If Colorado Springs leaders have their way, everything about Confluence Park will be fantastical, jocular, whimsical, positively waggish.
It will also cost at least $50 million.
Right now the city has less than $11 million left from the pot of money that city voters approved as part of a Springs Community Improvement Program (SCIP) bond package in 1999.
Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace and other local vanguards envision the park as the "gateway" to Colorado Springs, a showplace to welcome visitors and a place where families will gather.
Ideas for what will go into the park were generated during a four-month design process, in which Denver and Fort Collins consultants met with city staff and citizens to brainstorm.
What they came up with -- a preliminary wish list of sorts -- is a fantastic assortment of proposals; everything from a huge "millennium fountain" to a children's water adventure play area, a kayak run, a pyramid, a promenade, a carousel, a trolley, a "belvedere" overlook, a climbing wall, an amphitheater, an "arts walk" and a farmers market.
Even the name of the public meetings was natty: organizers called them "design charettes."
In addition to the assorted park amenities, some community movers and shakers support building a convention center near the park site, as well as several large hotels.
Noting that similar projects in other cities have made way for loft housing and other residential development, city leaders also want to incorporate that into the plan as part of the redevelopment of the Confluence Park area in the southwest corner of downtown.
The city development group support manager, Chuck Miller, conceded that the type of loft projects that have been renovated in Denver would be impossible here. That's because Colorado Springs tore down many of its historic buildings during the urban development of the 1970s and '80s.
Still, downtown housing is very hip and cool in other cities right now, and Colorado Springs leaders are convinced it will be here as well.
"Maybe we can make the architecture look old," Miller said.
The 60-acre park and residential and commercial area would be connected to the rest of downtown via a suspended pedestrian bridge.
Miller, who, along with project manager Jim Rees, is spearheading the Confluence Park project, said its actual scope will depend on how much additional money the city is able to raise from private groups and government agencies.
"What we've come up with is a plan for a park in all possible worlds," Miller said.
The city has retained a national design firm and a small army of consultants including water and noise specialists to help compile plans for the park.
"The whole damn team has flair," joked Miller. "We're loaded with panache."
The idea for Confluence Park as a community gathering place originated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But in 1991, the first of the Douglas Bruce-sponsored local tax limitation proposals was approved by voters. The city quickly abandoned further discussion about the project, instead girding for the resulting cuts in the city's general operating funds.
Talks resumed in the late 1990s, and the city put the request for $11.5 million for the Confluence Park project into the Springs Community Improvement Program package that voters approved last April. Just southeast of downtown, the park's boundaries will be Colorado Avenue to the north, Cimarron Street to the south, Interstate 25 to the west and Cascade Avenue to the east.
"Most cities our size have a water feature and park area that has been developed. Ours has been more of a back door than a front door approach," said Dave Palenchar, vice president of programs for the philanthropic El Pomar Foundation.
Two years ago, the charitable foundation donated $1.5 million to help acquire 30 acres at the southern end of the planned park.
Approximately 45 people attended the charette meeting last November with more than half of the attendees representing government agencies or various project consultants -- planners, architects, water engineers, a public relations' firm -- that were hired by the city to study the project.
Subsequently, the city formed a "citizen advisory task force," which includes numerous activists who are sometimes referred to as "the usual suspects" because of their ardent and long-term involvement in community projects.
The ideas expressed during the public brainstorming charettes varied widely as to the type of "gateway to the city" envisioned.
Some saw it as a great opportunity to incorporate all the bells and whistles described above (including the carousel, fountain, pyramid and amphitheater) with a convention center and three or four massive hotels.
"We have enough of a rural park with Monument Valley; Confluence Park should be an urban park, integrating and connecting downtown," said one participant."The vision of the park should encompass what downtown will become with inevitable growth and strive to keep downtown the cultural, urban, entertainment center of the city."
Others simply wanted to restore the area to as natural a state as possible and warned that developers might otherwise seize the opportunity to make a quick buck.
"Personally, I'm afraid to see commercial, profit-making interests getting involved -- look at the mess that went up overnight by what used to be a quiet, pretty area around the Red Lion hotel off Circle," another unidentified charette attendee weighed in, referencing the explosion of chain restaurants, hotels and stores when the World Arena was built.
The noisy gateway
As Palenchar pointed out, many other U.S. cities in recent years have built successful urban river projects -- in Colorado, most notably in Pueblo and Denver. However, the site of Confluence Park -- boxed in by a highway, two major thoroughfares and 14 lines of railroad track -- will likely make for a noisy atmosphere.
The planned open-air amphitheater, for instance, will be tricky to place for optimum acoustics. Noise studies show the railroad noise is even worse than the freeway's, and Colorado Avenue and Cimarron Street aren't exactly country lanes.
The design engineers finally settled on putting the amphitheater close to the center of the park, next to the proposed massive water fountain, which will generate some noise of its own but will help muffle street sounds.
Realistically, Miller and Rees doubt that the open-air amphitheater will be suitable for delicate musical performances like those of the symphony. Rather, the acoustics might be more apropos, say, for a headbanging group like Metallica.
But the staffers said several things are being considered to reduce the noise levels, including building noise-barrier walls along the interstate (low enough to give people who are driving through Colorado Springs a chance to see the gateway to the city).
In addition, the Colorado Department of Transportation is considering moving the Highway 24/Cimarron Street interchange farther to the south, Rees said.
The city may also try to reduce the number of railroad tracks to three or four by buying the rights of way from the railroad company.
Follow the money
But buying railroad rights of way -- like many aspects of the plan -- will take far more money than the city currently has. More than half a million has already been spent on preliminary design work. The bulk of that -- $525,000 -- has gone to EDAW, an international design and landscape architecture company which, based on the ideas generated during the charettes, designed the park's master plan.
Some of the San Francisco-based company's other Colorado projects include the Denver Botanical Garden master plan and Denver's Confluence Park (a portion of that city's Lower Downtown plan).
This April, EDAW designers will present Colorado Springs with a final plan, and Miller and Rees said they fully expect to begin construction a year from this summer.
That doesn't give them a lot of time to find another $40 million to make the dreams that spun out of the charettes a reality. (EDAW project manager Brad Smith said the city's $50 million estimate is conservative.)
Miller said the city plans to approach charitable foundations -- other than El Pomar -- and seek a grant from the Greater Outdoor Colorado fund as well. "We're confident we can get the money," said Miller. As of now, the park will likely be built in phases.
One fundraising idea that the city has kicked around is similar to a tactic employed by organizers who got the World Arena project off the ground -- selling "tiles" or other commemorative doodads.
Another is to inspire local groups by encouraging them to raise money for their pet projects -- for example, the groups who really want a fountain or a carousel will spearhead efforts to pay for them.
And, clearly, the city expects El Pomar to shell out another significant contribution.
Two months ago, the city updated the foundation in a private presentation, detailing the results of what had come out of the charettes. So far, it has been the only such presentation they've made to a private group. Palenchar said it would be premature for the foundation to make additional donations -- or commitments -- to the project.
"We've given a million and a half already, and we would have to look at the scope and other funding sources. We need it to be more detailed," he said. "As the city talks to others -- like GoCo -- we're going to be there, but the whole project is huge. It's not going to happen overnight," he said.