24 August 2010

So Much For The Central Denver Rec Center

Denver Direct notes that the City of Denver first appears to have overpaid for a property adjacent to East High School that was to be used to build a Central Denver Recreation Center (which was a great idea, the Rec Center, not the overpaying part), and then ran out of money to build and operate it in the near future, forcing it to make the $6.5 million dollar property assessed at $1 million in value into a dog park and urban garden instead. Westword has also picked up the story.

In fairness to the City, I think that some of the purchase price discrepancy may have come from a change in use. Immediately before the sale, the property was being used as a church (before my time, it was a Safeway grocery store), which poses unique property assessment challenges that aren't important to be accurate about because churches aren't subject to property taxes anyway. In a real transaction, in contrast, the property has to be valued at a true fair market value that reflects development value beyond the current use.

The story of this parcel of land also says a lot about an urban neighborhood in transition. The grocery store's closing contributed significant to a "food desert" in what was one of the lowest income, most crime ridden neighborhoods in the city at the time. It was called "North Capital Hill" then, although now it is pitching the moniker "Uptown."

The plan for the recreation center did not come about when the need for one from low income city kids was greatest, although there are still plenty of kids in the neighborhood who could benefit and the City's parks and recreation department runs a vibrant track and field program that draws participants from all over the city at the adjacent East High School track. I spent what seemed like most of my summer in and around the parcel while my kids had track practice and I polished off an extra hour or so of work in the car or adjacent coffee shops three time a week.

Instead, it came about after intense gentrification and revitalization of the area, with the Tatter Cover-Twist and Shout complex moving in, the Post Properties (formerly Saint Luke's Hospital) development, a new high rise across from City Park, gentrifying development along 17th Avenue in Uptown, the gentrification and redevelopment of much of the Five Points neighborhood, and a major refurbishing of City Park.

Still, a Central Denver Rec Center would have provided a focal point to a development mini-downtown near East High, helped advance the somewhat counter-factual concept of East High as Denver's Main Street (Denver's real main street neighborhood is the Cherry Creek Mall neighborhood), and would have shown that the city was willing to make investments to revitalized its neighborhoods, which was the point of the bond issue that funded the purchase of the parcel.

East High School is also the most racially integrated, reasonably academically healthy high school in the city, in addition to claiming to be the direct successor to Denver's oldest high school. This development public-commercial complex is ground zero in the effort to accommodate Denver's several, still ethnically segregated communities, although these communities are increasingly integrating without formal public mandates as people start to value living close to the central city more and dislike commuting long distances to a greater degree. (As an aside, a remarkably large share of college bound African-American graduates of East High School are choosing to go to college at Mesa State College in Grand Junction for some reason.)

A dog park and community garden are superior to a vacant lot or a parking lot in that location, which is struggling to cross the line from its formerly blighted status to that of a healthy neighborhood. The church that owned the old structure on the site couldn't afford to maintain it in good repair and was not vibrant enough to provide a positive anchor in the neighborhood. In its off hours, it had become a place for families with kids to try to avoid and favorite resting spot for drunks, the homeless, and teens looking to escalate every encounter into a fight.

Still, it is sad to see this opportunity to build a stronger neighborhood postponed with the delay in the construction, if indeed it is ever built, of a Central Denver Recreation Center. The choice is understandable as budget pressed Denver is struggling to pawn off existing recreation centers that it is having trouble finding funds to operate on local non-profits since it can't afford to keep all of them open in these hard economic times. But, this still has to be reckoned as a good plan compromised.


Dave Barnes said...

Much better that it would have become a Sunflower Market as was the rumor.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Not sure what to think about the rec center. One thing that did catch my eye was your comment about Mesa State. I have a nephew who started there last fall and he absolutely loves it! They have quite an amazing rec center of their own if you haven't seen or heard about it:


The reason my nephew likes Mesa is because it's far enough from home to feel like he's "going off to college" but he can jump in his car at lunch time and be "home" in Denver by dinner.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I forgot to format my URL in HTML. Here goes:

Mesa State Natatorium