Denver, Colorado

Once famously called “too thick to drink, too thin to plow,” the South Platte River runs for 10.5 miles through the downtown, residential and industrial neighborhoods of Denver, Colorado. The formerly polluted and forgotten river is now a thriving ecological and recreation resource, a result of the development of one of the first greenway systems in America. In leveraging an original $1.9 million investment into 150 miles of trails, boat launches, chutes, and parks in four counties and nine municipalities, the South Platte River Greenway Foundation has served as a prototype for over a dozen greenways across the country.

Project Background

The South Platte River was dumped in, neglected, and cut off from the city when, in 1965, the river struck back, causing $325 million in damages the worst flood in Denver’s history. The flood put the river back on the city’s agenda, spawning a decade of expensive studies that the city had no intention of supporting. It would be nearly 10 years before a serious plan to rescue the South Platte would take root.

The effort began in earnest in June, 1974, with an unlikely combination of supporters. The impetus came from Denver’s Mayor, Democrat Bill McNichols, who, in 1971, had defeated Joe Shoemaker; a powerful Republican state senator who had run on a platform that included cleaning up the South Platte River. Sensing a good cause, and anticipating the budding environmental movement, McNichols, armed with $1.9 million in revenue-sharing funds, announced the formation of the Platte River Development Committee, and asked Shoemaker to head it up. Although they were from opposite sides of the aisle, the recent rivals agreed on a plan of attack, including cleaning up the waterway, constructing an accessible, flood-proof trail system, and developing riverside parks and several boat chutes.

Shoemaker, who had allowed dumping in the river when he was public works director in the early sixties, became its biggest advocate. However, for those living in the less affluent neighborhoods adjacent to the South Platte, the river was a liability dangerously polluted, fetid, and infested with vermin. Shoemaker saw these neighborhoods as a logical constituency for his campaign, “They had everything to gain and nothing to lose,” he noted, and outspoken activists from three of Denver’s low-income, riverside neighborhoods were chosen to serve on the development committee. Other members had equally diverse and sometimes competing interests, including developers, preservationists and politicians.

However, the logistical problems and bureaucratic hurdles were huge. For example, a cement company was regularly cleaning out its mixers into the river, and used diesel oil was being dumped onto the river bank from a railyard. In addition, many industries were operating on the river, including scrap metal yards and auto wreckers, who, although legitimate, made it an unsightly, noisy and dangerous destination for recreators. Worst of all, city departments tacitly allowed street sweepings, dirty snow, and raw sewage to be dumped into the Platte.

The committee toured the riverside, itemizing the serious conditions the river faced. Shoemaker recalls, “The river had never had a budget, so it never had a constituency. When we approached the city for help, they thought we were nuts, and the people said it was a joke to even call the South Platte a river at all. That was what we were up against.”

To more efficiently attack and solve the issues facing the river, the committee then divided into four groups and paired-up its members, giving each group one section of riverfront to focus on exclusively. They were required, in a very short period of time, to come back with a feasible plan for a “node” or park located along their section. There was no master plan. Shoemaker believed that the ten years of pointless, expensive studies had damned any real planning effort. Instead, he hoped to quickly demonstrate the committee’s effectiveness by building a few parks, and then connecting the nodes together with a trail, hoping that would provide a springboard for additional improvements. On Labor Day, 1975, a few months into the committee’s second year of work, the ribbon was cut at Confluence Park, the first major project undertaken by the committee. Located at the original settlement of Denver, where Cherry Creek joins the South Platte, the new park included an amphitheater, a boat chute and a riverside trail, all a short walk from the downtown business district.

Shoemaker had one other hard and fast rule: he refused to let the city give his committee any official contract or authority. Without any official powers, he reasoned, there were no limitations on what the committee could do. “No power is all power,” he was quoted as saying–a maxim that became known as Shoemaker’s Law. Operating under Shoemaker’s Law, the committee counted 240 places where pollution was being dumped directly into the river. 200 violators stopped peaceably and 40 were sued successfully on behalf of the city. Unsightly businesses were encouraged to relocate, and railroad lines were rerouted.

In 1977, with seed money from the Gates Foundation, the committee transformed itself into a tax-exempt, 501c3 organization, the South Platte River Greenway Foundation, Inc., to better permit donations. In seven years the foundation raised $14 million from private and public sources, built 10.5 miles of concrete trails, 4 whitewater boat chutes, and 17 miniparks out of dumps where public department, and others had been dumping trash for decades.

The greenway was an immediate success, and an inspiration for outlying counties. For the next ten years, the focus shifted from the greenway to the tributaries of the river, which had the potential of serving as trail linkages to the South Platte, suburbs, and the downtown area. Neighboring Arapaho County formed a greenway foundation and built eight miles of trails linking Downtown Denver to the Chatfield Reservoir, which had been built to stop the Platte from flooding. Similarly, Adams County built a greenway, connecting Denver with the city of Thornton, Colorado. The town of Littleton persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to abandon a flood control project that involved culverting a creek, instead creating a 625-acre wildlife reserve along the South Platte. Six state parks are also linked to the system, which now runs 150 miles up every gulch and stream in the river basin. With the success of the greenway system, the state legislature has dedicated lottery funds to a state greenway program, allowing for considerable programming, expansion and capital improvements. The South Platte River Greenway Foundation is now run by Joe Shoemaker’s son, Jeff.

A Renewed Effort

Due primarily to the increasing regional population, and the redevelopment of downtown Denver, the 1990’s have brought about a renewed focus on the South Platte River by residents and politicians. By focusing on parkland, development and educational programming, this recent effort has brought more recreation opportunities for Denver residents and visitors, an increased volume of flow through the traditionally low river, and provided a springboard for additional residential development and investment in areas adjacent to the riverpark system.

Mayor Wellington Webb has put the river at the top of his agenda, and currently has over $35 million invested in six separate river park projects. He has also led an effort to increase environmental education and youth programming around the river. Partnerships with Denver Public Schools have led to 25 on-site and school-based educational programs. According to the Mayor’s office, when combined with reinstated youth ranger and employment initiatives, these programs have helped bring over 17,000 youth to the river from 1995-1997. Mayor Webb also created and serves on the new South Platte River Commission, which comprises 27 members, and has established five task forces to implement their initiatives. Additionally, 23 outside organizations continue to be actively involved in making the improvements.

Major housing, commercial and recreational facilities are planned that will link Denver’s revitalized downtown with the river through the Central Platte Valley, 60 acres of formerly industrial land and 1.5 miles of riverfront. The Downtown Partnership, Denver’s largest business organization, has aided in the acquisition and planning for this segment, and is helping form a vision of parks, and mixed-use development between the river and downtown which includes more than six million square feet of mixed use development, including 3000 residential units planned, zoned and beginning construction in 1998. When completed, the project is boasted to be the most substantial river-edge parkland project between Chicago and California.

(Fall 1998)