If you’ve been to Red Rocks for a show, you’ve probably admired the trees lining the stands. For decades, the planters have provided much relief during Colorado’s unpredictable weather and equally unpredictable showgoers (you probably know at least one person who’s released some bodily fluids into the planter boxes). However, they may soon be no more, as some of the trees may be removed or replaced and safety railings installed. According to the City of Denver, Red Rocks Amphitheatre has been violating code for safety railings for a number of years. With new railings could come upgraded planter boxes, which could potentially mean removing the trees that line the stands, some of which were planted 75 years ago when the amphitheater opened. But of course, there’s a long history of disputes over the preservation and future character of the park between the City of Denver and Friends of Red Rocks (FoRR, a nonprofit organization that started to help ensure the dignity of Red Rocks was kept).


Red Rocks, 1955. Photo courtesy of Scramble Campbell Collection and Colorado Public Radio.

In 1999, Friends of Red Rocks was started when the City of Denver brought a plan to the Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) proposing to make the planter boxes into corporate seating boxes. Steve Good, one of the original members who showed up in 1999, is still an active and concerned member of the group that would later be named Friends of Red Rocks (FoRR). He explained that this original corporate seating box plan “caused some people to come together and protest the plan at the meeting of the Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC), which has to pass on changes to the amphitheater at Red Rocks.” The result was that the city backed off the plans to convert those boxes into seating.

Alexandra O. Foster, communications program manager for the City of Denver Arts and Venues, verified these facts. “As with every locally designated landmark, Denver Landmark Preservation would review any exterior work proposed for the amphitheater or Trading Post building that would require a building or zoning permit,” she said. “For city-owned properties, like Red Rocks, exterior work requiring permits must be approved by the Landmark Preservation Commission — not just administratively by staff. LPC review is a public process, including a public hearing.”

We talked to the two main groups on both sides of the issue, Denver Arts and Venues and Friends of Red Rocks. The entities have their own ideas for what the future of Red Rocks Amphitheatre trees and railings, or lack thereof, will look like. Over the last 20 or so years, there have been a number of other proposals sent into the LPC for approval, but every one of them had involved taking out some of the trees, so there was pushback from Friends of Red Rocks. The good news is that our local checks and balances are alive and well. The bad news is that a conclusion needs to be made.

What Red Rocks Says

Photo by Roman Tafoya.

“Bottom line is, we’re not up to code,” said Brian Kitts, marketing director for the City of Denver Arts and Venues. The code violation in this situation means that the platforms need safety railings. Kitts explained that the basic code says that platforms in any publicly accessible venue have railings of a certain height to protect patrons from falling. “Right now, the planter boxes are used by patrons for seating/standing during shows. That’s where the violation is,” said Kitts.

According to Nancy Kuhn of Denver Public Works, the specific code in violation is the International Building Code 2015 Volume 1, Section 1015.2. The code states that “Guards shall be located along open-sided walking surfaces, including mezzanines, equipment platforms, aisles, stairs, ramps and landings that are located more than 30 inches measured vertically to the floor or grade below at any point within 36 inches horizontally to the edge of the open side. Guards shall be adequate in strength and attachment in accordance with Section 1607.8.”

Kitts explained that Red Rocks Amphitheatre hasn’t been up to safety code for a long time and if we continue to let things slide, then there could be repercussions. In another argument, people are sitting, standing, exercising on these boxes and that’s not what they were designed for — imagine the amount of beer and pollution that gets spilled into the soil. “[The planter boxes] were not intended to be seats,” he further explained. “It’s not just about safety, it’s about aesthetics.” Additionally, some of the trees are dying  — “some of this is natural progression.” 

What Friends of Red Rocks Says

Photo by Ryan Lewis.

Members of Friends of Red Rocks are fully aware of the need and right to follow safety codes. “It is a legality issue and so if the city of Denver felt they had to have railings in there, they could put them in tomorrow,” explained Lisa Klotz, a member of FoRR. “We’ve tried not to really bring up the issues, because the more we talk about safety and railings, then the more awareness is out there that there is a potential or perceived safety hazard, the more that Denver would feel pressured to put those in.”  

However Good and others with Friends of Red Rocks also don’t believe that the safety violations are legit concerns. “[The City of Denver is] claiming that’s a safety concern, and we don’t really buy that, because for 75 years we haven’t had any known accidents of people falling out of the planter boxes, and our view is that by putting up railings you’re increasing distance between body to ground when people will inevitably climb up on those railings,” he said. “We think that it’s actually increasing hazard to put those railings up.” Now that the nonprofit group has hundreds of dedicated members, the City of Denver could have dozens to hundreds of complaints if the plan is not up to the Friends of Red Rocks’ liking.

Friends of Red Rocks are also making an argument for natural progression. “Our stance here is that really any trees that were planted, the original junipers, should all be retained,” said Good, speaking of Friends of Red Rocks’ stance on the trees. “Those trees are sort of landmarks in themselves.” Good further mentioned how a study was done on the Red Rocks trees in 2014 by Arborist Steven Geist of Swingle landscape care to determine the condition. The results, which we reviewed in a document, say that although the trees are not in pristine condition, some of them could live another hundred years. In specific, Geist concluded that although none of the juniper trees were in “excellent” condition, eight of them are in “good” condition, 35 trees are in “fair” condition, 11 in “poor” condition and two were dead.

This raises the question of how can you qualify nature’s natural beauty and process? From a more modernist perspective, the amphitheater is recognized as a significant piece of Modernist architecture designed by Burnham Hoyt. “[Hoyt] articulated a modernist philosophy, making the architecture as simple as possible and avoiding all ornament. So railings, when you put them up, are in fact a form of ornament, and this again is in violation of the natural aesthetic and the modernist aesthetic,” Good explained.

What’s Happening Now

The City of Denver is working on yet another proposal to present to the LPC now, although nothing is final as of late. After the last proposal was met with disapproval by Friends of Red Rocks, the City of Denver is back to the drawing board. Kitts said that the city plans on revising the proposal, and next year if approved, they’ll be testing four different prototypes for railings around the planter boxes. Kitts further explained that with the new plan and the prototype boxes, some trees will definitely have to be removed, but not all of them. He claims healthy trees would be left in place and the ones removed would be substituted with other foliage. “The plan really calls for more of a cyclical building of the different planter boxes and taking out trees that have already died or aren’t looking good. So you could potentially put in a railing, you could put in the paving, but to make it uniform, you’re going to have to take out trees,” Kitts said.

Friends of Red Rocks has a different plan in mind, however. Since there is currently no written, documented protection for the park itself, the group wants to make a Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre document of “preservation guidelines so that when the LPD reviews things, it has a document to go off of,” Good said.

There’s also some confusion about the gravity of a place being a National Historic Landmark and a Denver Historic Landmark. Kitts explained that “Denver Historic Landmark designation means permission must be given in order to make [a] significant change.  National Historic Landmark designation is provided by the National Parks Service in recognition of historic value to the nation – it doesn’t carry any status or permissions related to changes or regulation.”

Any interested and concerned citizen may attend the Landmark Preservation Commission meetings, which are held on the first and third Tuesday of every month at 1 p.m.in the Webb Municipal Building, 201 W. Colfax Ave., room 4.F.6 and 4.G.2. Find more information here.

Update: This article has been updated for clarity to reflect that Red Rocks says they plan to keep healthy trees and replace the one’s removed with other foliage.