Elitch Gardens opened at its downtown Denver location on a cool May day in 1995, after seven years of planning and 11 months of construction.

Leaders at the time wanted to give the historic amusement park more room to expand than the center’s former home near West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street in West Highland allowed. Two decades later, city officials are planning what to do with all the extra land around Elitch Gardens and Theme Park. (via Denverite)

 First, a little history:

The original Elitch Gardens opened its gates to the public in 1890 after John and Mary Elitch turned their farm on the outskirts of Denver into a green oasis and zoological park to enjoy, according to a history compiled by Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park.

In 1891, John Elitch died and Mary became the only woman in the world to own and manage a successful summer resort. In the years ahead, Mary added The Elitch Theatre, which drew Hollywood stars including Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Grace Kelly and Mickey Rooney, according to the Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park history.

New ownership took over in 1916 and added The Trocadero Ballroom and a carousel that took master craftsmen three years to carve by hand, according to Elitch Gardens. In the decades ahead, a Ferris Wheel was erected, KiddieLand opened and the “Mister Twister” roller coaster was added.

By the 1980s, management of Elitch Gardens started talking in earnest about plans to move the park. Initially, spots in the suburbs were sought. Municipalities around Denver tried to lure the theme park. Sheridan, for example, offered a 100-acre site between South Santa Fe Drive and the South Platte River.

“In May 1986, Elitch’s announced it would build a 150-acre theme park on a site near Santa Fe Drive and C-470 in Douglas County. But stiff opposition from residents of nearby Highland Ranch forced Elitch’s to scrap its plans,” the Rocky Mountain News reported.

Mayor Federico Peña and Denver launched a campaign to keep Elitch Gardens in the city. And by 1989, Elitch Gardens confirmed it would build on nearly 70 acres near the South Platte River and Speer Boulevard. Elitch’s became the first amusement park in the United States to be built in an urban area in the United States in more than 30 years.

Denver City Council in 1993 approved loaning Elitch Gardens up to $7 million to help fund the relocation, the Rocky Mountain News reported. Altogether park management completed a $95 million financing package for the park, and began construction in 1994, according to Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park.

The old park closed in 1994 and is now home to residences and businesses.

Revesco Properties bought Elitch Gardens in 2015 along with Kroenke Sports & Entertainment and Second City Real Estate.

The owners of Elitch Gardens think added density around the park would be good but don’t have plans to relocate in anytime soon, said Rhys Duggan, president and CEO of Revesco Properties.

“We’ve got 17 acres of parking around the amusement park. That’s our focus. What do we do with that?” Duggan told Denverite in November.

In recent weeks, city planners unveiled a draft of the Downtown Area Plan Amendment. The plan Denver is working on looks at the future of the area located between Auraria Parkway and Speer Boulevard that holds some of the most visited attractions in Denver including Elitch Gardens, the Children’s Museum of Denver, the Downtown Aquarium and the Pepsi Center.

“The location next to the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek features the opportunity for open space, recreational opportunities, healthy living, and bicycle infrastructure as defining characteristics and attributes for the whole neighborhood,” the plan states.

The plan calls for creating zoning and regulations for the area that promote “an active, livable neighborhood.” The plan also recommends allowing taller building heights in areas that currently have height maximums and inviting pedestrian-friendly areas and apartments, offices and other buildings that could change the city’s skyline.

What would you like to see happen to the area around Elitch Gardens? Do you hope that the amusement park stays put?

Sometime in the near future, the entire area could look more like this:

The newly released development plan would put blocks of high-rise housing and parks along the South Platte River west of downtown Denver, creating a new “urban district” over a 25-year period.

If approved, their plan would bring the same scale of development to the Elitch Gardens area that we’ve already seen near Union Station and Brighton Boulevard.

And, eventually, it would require the demolition of Elitch Gardens itself, though the developers insist that won’t be in the near future.

“When the time comes to move, we’ll find an even better home,” said Sean Duffy, a spokesman for the developers.

They’re not naming a shutdown year yet, and they have already announced plans for programming at the amusement park through 2020.

But the site presents an enormous opportunity in the long run, according to Rhys Duggan, CEO and president of Revesco. His company is an owner of close to 60 acres, including the park and surrounding parking lots. The land, he said, is a “donut hole” within the dense center of the city.

“The fact that this piece of land is under one ownership is extraordinarily unique in an urban setting,” he said in a promotional video.

The development, called “The River Mile,” would happen in phases, potentially over decades.  First, the developers would build a parking deck for 1,400 cars. Later, new construction could replace the surface parking lots with high-rise buildings.

A sketch on the project website shows clusters of tall buildings where the parking lots are now, as well as on a lot near the Pepsi Center. The website also describes a bridge over the rail corridor at 7th Street and a pedestrian tunnel under Speer Boulevard.

A later phase of the development would replace Elitch’s itself. Renderings show glassy high-rise buildings alongside plazas and parks on the bank of the South Platte River.

“You’ve got a mile of the river that will now be public and an amenity,” said Duffy.

The plans call for:
  • A daycare, a recreation center and a school
  • Two bike/ped bridges over the South Platte River
  • Two pedestrian bridges over the rail corridor at rail stations
  • Three riverfront parks in the area
  • A mile of “South Platte River improvements”
  • A focus on affordable housing

The developers haven’t said how many people or buildings could fit in this new “urban district,” but the renderings show buildings that could easily top 20 floors.

“Let’s not grow out into the suburbs and into the farmland. Let’s grow up, and close-in,” Duggan says in the video.

” … As the city has grown around this site, we see an opportunity to fill in the last major piece of downtown Denver.”

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