Nuggets wade through flood-plain issue

New arena might require millions in flood controls

The Denver Nuggets‘ grandiose plans for a $110 million arena and $20 million television studio in the Central Platte Valley have city leaders dreaming of a new regional entertainment center that would draw thousands of visitors daily into downtown.

Mother Nature, however, has created one big problem for Denver’s new development hot spot: Much of the Central Platte Valley, including the arena site, lies in a flood plain.

Even if officials determine the arena by itself wouldn’t be a serious flood hazard, construction of the new sports palace could preclude development in the adjacent area.

“The more things you put in the flood plain, the more impediments you create for the flood flow,” said Ben Urbonas, chief of South Platte River planning programs for the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District. “Any new construction can’t back flood water up onto adjacent sites.”

The Central Platte Valley is Denver’s new development mecca, with Elitch Gardens under construction and the Nuggets planning their project next door. Throw in the proposed Ocean Journey aquarium on the other side of the river, nearby Coors Field, and rumored plans for hotels and other entertainment venues, and you have all the makings of Disneyland East.

The Nuggets have insisted their new arena would be privately financed and city taxpayers would not have to pick up any part of the tab. However, the team has made it clear they won’t assume the responsibility for flood control in the entire valley.

“We are prepared to work with the city to eliminate the flood plain problem on our site,” said Tim Leiweke, president of the Nuggets. “That includes making sure we won’t add to anybody else’s problems. We’ll hopefully be able to negotiate that and reach an agreement with the city.”

City voters funded $14 million in flood-plain improvements that allowed Elitch Gardens to move into the valley. Work is now under way to elevate Elitch’s 60-acre site and deepen the segment of the river that runs alongside the amusement park.

In 1965, devastating floods on the South Platte River caused millions of dollars in damage, so the threat of floods is real, even if it’s not a everyday threat.

An engineering study is now under way to evaluate the effect of the Nuggets’ arena on potential flooding.

Even if the study finds that the arena itself won’t have a dramatic impact, Denver could find that future development in the area will be impossible without as much as $12 million in new flood-control work on the Platte. Every new project in the area reduces the size of the flood plain and increases the danger of flood waters being diverted into other parts of the city.

“It’s going to have to be a policy decision whether or not that part of the flood plain should be improved,” said Bar Chadwick, the city’s lead planner for the Central Platte Valley. “Do you do a piecemeal approach or plan out the whole area?”

Elitch Gardens conducted an extensive campaign in 1989 to win voter approval for $14 million in bonds that are funding flood-plain improvements for its new site. But most of that work is being performed only along adjacent portions of the Platte River that borders Elitch Gardens.

Chadwick said opening up the rest of the Central Platte Valley to development would probably require improvements on the Platte River between Colfax Avenue and Eighth Avenue.

Liz Orr, Denver finance director, is coordinating the city’s negotiations with the Nuggets. She acknowledged that the problems with the flood plain will have to be addressed, especially the long-term impact of a project like the Nuggets’ proposed arena.

“The flood-plain issue is one of dozens of issues we have to look at,” she said. “We have to examine that. It’s all one big flood plain. Each project may not have major flood issues in the short term, but they might in the long term.”

Not all the Central Platte Valley lies in the flood plain. The affected area is between the Auraria Parkway and the South Platte River, on the south side of Cherry Creek. Ocean Journey’s proposed site is outside the flood plain, as is Union Station and the land on that side of Cherry Creek.

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