Commons Park’s future might start with an “unorthodox” private process

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

The city doesn’t have the time or money to redesign Commons Park right now, so a private neighborhood group has paid a design firm to draft a new plan for the public space. Scroll on to see their ideas.

A summer crowd gathers on "Stoner Hill," also known as Overlook Hill, in Commons Park. (Andrew Kenney / Denverite)

A summer crowd gathers on "Stoner Hill," also known as Overlook Hill, in Commons Park. (Andrew Kenney / Denverite)

First, a little background.

Commons Park is host to “Stoner Hill,” where young and often homeless people hang out and smoke weed in the warmer months. Other parts of the park reportedly see heroin use.

This has resulted in a lot of complaints, especially because it’s surrounded by some of the priciest real-estate in the city. In response, we’ve heard a lot of calls for a redesign of the park.

“Commons Park and the Central Platte Valley have evolved in a way we never expected,” said Mark Bernstein, downtown area planner for Denver Parks and Recreation.

So, the city hosted a forum last summer to gather comments and concerns about Commons Park.

“We let people vent,” he said. Afterward, Bernstein and others realized that “we needed to have something a little more structured, more positive,” he said.

Police cars are a common sight in Commons Park. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

Police cars are a common sight in Commons Park. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

But the city didn’t have money set aside for a Commons Park redesign.

Instead, Bernstein worked with the Riverfront Park Association to bring together a non-public committee and talk about the public park.

This “smaller, more manageable group” included about 30 people representing different residential buildings, plus Bernstein and other city staff, Bernstein said.

The Riverfront Park Association, meanwhile, paid to bring on the landscape architecture firm Civitas, which originally designed the park more than a decade ago.

Because this new Commons Park discussion hasn’t been publicly funded or officially organized by the city, it hasn’t been advertised to the public – but it also doesn’t have any power to make decisions about the park.

Here’s what came out of those meetings.

I made a public records request and received a document summing up the private group’s talks about Commons Park.

Curiously, it arrived with city logos on it – but Bernstein says those were not added by city staff and that, again, this unofficial proposal could not be built without the standard public approvals.

Among the most popular ideas:

  • Make a stronger connection between Commons Park and Confluence Park.
  • Build another pedestrian bridge across the South Platte River.
  • Thin out trees around the hill and elsewhere.
  • Make a dog park in the center of the park.
A privately funded draft of what Commons Park could look like one day. Any changes would have to be approved by a normal public process. (Obtained by records request from the city of Denver.)

A privately funded draft shows ideas for a potential redesign of Commons Park. (Obtained via records request from the city of Denver)

And here’s an illustration of the perceived danger that the plan is meant to address.

A document funded by the Riverfront Park Association shows perceived safety issues in Commons Park. (Obtained by public records request from the city of Denver)

A document funded by the Riverfront Park Association shows perceived safety issues in Commons Park. (Obtained via records request from the city of Denver)

The process, Bernstein acknowledged, has been “unorthodox and atypical.”

But it has been a way to build momentum toward the regular public process, he said.

I asked whether this partnership might give extra influence to the people who were allowed to get in at the ground floor. Bernstein said it was a fair question, but argued that the public process would balance out those concerns.

“These are just the ideas of a select few. I’m not necessarily on board with all these ideas,” Bernstein said. “… This gives people something to chew on, and respond to.”

I’m not aware of any rules or laws that this approach violates.

The Riverfront Park Association is free to spend its money how it sees fit, and it’s not uncommon for city staff to have strong relationships with resident groups.

The RPA, for context, is like a private government for the neighborhood. It spends an annual budget of about $1 million, paid by local building owners, on neighborhood improvements and security services.

I see this as an example of how private groups use their resources and organization to advance their ideas. For what it’s worth, the entire Riverfront Park area was built through a public-private process.

Now it’s up to the city to ensure that everyone else can have their say, assuming a redesign ever happens. Bernstein says that there are no plans set for any major Commons Park project, although the city is going to host a series of activities to get more people in the park.

Don Cohen, president of the RPA, said he didn’t have any comment to add to Bernstein’s explanation.

Reporter Andrew Kenney can be reached at akenney@denverite.com or twitter.com/andyknny.

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