Guest commentary: Of influence and confluence: Basalt’s river park
It’s a wonder that Basalt, a town incorporated in 1901 and built on the banks of two divine rivers, doesn’t have a great riverpark. Right now, the best place the public has to go to enjoy a river in the downtown might just be the Riverside Cafe.
So the discussion of what to do with the land on the banks of the Roaring Fork that was once home to nearly 400 people has heated up considerably and taken on new import. For good reason: The town is poised to make some decisions that will shape its geography, culture, economy and flavor for the long term.
It might seem far-reaching to compare tiny Basalt’s situation today to that of New York City in the 1800s, but we might learn a thing or two from drawing a parallel between our place in the Roaring Fork Valley and Manhattan 160 years ago.
In the early part of the 1800s, New York City’s population quadrupled. As the century progressed, Manhattan became heavily industrialized and to find a green space for escape from the frantic city, residents had to cross the river to the Elysian fields of Hoboken. The visionaries — people such as Andrew Jackson Downing and Robert Bowne Minturn — took a look at the pandemonium, considered how things would grow more crowded in the future, and decided to build Central Park. It took years and years to design and build, a lot of money and the forced removal of some poor unfortunate residents living there (Seneca Village), but ultimately, they built the first great American urban park, a landscape that today very much shapes and defines one of the principal cities of the world.
It could have been much different. There were plenty of detractors, impatient leaders, and pressure to do something more commercial with the space. What is today Central Park might have ended up just more expensive real estate in uptown.
While Basalt doesn’t have heavy industry or tenement buildings lapping at its margins, the town and the entire Roaring Fork Valley have changed radically in just a few decades. It wasn’t that long ago that Highway 82 from Glenwood Springs to Aspen was a sleepy two-laner with little traffic, what is now the Whole Foods complex in El Jebel was surrounded by hay meadow and ranches and Basalt had little more than one gas station and a couple of restaurants. When I was growing up in Aspen, playing baseball against Basalt was like a small journey to a frontier town.
The development pressure in the valley is obvious with the new construction and will get worse in the decades ahead. Colorado’s population is expected to double by 2050. Over time, there will be no shortage of developers wanting to build on prime open space — there never is. But there will be a shortage of open space suitable for magnificent river parks.
When New York faced the decision of how to build a park, they were deliberate, put a lot of time and thought into the project and ultimately held a design contest that attracted more than 30 entrants. Ultimately, Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were chosen as designers. Had it been otherwise, the park might have been a few hundred acres of complicated topiary as one entrant proposed — or worse.
What Basalt is facing is far more modest. It’s a relatively small piece of land and the topography doesn’t have to be completely reworked. But doing it right — making a park that is the pride of Basalt and the envy of every Colorado town with a river — should not be a rush-job justified by questionable financial pressures, convoluted by predevelopment agreements and controlled by one developer.
To many in the community, that’s what seems to be going on, and that’s why Town Hall is so crowded (and hot) when the park is on the agenda. And to many, the path that the town government and Lowe Enterprises is leading us down flies in the face of the vision of the Downtown Area Advisory Committee, a group entrusted to sketch out the ideas and rough plan for the area.
Why not take a page from our American forebears who did something truly great with open space in New York? Even revisiting the words and ideas of Andrew Jackson Downing, the man credited for envisioning Central Park, might remind us of what’s possible: “Make the public parks or pleasure grounds attractive by their lawns, fine trees, shady walks and beautiful shrubs and flowers, by fine music and the certainty of ‘meeting everybody,’ and you draw the whole moving population of the town there daily.”
Why not have a design contest as the New Yorkers of the mid 1800s did? Who knows what some of the really imaginative landscape designers and architects might come up with? (And there’s a few of them who live within a mile of the proposed site.)
It’s not easy to integrate that riverfront into the town’s core, to find the right mix of development with open space, to build something that offers both respite and liveliness, but to do it right would redefine the town.
Done poorly and in haste, done against the will and wishes of vocal citizens, that terrific piece of land on the river’s edge could end up just a postage stamp park adorning a luxury development.
That would be to everyone’s regret and a lost opportunity to gracefully bring the river to the town or the town to the river.