By Greg Davis, City Park Alliance
Denver City Council unanimously approved Council Bill 0941 (CB-14-0941) on Monday, December 15th granting a certificate of designation to operate a waste to energy system at the Denver Zoo. As part of that vote, council members recognized the need for a City Park Task Force moving forward.
A group of neighbors, led by the Registered Neighborhood Organization, City Park Friends and Neighbors (CPFAN), attended the Denver City Council meeting on December 15th to express their concern over the certificate of designation for the Denver Zoo Waste to Energy System. Representatives from CPFAN made several well-stated points related to land use, zoning, and public safety. The one overarching theme was that the setting and visual aesthetic of the Waste to Energy building in City Park was not specifically considered in the public process.
The discussion at the City Council proceedings did not focus on the validity of the waste to energy concept. While concerns were raised about safety risks related to the gasification process, the main topic was that of protection of the park aesthetic. Louis Plachowski, speaking on behalf of CPFAN, articulated this by noting that the waste to energy system was presented to the public as a concept, but that public notification did not focus on the scale and orientation of the structure within City Park. He further stated that the concept should have been presented to the public as a part of a neighborhood plan as it is a modification to City Park. A recent transplant from New York City, Mr. Plachowski followed by suggesting that such an oversight in design would never have happened in Central Park, and Denver can do better. Resident Hank Bootz, reiterated this sentiment by noting that the Denver Zoo and City Park are in a partnership, and the installation and aesthetics of new structures should have been more specifically considered in a public process. Nancy Francis, a resident living near the park, followed with a discussion of whether gasification was an appropriate industrial land use in City Park and that approval of an industrial use with limited oversight was not appropriate. Supporting this concept of limited oversight, she stated that although the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment did public notice the air emissions permit, the CPHDE cannot deny a permit based on land use, and local decisions on land use should have been better presented to the public on a local level.
One thing that could be gleaned from the unanimous approving vote of the City Council was that the December 15th session was not the time and place to debate the construction of the Waste to Energy facility. The building was already constructed and the bill in question determined whether to provide a certificate of designation approving the operation of the industrial facility. Both the Denver Zoo and the Denver Department of Environmental Health made specific arguments supporting that all of the legal obligations for permitting and public notice were met. A legal determination followed that the land use was appropriate. The Denver Charter prescribes that city parks can only be used for “park uses,” and the gasification system qualifies as a “park use” as the system will only use waste generated within the park and will not accept secondary waste.
Given that all of the legal obligations for public notice were met, it was obvious that this was going to be a yes vote. There is no doubt that this is an exciting and innovative facility. Denver Zoo CEO Shannon Block noted how the facility, which will convert sustainable energy from waste through biomass gasification, will help reach the goal of maintaining a zero waste zoo by 2025. Councilman Brooks recognized the potential to reduce 1.5 million pounds of waste per year. Councilwoman Shepherd noted how Denver’s goal of reducing hauled waste by 20% could practically be met with this one facility. Given the immense environmental benefit and innovative nature of the project, it was sure to pass. However, for the most part, neighborhood commenters were not there to publicly comment on the concept of waste gasification. They were there because they felt shortchanged by the public process whereby the citing, access, and location of the gasification building were not properly vetted. To this claim, City Council members noted that RNOs were informed, obligations for public notifications were met, and the commenters missed their chance to speak on topics related to the building’s design.
Support with an Asterisk … A City Park Task Force
The concerns raised about process and aesthetic did not impact the Council’s vote, however, they were recognized. When providing his vote, Councilman Brooks from District 8 noted that his support for the bill was “support with an asterisk.” In a narrative where he described that he felt neighbors had “been pushed aside,” Councilman Brooks noted that we need to think of things more holistically. He expressed his broad support for the creation of a City Park Task force to address concerns with City Park more proactively. This was in line with public commenters, who all expressed a need for a City Park Task Force or Advisory Council, similar to the Denver Botanic Gardens Neighborhood Advisory Committee. Councilman Brooks also described a City Park Task Force from 1997 as a potential model moving forward. This sentiment was echoed by several Council Representatives as the public comment in response to the bill was not lost on them. Councilwoman Shepherd expressed her support for this solution as a method to more effectively “get at the back end.” She then proceeded to question Denver Zoo CEO Shannon Block to reaffirm the Zoo’s commitment to the community to improve the aesthetic of the Zoo’s south side. Ms. Block did make such commitments noting that the Denver Zoo would both commit significant financial resources and engage the public in the process to improve the aesthetics of the zoo facilities adjacent to Duck Lake.
It was clear that neighbors and the CPFAN neighborhood association were not happy with the citing and visual integration of the waste to energy system within historic City Park. While they may not have received their specific desired outcome, the request to create a neighborhood advisory committee was granted. A City Park Task Force or Advisory Council could be a solution to “get at the back end” and address the finer details as they relate to City Park. If anything could be gleaned from this process, it is that the Denver City Council is listening, and now is the time to engage neighbors on how to better plan, develop, and preserve City Park. City Park Alliance is excited about any efforts to preserve the historic park experience at City Park and more thoughtfully evaluate projects in the park. We look forward to whatever role we play in such an advisory committee or task force. With the pending improvements to the aesthetic of the Denver Zoo’s southern border with City Park, it seems that there is no need to search for that first topic for discussion.
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