By Vic Vela, Confluence Denver
Welcome to Ruby Hill. The long underused city park is going through an extreme, culturally infused makeover that is expected to turn it into a Denver gem. It's quite a turnaround for a former landfill with a considerably lower profile than many other parks in the city.
In the latter half of the 1800s, miners camping alongside the South Platte River, on high ground about five miles south of what is now known as downtown Denver. Instead of gold, they would often come across red-hued gems during their extraction efforts.
The area was named after the gems' bright coloring, taking on the name of Ruby Hill -- never mind that the minerals found were actually garnets.
Today the area's landmark is Ruby Hill Park, an impressive piece of land that's always had plenty of possibilities, but is hardly considered by folks outside of Denver -- or even by those who live here -- to be one of the city's top parks, if they know it exists at all.
But Ruby Hill's time to shine may finally be upon us. Nowadays, one could argue that the park is getting more attention than it ever has received before, even more than it did during the mining period generations ago.
The City of Denver is in the process of reinventing Ruby Hill Park as a potential companion to the nearby and uber-popular Washington Park. It started with the modest addition of a new pavilion, playground equipment and picnic tables, but the project will soon culminate in the creation of an urban mountain bike course and an amphitheater with capacity for 7,500 concert-goers.
So the city has big plans for Ruby Hill Park, a long-underused 80-acre gem that the Parks and Recreation Department sees as a diamond in the rough.
"Once we get this all built, I think it's going to be a big hit and a big success," says Kent Sondgerath, Senior Landscape Architect and Project Manager for the Denver Parks and Recreation Department.
The park nobody knows
The Ruby Hill neighborhood is bounded by South Federal Boulevard, South Platte River Drive, West Mississippi Avenue and West Jewell Avenue.
Its centerpiece, Ruby Hill Park, has been around since the mid-1950s. It has 80 acres of green grass to play on and its elevated position above the city offers one of the most serene and panoramic views of the Denver skyline and the Rocky Mountains in all of town.
But if you've never known any of that, you shouldn't feel too bad, because you're not alone.
"We were walking around Washington Park one day, talking to people about the city's plans for Ruby Hill Park," Sondgerath says. "Probably about 85 percent of the people we talked to had never heard of Ruby Hill, and it's only a couple of miles away from Wash Park."
The folks at Washington Park whom Sondgerath spoke with weren't the only ones who had never heard of Ruby Hill Park. Even those who are now playing a pivotal role in the park's make-over had to do a little bit of research.
"When I first heard someone mention Ruby Hill Park, I said, 'Where's that?'" says Chris Zacher, CEO and executive director for Levitt Pavilion Denver, the name of the amphitheater that will open in Ruby Hill Park in 2016. "I don't think that people realize that it's not much smaller than Wash Park. It's a big, big park that nobody knows about."
The area has an interesting history. Aside from once being a mining hub, the park's bluff had once been used by Native Americans as a lookout point. Then there's the part of the area's history that has posed challenges to the city, such as the fact that Ruby Hill served as a landfill in the decades that preceded it becoming a park. The landfill debris led to asbestos being found in the park's irrigation system, which has proven to be a costly hang-up for improvement projects.
But the asbestos-plagued landfill that the park once was is a distant memory. And, pretty soon, park-goers won't even be able to recognize it.
The phases of RubyThe picnic pavillion was part of the first phase of the park's improvement projects.
The initial driver of Ruby Hill Park's revitalization efforts turned out to be the success of the Ruby Hill Rail Yard, the country's first winter urban terrain park. The rail yard opened in 2007 and has become a huge hit with the community.
The rail yard's success made it a model for other cities that teamed up with ski resorts for similar collaborations around the country, according to Winter Park Resorts, which partnered with the Parks and Recreation Department and other entities to launch the rail yard.
"Our goal was to extend what we do up here for city communities, especially those under-served city communities," said Bob Holme, a youth marketing manager and terrain park and bike park operations manager for Winter Park Resorts.
Less than three years after the launch of the Ruby Hill Rail Yard, the City of Denver embarked on the first of three phases aimed at remaking the entire park.
Phase one began in the summer of 2010 and culminated with the improvement of several park projects the following year. They included the laying of 20 miles of irrigation pipes; the erection of a 150-person capacity picnic pavilion; the addition of new playground equipment; and the redoing of park roads, a dual-purpose effort that will allow access to the Levitt Pavilion and one that the city expects will cut down on cruising and other activities that local police are looking to curb.
Sondgerath says the price tag for the total cost of phase one -- which took into account asbestos removal, design and construction – was close to $5 million. About 75 percent of the funding came from bond money, with the rest coming out of city capital improvement funds.
The two primary projects that will be included in the city's phase two work at Ruby Hill will be the building of a grand promenade, as well as the creation of a mountain bike park.
A two-mile loop will circle the park and allow for gateway trails into a mountain bike skills course area. Right now, the state's only urban bike park is located in Boulder.
The addition of the mountain bike course excites Sondgerath.
"With the rail yard and now the mountain bike hill course, we have a lot of kids who may not otherwise have a chance to do these kind of things, who now will have that opportunity," Sondgerath says. "And, who knows? They may end up going up to the mountains and trying it there."
Phase two work will also include the addition of a 32-feet wide promenade, which will serve as the park's spine, allowing access through the park from Florida to Jewell Avenues.
Phase two will cost about $1.5 million and will be funded primarily by city capital improvement dollars and grants. It's expected to be completed by the end of next year.
The 'jewel of the city' Levitt Pavilion Denver will break ground on a state-of-the-art amphitheater in Ruby Hill Park in 2015.
The piece de resistance of the Ruby Hill makeover will come during phase three – an amphitheater backed by Levitt Pavilions, a national nonprofit that teams up with cities to provide venues for free music in urban areas.
The pavilion will be located in the park's bowl, below the existing picnic area, and it will provide more than 50 free concerts every year.
Zacher says that Levitt's entry into the Ruby Hill neighborhood will be similar to that of other efforts that the nonprofit has been a part of over the years.
"We provide a cultural infusion into a community that feels a little neglected by the city," Zacher says. Zacher also says that before Levitt amphitheaters erected in parks in Los Angeles and Memphis, the areas were underused and "were in bad condition."
"They had a problem with a park or a problem getting people to a park," he says.
Sondgerath says work on the amphitheater is scheduled to begin by either late next year or the early part of 2015, with the first concerts expected to be held in 2016.
Phase three will cost $4 million, with there being "a fifty-fifty split" in funding between the city and the Levitt Foundation.
"Our hope is that people see that as a great venue," Sondgerath says. "There's not a single outdoor permanent venue within ten miles of downtown Denver, other than the Greek Amphitheater at Civic Center Park.
With all of these new additions coming to Ruby Hill Park, it's no wonder that the people involved in its revitalization efforts are starting to get excited.
"During public meetings over last couple months, a lot of people have said that ever since the improvements started, they see a lot less issues of vandalism; before that, it was a constant problem," Sondgerath says. "We want people to see that were trying to make it a better place so they want to take care of it too, take pride in in and get some of that bad behavior out of there."
Ruby Hill Park will always hold a special place for Holme, who grew up in Littleton and who remembers sledding there when he was a boy. He's appreciative of the positive changes that are coming to Ruby Hill.
"For a city to be as progressive as Denver has been, and to open their arms to new ideas, it really speaks volumes," Holme says. "That park is going to go from something that's already special into a jewel of the city."