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May 2015 • Online Edition

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River Projects Restore Rightful Ecology To S. Platte Platte | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

While not pleased with the city’s decision to trade away southeast Denver parkland to Denver Public Schools, parks advocates appear considerably more enthused about $20 million in projects that will reinvigorate the South Platte River corridor from Alameda Ave. south to Grant Frontier Park, located on W. Evans Ave., then south on Huron St.

Under the guidance of the River South master plan started in 2009, a series of projects are being designed to create a waterway more inviting and accessible to the public, while providing a riparian habitat signifcantly more hospitable for the fish, insects, birds and woodland creatures that would traditionally make the river and its surrounding environs their home. The adjacent trail system and several parks in the project area will benefit as well. Completion of the work is expected by spring 2015.

Gordon Robertson, Denver’s director of Park Planning, explained that, “Over 40-50 years, the city decided they wanted to contain flood waters within the banks of the river. They channelized it like a big bathtub, 4-12 feet deep. While a reasonable idea to protect nearby homes and other properties, this is not an ecologically healthy solution. The resulting steep banks not only limit human access to the waterway, they are not very friendly to either trees or the varied species that use the river.

“We want to lay the banks back, taking the 2:1 slope that now exists to more like a 5:1 slope. This will still allow flood waters to be contained should that happen, but will also expand the riparian habitat four times over what exists at present.”

Michael Bouchard is a landscape architect recruited from the private sector specifically to manage a large part of the work in progress. “These (Platte River improvements) are legacy projects for the city,” said Bouchard. “An opportunity like this doesn’t come along but once or twice in a career.”

Bouchard will direct a $7 million project in the northern reaches of the improvement zone, as well as another of similar cost at the southern border. The first phase starts at Alameda Ave. and extends down the river and its western banks about a half mile through Vanderbilt Park and Johnson Habitat Park.

“We’re going to redo the regional trail that passes through the area, bringing it up to new standards,” said Bouchard. “We’ll install a 12-foot-wide colored concrete trail, with 2-3 foot recovery zones on either side, where you can pull off for repairs or other needs without blocking what has become a fairly high-speed trail. We’ll also put in a 4-5 foot wide, soft surface trail between the main trail and the river, that’s specifically for pedestrians.”

Front Range children will benefit from an environmental education center being planned for Johnson Habitat Park. “This will be unique in Denver’s system,”  explained Bouchard, “with a variety of nature play features.” Referencing the concepts of Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, Bouchard said, “With all the technology that has distracted them, kids have become separated from the natural world. Our goal is to get them back into nature and get their hands dirty.”

Tens of thousands of yards of dirt will have to be removed to widen the channel. “As we proceed through the project area, we’ll widen where we have the opportunity. It’s a bit piecemeal where we own the property adjacent to the river. Though it’s being widened in some places, the way the channel is being shaped actually allows us to remove about 200 houses and commercial structures from flood plain designation.”

The second effort under Bouchard’s direction begins at Overland Pond Park, north of Florida Ave., and proceeds about 1.25 miles south past Evans Ave. into Grant Frontier Park on the east bank of the Platte. 

“There is currently a 6-7 foot high dam drop structure at Florida Ave.,” said Bouchard. “Behind it has silted in over the years, creating about 1⁄2 mile of shallow stagnant water – not a healthy stretch of river. We’re going to remove the existing structure and replace it with smaller drop structures or ‘ripples,’ made of boulders. We’ll regrade the channel for about 3,000 linear feet behind the current structure, returning the river to conditions much more similar to what was there historically. It will increase the habitat potential for insect and fish life, and will make the area much more amenable for such activities as kayaking and tubing.”

Grant Frontier Park marks the historic location of Montana City, the first platted settlement in Denver in 1858. A cabin and ore cart illustrative of the settlement sit behind a locked chain link fence.

“The existing features make an effort to speak to and interpret Montana City,” said Bouchard. “But they’re behind a fence and locked. The way they’re configured and constructed, they’re not safe and secure to open to the public. We’re looking to reinterpret the history of the site in a way that’s safe and accessible. We’re working with the History Colorado museum and other sources to tell the story in a more robust way.”

The Overland Park Neighborhood Association and other park lovers have been very vocal regarding their concern over the loss of trees that the planned projects will necessitate. Bouchard explained, “We’re in the design process. The slopes are the fundamental driver. If we’re going to meet the goals of accessibility and visibility we have to deal with the way the dirt is working out there. Along the existing steep slopes we have a lot of cottonwoods. They grow well there. We are going to have to take some down to push out the banks.

“Our first drawings showed about a 50/50 split. Since then we’ve been walking the site, talking to people and refining things. We’ve moved toward saving 65-75 percent of the trees out there. We’re doing our best to determine the right balance between preserving what’s there now, and planning for the future for our grandchildren, to create these larger enhanced riparian zones.” The removal of invasive species such as Russian olive will make way for more robust willow, box elder and  beloved cottonwood trees.

Bouchard said the final design will include planting of “at least 400 new trees that are appropriate for the environment, and maybe more.”

Other projects planned for the next couple of years along the South Platte River include a reconstruction of the junction where Weir Gulch enters the Platte River by the Sun Valley neighborhood,  adding native plantings and a new trail, and the reconstruction of Confluence Park, at the junction of Cherry Creek and the Platte River.

The Denver General Fund will contribute only $5 million toward the total price tag of $19.5 million for the river rehabilitation effort. Also participating are: Great Outdoors Colorado ($8 million); the Natural Resource Damage Fund ($2.7 million, including some $1.8 million awarded in the Shattuck EPA Superfund site clean-up settlement); Urban Drainage and Flood Control ($2 million); Colorado Water Conservation Board ($750,000); EPA ($190,000); Colorado Parks & Wildlife ($175,000); CDOT ($65,000); Denver Trout Unlimited ($25,000); and the Johnson Foundation ($12,500).

Keep up with developments at denvergov.org/parksandrecreation


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