When the now infamous “blue frame” was first mentioned at a Colorado Springs Parks Board advisory meeting, it wasn’t discussed or voted on, and the entire presentation was over in a matter of minutes. That’s in sharp contrast to the process that normally occurs when something new is added to a park or city median. When the frame was installed in iconic Garden of the Gods Park 10 months later, without announcements or warning, the public reacted with anger and demanded that it be removed. On December 18th, the City removed the Big Blue Frame.
Let’s look at another sign installation that was handled differently, and yielded different results.
When a local graduate student suggested renaming Grandview Overlook in Palmer Park (and adding a sign) to honor Mayor John Robinson, who advocated for purchasing and creating Palmer Park in the 1800s, there was a process. There was a presentation at Parks Board where the Board learned about the history and was provided with graphics and location. At another meeting, the Parks Board formally voted to recommend the project. The Friends Group was included and was enthusiastic about the changes.
Process matters. Pieces of the process that made the difference between these two cases:
- The Master Plan, that dictates what can and can’t be done to our parks “administratively” (without a Board vote).
- Parks Advisory Boards, who invest scores of hours poring over plans and documents to make sure park rules and guidelines are honored.
- Friends Groups–like Friends of Garden of the Gods and Guardians of Palmer Park–who’ve donated thousands of dollars and invested thousands of hours supporting their beloved park. Their input is invaluable to making sure a project fits within the community of a park.
- The public, who are invited to give feedback at public meetings such as Parks Advisory Board, and invited to workshops and open houses where plans are presented and feedback gathered.
Let’s make sure there is more transparency and a well-publicized public process in every case in the future.
Returning to Mayor John Robinson (1899-1902), we might do well to heed his example. Despite public indifference to the purchase of land that would one day be Palmer Park, he persevered and convinced his friend General William Palmer to buy the property and donate it to the city. “I believe something has been done for future generations worthy of the effort that I have made.”
Let every change we make to any one of our treasured parks, trails and open spaces be measured against those words.
The following was written by Hank Scarangella, President of Friends of Garden of the Gods (FOGG), member of the Parks Advisory Board and member of the TOSC Advocacy Committee. FOGG is an important partner. We work together on advocacy issues of common interest and the annual Full Moon Hike in Garden of the Gods.
Now that the issue has died down I wanted to give you my perspective on what happened and why. This is based on conversations and e-mails with a variety of parks advocacy officials, Parks Department officials, Parks Board colleagues, the mayor and the head of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
The concept of a frame like the one installed in the Garden has been used successfully in other places. Colorado Springs is branding itself as Olympic City USA and created the Olympic City Task Force (OCTF) to coordinate the branding and marketing efforts around that idea. The Task Force is co-chaired by Doug Price, CEO of the Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and Mrs. Janet Suthers, the wife of our mayor.
The Task Force approached the Parks Department about placing a frame in the Garden of the Gods and they were asked to make a presentation to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB). The PRAB meets monthly and its agenda has three basic parts:
- Citizen Comments: anyone may speak to the board on any topic not on that month’s agenda. No decisions, approvals or disapprovals are made. Typical comments are about a neighbor’s issues with the trash in a park or the start of midday organ concerts at the City Auditorium or the concern that E-Bikes will pose a hazard to others on the city’s trails, etc., etc. A citizen’s comments are to be no more than three minutes, but they sometimes run longer.
- Action Items: These are formal presentations prepared by the Parks Department staff that includes their recommendation and results in a vote to approve or disapprove the recommendation. Action Items are always posted to the agenda, which is published a week or so before the meeting, so everyone knows what will be presented. Action Items are almost always preceded by a Presentation the month before.
- Presentation Items: These are formal presentations prepared by the Parks Department staff. They may be the precursor to an Action Item to be presented later or they may just be informational, e.g., an annual report on the city’s cemeteries or golf courses.
The Parks Department asked the OCTF to explain the concept of a frame in the Garden to the PRAB during the Citizen Comment part of the February 9, 2017 meeting. Mrs. Suthers did that and the minutes reflect that they were considering “a strategic location within the Garden of the Gods.” After the meeting I did express my concerns about a large colorful frame being installed in the Garden but left it t that. I assumed that if this idea were to go forward that there would be a formal Action Item presented to the PRAB or, if that wasn’t required, then at least a formal informational Presentation. In retrospect, I should have followed up when no such item ever appeared on any agenda. Both as a PRAB member and as the president of FOGG I should not have let this go on the assumption that either nothing was happening or, if it was, the PRAB would know about it.
Between the February 9 PRAB and December 13, when the frame was installed, the design of the frame was finalized and at least one site visit between OCTF members and Parks Department staff occurred, including High Point. This was not communicated to me or to the PRAB.
Researching background that I sent to the mayor and City Council on Sunday, December 17 I came across a few pertinent facts.
- The Garden of the Gods Master Plan (approved by the PRAB in 1994) contains design guidelines that say, in part, “The rock formations provide the dominating design factor for the Garden of the Gods. The rock formations color and shape should be the main consideration in selecting design elements for all manmade additions to the park.”
- The Garden of the Gods Management Plan (a component of the Master Plan) says: “Any future structural additions within the 480-acre Perkins gift must adhere to the Perkins deed.” Again, High Point falls outside the 480 acres but the standards apply for the entire park.
- The Perkins Deed, with which we are all familiar, says: “4. No building or structure shall be erected on the premises for purposes other than may be necessary to properly care for, protect and maintain the same as a public park, nor upon any road or highway, through or upon the said premises.” Although High Point was not part of the original 480 acres Mr. Perkins deeded to the city, the conditions stated in the deed are applied to the entire park.
- The National Natural Landmark designation suggests that status may be in jeopardy if the conditions in the park that existed when the designation was assigned are changed. This is the least relevant formal requirement but does bear on the issue.
So, it seems clear that a bright blue, 12-foot metal square frame is not consistent with the Master Plan, Management Plan or the deed and it may not conform to the basis for the Garden’s designation as a National Natural Landmark.
Some have criticized the OCTF for having made an “end run” around the normal public process for making changes in any of our parks. The mayor has pointed out that it is the Parks Department’s responsibility to establish whatever process is required and the only presentation or public discussion the department required was the February 9 meeting. The OCTF did what it was asked to do.
Some other points that have come out of this matter:
- It is now clear to everyone that we locals do not consider the Garden of the Gods a tourist attraction. We know it does draw people to the city but to us it is a very special place that happens to attract a crowd.
- It is also now clear that nothing should ever be changed in the Garden without a full public process. The conditions laid out in the Master Plan and the deed are now much better known and understood.
- The large online response (some say 20,000) is evidence that the community is very concerned and cares deeply about the Garden of the Gods. That response was spontaneous and not the result of any organized, concerted effort, which makes more powerful.
- Communication about the final plans could have been better. For example, the Parks Department did not know the final location or color chosen by the OCTF nor did it know when the frame was going to be installed.
- The city should be, in my opinion, credited with listening to other points of view and acting very quickly in response.
In sum, many lessons learned. Everyone was trying to do a good thing, but a series of misunderstandings, communication breakdowns and faulty assumptions got us to the point where the Blue Frame was installed. Another lesson is that as growth in Colorado Springs continues, precious and fragile resources like the Garden of the Gods, Red Rocks Open Space, North Cheyenne Canon and other spaces will bear the burden. The balance between our city’s economic vitality and the preservation of natural resources has always been tricky. Now that our city is beginning to boom and efforts such as promoting it as Olympic City USA make progress, that tension will continue and intensify. As FOGG members we must stay informed and engaged. Our voices can affect what happens. Let the mayor and your City Council members know what you think. Along with others, FOGG exists to promote, preserve and enhance the Garden. Let us live up to that mission.