Association. Her concern is focused less on alcohol sales at the park than on the cars that will bring people into the community. “This deal was done before we walked in the door (at the last DPRAB meeting),” said Belle. “They’re going to do alcohol there. They brought up the two groups –Swallow Hill and the Greenway Foundaton – that would do such a good job of managing it. I don’t think the alcohol will be a problem. Parking, parking, parking is the issue.

“If you have four or five thousand people, you’re going to have a couple thousand cars. Where do they go? People can legally park on city streets and they will. I asked one of Nevitt’s aides about having permit parking on the nearby streets, and she said, ‘There’s nothing we can do until there’s a problem demonstrated.’ So again we’re forced to be reactionary.”

Belle expects that the crowds coming to a Swallow Hill or Greenway Foundation event would be “mellow and compliant, but if somebody else wanted to put on a Led Zeppelin reunion, or something like that it, could be an entirely different situation. I don’t know where the money is coming from for all of this. Who will pay for traffic control? How much money does the city make by monetizing public property for private gain?
“I just hope that we’re not telling our kids 50 years from now that ‘we used to be able to just go to the park and play for free, but now you need to show a pass, and it’s pay to play.’”
Tom Scharf is executive director of Swallow Hill Music Association. Scharf would love to make use of Ruby Hill for festival-style events, but reiterates Shoemaker’s point that alcohol sales are essential to make the bottom line finances feasible.

 Ruby Hill is just a lovely spot. We had the world’s largest ukulele lesson there when we partnered with Denver Urban Gardens. We had music for the grownups and an instrument petting zoo where kids could actually handle a variety of instruments. We wanted to appeal to the community from all angles. It was kind of a ‘proof of concept’ show to see how we were received, and it was a great day.”
Swallow Hill would like to do a fall event at Ruby Hill “similar to the festivals we do on South Pearl Street, and at the Botanic Gardens,” said Scharf. “I use the Botanic Gardens series as the model as to how we can go into a dense urban neighborhood and minimize the potential for problems with parking, noise and alcohol. We’ve been able to satisfy almost all the neighborhoods’ concerns by being good stewards.
“We want it to be a community event, not just a concert,” he explained. “An important part of our mission is making music affordable and accessible, and to do that we try to keep our admission prices low wherever we can. They’re $5 on Pearl St. The alcohol revenue is more than half our revenue on events like that. We couldn’t do it without alcohol sales.”
Denver’s First Lady relishes the idea of creating another venue that can showcase our city’s commitment to the arts. “My priority is to activate the arts across our great city,” said Ms. Lee.  “From schools to community arts organizations and public spaces, my hope is that all Denver residents can access and enjoy our world-class arts.
“One of the proposed projects I am excited to be involved with is the Levitt Pavilion in Ruby Hill Park. The Levitt Foundation has a great reputation of building high quality outdoor venues that enhance community through music, which would benefit the neighborhood and the city.”
Athmar Park Neighborhood Association president, Karen Cuthbertson, believes that Ruby Hill is not an appropriate festival site. “There’s just not the necessary infrastructure for that type of use. I’m concerned about damage to the hillside grass. It’s much more fragile and difficult to recover than a flat lawn. Just look at the damage Civic Center sustains after the People’s Fair. And I’m concerned about people leaving the park after drinking all afternoon.”
Cuthbertson supports the idea of a festival park being developed elsewhere in the city. “There will never be a time when the type of noise these events produce should be situated 50 feet from someone’s window. That’s not what the parks were intended for. If people want to have these activities in a park-like setting, then develop an event park. Don’t try to retrofit existing parks next to where people are trying to sleep.”