What do developers and urban bureaucrats have in common? Developers like to acquire land and build things, while urban bureaucrats may enjoy ripping down old stuff and “reactivating” publicly owned spaces.
The latest example: the city’s nascent scheme to tear down the 1914 Thomas Barber-designed band shell in Acacia Park as part of an extensive renovation of the park, part of a multimillion dollar project to renovate and reinvent three downtown parks.
If you’re wondering why the city is spending big bucks on such non-essential projects despite catastrophic drops in sales and use tax collection, don’t blame the mayor and council. Blame it on the voters, who in the halcyon pre-COVID-19 era voted to spend tax revenues that exceeded TABOR limits on our parks.
So here come our well-compensated urban bureaucrats with a cliché-rich blurb, posted for all to read on the city’s website. This is verbatim — I didn’t invent or change a word, although I left out a sentence about “activating” the spaces.
“This 1-year planning effort seeks to provide efficient, fun and inclusive ways to participate in re-envisioning how these three historic parks continue to provide a safe place for respite and activities for all. A century and a half from the city’s founding, we are taking a moment to ensure future improvements to downtown recreation balance the value of history with a fresh forward-look to determine the best combination of new or renewed park uses, site amenities, programs, infrastructure and management practices. It is also an opportunity to underscore the importance of economic vitality and preserving business relationships to support future park improvements.”
Foolish old (and not so old) naysayers have banded together to preserve the band shell as well as the historic design of the park.
“This block was platted as a public park in 1871 by the Colorado Springs Company,” wrote Chuck Snow, who created a Facebook group dedicated to saving the band shell.
“It was initially landscaped by John Blair, a Scots landscaper brought to Colorado Springs to improve the lands of the Colorado Springs Company by Gen. William Jackson Palmer. Before moving to Colorado, Blair had worked as superintendent of public parks in Chicago, where he laid out Humboldt Park. Blair was responsible for the landscaping and rock work at Palmer’s Glen Eyrie, and he participated in laying out Manitou Springs. [An] 1888 drawing of Acacia Park shows diagonal paths with many trees bordering them and along the perimeter. In 1914, a band shell was erected in the southern end of the park designed by local architect Thomas P. Barber. In 1939, a 12’x40’ extension was built onto the band shell. A concrete dance floor was installed in 1940 north of the band shell, and 2,500 persons turned out for the first square dance in July.”
Historic preservationists have had to mount such battles for 60 years. It’s one thing to oppose shortsighted and foolish schemes to raze privately owned historic structures, but quite another to fight your own local government.
In the 1970s, retired Gen. Ken Curtis led the successful fight to save the County Courthouse, (now the Pioneers Museum) which the county commissioners had decided to raze. In 1980, city government vacated City Hall, leaving it in untenanted disrepair. In the 1990s, city staff proposed to repurpose the City Auditorium to house the municipal courts, a scheme that was eventually thwarted by Mayor Bob Isaac’s subtle political maneuvering. And while the old Aud is still threatened, Isaac’s successor, Mary Lou Makepeace, led the restoration and reuse of City Hall, which once again houses city council. Yet we lost a historic building in the process, as the city acquired the neighboring 1904 Udick building in 2000 and tore it down to make space for an executive parking lot.
I don’t think that the city will demolish the 1914 bandstand, but they undeniably have the power to so. We need to change that, and create lasting protection for significant publicly owned historic buildings. How about asking council to refer an amendment to the City Charter in next April’s municipal election that would require voter assent to tear down or significantly alter such structures. Otherwise, we’re just passing the buck to future politicians, preservationists and cunning urban bureaucrats. And absent legal barriers, the wrecking ball will eventually win.
A city without historic structures isn’t a city you can love.