When you talk about “culture” in Colorado Springs, it’s impossible not to widen your lens to include the culture of the outdoors.
Our best museums are probably natural history ones like North Cheyenne Cañon that are built of rock walls and ceilings of sky; our most auspicious churches are living cathedrals of firs and pines; our most audacious works of art are skyscapes at dusk over the mountains.
Culturally, we Springsians are highly susceptible to the artistry of scenery.
Don’t get me wrong. Traditional arts and culture are thriving in Colorado Springs. Columnist David Ramsey pointed out last week that we dwell in an underrated city for the arts.
The Colorado Springs Philharmonic commands large audiences “while classical music in larger cities battles extinction.” The Fine Arts Center is a creative lifeforce in the city, and the local theater and music scenes are eclectic and on the rise.
But for many of us, the bulk of our cultural hours are spent on a trail, a ski run, a mountain bike or a mountainside. Much of the passion that city dwellers have for their music halls and art galleries is probably channeled here into enjoying, preserving and expanding our portfolio of parks and open spaces.
Right now, the city has ambitious plans for the restoration of three of its oldest and dearest works of art — Acacia, Alamo Square and Antlers parks.
The three A’s.
The legacy parks or Palmer parks are the city’s first, given to the city by its founder, Gen. William Palmer.
Election Day on Tuesday features a ballot issue asking us to let the city keep $7 million in excess tax collections and dedicate the money to revitalizing parks. The majority of that money would go to the three A’s.
So what, I wondered, would we get for our money?
Repairs, restoration and improvements, said Karen Palus, the city’s parks, recreation and cultural services director. And more public events and programs to bring more families into the city’s original parks to clean them up and make them safer.
The city wants to plant more trees in the Palmer parks, upgrade plant beds, improve the lighting, and bring infrastructure and electrical capacity up to date so bigger, more elaborate events can be staged.
“We decided to look at all three parks at the same time, energize them all together,” Palus said of the coordinated approach. “Let’s do it once and do it really well.”
Palus wants to honor their history, but also take them forward for a new, burgeoning population of downtown dwellers as the core city adds residents, hotels, museums, and restaurants. The mayor told me he wants to make the parks more welcoming to families and less places where the homeless congregate.
“These are our original gifts from Palmer — how do we pay tribute to that?” asked Palus. “That’s been really part of our overall vision is yes, paying respect to history, but also looking forward to the future. It’s really an exciting time for downtown Colorado Springs.”
Palus said some interesting themes have emerged as the city began putting together a master plan for these parks after surveying residents throughout the city.
To simplify in the extreme:
Acacia is Play; Alamo Square is Civics; Antlers is Nature.
“What emerged in the survey were three distinct personalities for the parks,” Palus said. “Acacia is more of that active hub for recreational activities. We saw feedback around civic space as it related to Alamo Square and the Pioneers Museum. And Antlers is kind of the nature area, wooded area.”
Specifically, plans for Acacia include making the popular skating rink there permanent, and bigger, and then having the rink double as a play space for children during the warmer months.
Palus wants to redo the pitted, recessed play space that is there already “as soon as possible,” and tie it into the Uncle Wilber Fountain so it’s one big play space working together.
And then the city wants to go beyond physical changes and add activities, and, well, cultural events.
“We’d love to see yoga in the park, theater activities that can be done outside during the summer.”
More activities — “activation” in Palus’ lexicon — seems to be the city’s main answer to making the parks safer, more family friendly places, and less homeless camps.
“What we usually say in terms of having a positive experience in our parks is providing areas for ‘activation,’ and what I mean by activation is activities, events, scheduled programming, interaction with business partners and different folks that can utilize that space and really bring life to it,” Palus explains.
“It’s not an issue with our folks that are homeless and come and sit on the park bench and enjoy the park, but when we have activities that are inappropriate — when you ‘activate,’ those kinds of activities tend to dissipate and head elsewhere.”
By inappropriate, Palus means drug use, petty crime or aggressive behaviors. “Wilber’s a great example during the summer. When Wilber’s ‘activated’ we don’t see a lot of (bad activity) around the fountain. Because there are a lot of kids and families.”
Same thing in winter with the skating rink. Inappropriate behavior in the park goes down when the rink is up “because there are a lot of eyes, a lot of people, a lot of activity going on.” Lawbreakers don’t want to be visible or seen. “When we see those kind of positive activities we see less of the negative.”
The hope is more start using all the Palmer parks.
Antlers “is one of the most challenging ones, because not all the potential around the area has come to fruition.” But with redevelopment of the train depot in the works, that could change quickly.
“It really needs to be ‘activated’ on a regular basis, just to bring people there, because it is a little disconnected from the rest of the downtown area. Yet it is so treed, beautiful and shady, in a more urban city it would be a great respite space.”
The city wants Antlers to become a destination park. Residents think turning it into a sculpture garden might be ideal, or adding an entertainment area that would allow the nearby library or PPCC to do activities or classes in an outdoor space, or even small theater-type presentations.
Down at Alamo Park, people who answered the survey showed interest in creating more of a civic plaza area, in opening up some of the walkways, in fountains and more moveable picnic spaces for the Food Truck Tuesday lunchers.
“It’s really become a destination. Alamo has. A lot people apparently want to hold their events down there to have that beautiful building as a backdrop.”
And the city’s new, ambitious plans a for a six-block Vermijo Street pedestrian walkway would be a connector between the Pioneers Museum and the new Olympic Museum.
Palus believes the new pedestrian area will erase the boundary between the emerging New South End neighborhood and downtown.
What’s the deadline for all this? That would be summer of 2021, the mayor tells me, which also happens to be the city’s 150th birthday.
And what better birthday present could the city give to itself than restoring Gen. Palmer’s three favorite works of art to their original glory?