Christo’s Over the River

Christo, Over the River project For the Arkansas River, Colorado, Drawing 2007
Christo, Over the River project For the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, Drawing 2007

The Confluence of Art and Land Use Politics, or the Journey is Half the Fun

As a parent, hearing the phrase “are we there yet” can cause your skin to crawl.  It isn’t that we don’t understand the frustration of a long wait for an anticipated vacation, but things that are worthwhile take time to happen – right?  As land use professionals, we find ourselves answering this question, in so many words, for our clients as we wind our way down a circuitous path towards approval of a project.  Like  the six year old in the back seat of the family wagon, our clients just wish to get on with the fun of building the project and would rather forget the often teeth grinding journey that leads to final approval.  And yet, as land use professionals who have freely chosen this profession, on some level, we must think the journey is fun.

Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, the dynamic duo behind such visually stunning and culturally evocative temporary outdoor art projects such as the wrapping of the Reichstag and the Gates in New York’s Central Park, seem to understand that the twists and turns of the permitting process is something that can and should become an integral part of any project and not just a means to an end.  Sadly, Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009 but her husband and their team of consultants continue to pursue one of the couple’s latest examples of this appreciation of process in their proposed project for the Arkansas River in Fremont County, Colorado.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the Arkansas River, Colorado, June/July  image: Wolfgang Volz
Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the Arkansas River, Colorado, June/July
image: Wolfgang Volz

Over the River, or OTR, is a two-decade old effort to gain the necessary land use approvals to cover 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River with luminous fabric that will interact with light, water, and nature.  The two-week installation has been lauded by some for its audacious beauty and derided by others for its disregard of natural beauty, the disruption it will cause wildlife, and the negative impacts it will have on the community.

The OTR team, for their part, contends that the project will provide lasting benefits, citing the economic gains that will be reaped by the local community from the thousands of visitors who will come to view the installation.  The OTR team also has confidence that increased tax revenues, increased jobs, and increased personal income for the residents living in the communities near OTR will be direct results of the project.   The OTR team maintains that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have nothing but the highest concern for the environment, citing, among other examples, that the schedule of the exhibit, anticipated to take place during early August, has been determined to minimize impacts on wildlife.

Christo and Jean-Claude originally conceived OTR in 1992, fittingly while on a brief lull in their work to obtain the necessary approvals to wrap Berlin’s Reichstag.  Several river canyons throughout the western United States were considered for OTR based on their ability to meet certain project goals – a visually stunning setting, a river that provided both flat and white water sections, steep canyon walls from which to hang the fabric, and a road that traversed the entire canyon which could be used for the crews erecting the fabric panels and for the visitors that would eventually come to marvel at the work.

Christo, Over the River Map
Christo, Over the River Map

Ultimately, a portion of the Arkansas River, which runs through a steep walled canyon in rural south central Colorado, was chosen.  Unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s first project in Colorado at Rifle Gap near Rifle, Colorado, OTR will be located entirely on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administered public land.  As public land, the OTR team was required to pursue a very detailed approval process.  An Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was prepared, and BLM and local use permits obtained.  As with all previous projects pursued by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the cost of these efforts are paid for through the sale of conceptual drawings created by Christo.

Christo, Over the River, Project for Arkansas River, State of Colorado, Collage 2007
Christo, Over the River, Project for Arkansas River, State of Colorado, Collage 2007

Skepticism has always followed OTR.  From the informal questions asked during the very early community meetings held in the mid 1990s to the coalescence of an organized opposition group called, flippantly, Rags Over the Arkansas River or ROAR.  ROAR has mounted a legal and public relations fight that has forced the OTR team to defend the BLM’s Record of Decision (ROD), which provided the BLM approval for the project, along with the associated EIS and other studies that were commissioned by the OTR team.  ROAR is also active in the local approval process, having lobbied the Fremont County Commissioners during their review for a Temporary Use Permit.  (The Temporary Use Permit was granted in the spring of 2012.)   Despite the approvals obtained, ROAR maintains that the BLM has failed to uphold their mission of protecting public lands and the sensitive natural and animal resources that characterize the canyon.  ROAR also questions the economic impacts that OTR will create.  Rather than the financial windfall promised by the OTR team, ROAR believes the project will negatively impact the very important summer fishing and rafting activities that sustain the local community and place undue stress on the limited County infrastructure.

image: Rags Over the Arkansas River
image: Rags Over the Arkansas River

Opposition has only seemed to stiffen the resolve of the OTR team to realize Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s vision.  While the OTR team has recently successfully defended the BLM’s ROD, they are now preparing to clear two more additional legal challenges.  While remaining optimistic, Christo has announced that the site work that was originally scheduled to begin this year will be postponed until the final approvals are obtained and all legal questions resolved.

If this protracted process sounds familiar, it is because OTR can be seen as a microcosm of the land use professional’s daily reality.  We often work in the face of a vocal and well-conceived opposition, attempting to walk the fine line between realizing a client’s goals and protecting the public’s interest.  This is not an easy dance.  OTR may well provide a stunning art installation, but it will also require some invasive and disruptive installation methods.  Like most projects, accurate studies are required to assess the impacts.  Can all the hurdles be cleared and the necessary questions answered for this project?  Time will tell.  But for the time being, sit back and enjoy the journey.  It is, after all, half the fun.

by Patrick Rawley, AICP, ASLA is a senior planner and landscape designer with Stan Clauson Associates in Aspen, Colorado

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