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Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks
Courtesy Amanda Tipton Photography

More wheelchair-accessible seats and paving projects at Red Rocks Amphitheatre are among the changes proposed to improve the concert experience for people with disabilities, nearly two months after Denver paid $48,000 to settle a claim that alleged wheelchair-accessible seats were more expensive than other seats in the city-owned venue.

Denver’s Agency for Human Rights & Community Partnerships partnered with Red Rocks to host an open house for the people with disabilities Tuesday to preview the proposed changes. Both the agency and venue collected feedback on ways to improve accessibility for concertgoers at the iconic music venue near Morrison. 

The first row at the 9,525-seat venue will have more wheelchair accessible seats, converting some of the limited-mobility seats to fully wheelchair accessible, said Alison Butler, director of Denver’s Division of Disability Rights. At Red Rocks, there are 121 accessible seats for their events — all of which are in the first row and last row. 

All seats in the first and last rows will be fully wheelchair accessible and the wooden benches will be removed so concertgoers with disabilities and their companions can use folding chairs to allow them to sit shoulder-to-shoulder. Newly designated seats in rows 2 and 3 will be for those with limited mobility and a section positioned directly in front of an on-stage interpreter will be created for people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind or have low vision.

The changes are expected to be completed by the start of next year’s concert season, Butler said. 

“I think all changes are overdue, but all are welcome and I’m looking forward to continuing to work with the community so that we can continue to maximize,” Butler told The Colorado Sun on Wednesday. “I think we already met compliance with the law. What we’re looking for is maximizing inclusivity and that’s an ongoing process.”

Other changes, which are expected to be finished by 2025 include repaving of a ramp from the shuttle area to the first row and adding handrails to both sides, she said. A small shelter at the shuttle shop will also be added, along with more paved parking at the Upper South Lot. Improvements will be made to the slopes from the Top Circle Lot to the Visitor Center and Row 70. 

The changes were prompted by the Department of Justice’s Project Civic Access, which identified accessibility issues at the venue, Butler said. Since May, the city has collected feedback through emails and meetings with dozens of members of the community with disabilities on ways to make Red Rocks more accessible, she said.

“We were sort of juggling all of those different things: We needed to make sure it worked for the artists and the functionality of Red Rocks. We needed to make sure it worked for the community who wants to go and see it. We needed to make sure we weren’t violating the law and that the architect could logistically make the changes that we wanted,” Butler said. 

The concert venue, named after its 300-foot towering red sandstone rock formations, opened in 1941, well before the American with Disabilities Act was created in 1990. Through a series of lawsuits and settlements, changes have been made to the venue to ensure compliance with the law. 

The changes announced this week come after more than 1,800 people who attended events at Red Rocks received refunds for paying extra for their accessible seating as part of a discrimination lawsuit the city settled in August. 

Under the ADA, venues are prohibited from charging higher prices for seats that are accessible to people who use wheelchairs. Venues like Red Rocks that physically cannot make accessible seating available in all parts of the theater must price the tickets as though the seats were proportionally distributed. 

The Department of Justice found that more than 10% of people who purchased wheelchair-accessible seats were charged more than they should have been under ADA regulations. At times, they paid $130 more per ticket for their seats, Assistant U.S. Attorney Zeyen Wu said in a video news release. 

Denver has since implemented a system to ensure that wheelchair-accessible tickets are priced in accordance with ADA regulations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Colorado said.

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In 2016, when Butler was the director of legal services at Disability Law Colorado, she represented a plaintiff who sued the city to stop scalpers from acquiring Red Rocks tickets by saying they needed accessible seating and then reselling the tickets at exorbitant rates. 

Under the settlement, to help drive down fraudulent transfers and use of the accessible seats in rows 1-3, the venue marked all seats in the first four rows as reserved and nontransferable. Now, to access seats in the first row, concertgoers must arrive with their entire party, answer brief questions from Red Rocks staff and will receive a wristband, according to the city.

In 1999, a lawsuit was filed against the city over the lack of access for people in wheelchairs to get from the parking lot to the first row, Butler said. As a result of the suit, wheelchair-accessible shuttles are now offered from the Upper South Lot to the bottom of the ramp leading to the first row. 

“In my perfect world, all businesses including cities and counties are proactively looking for ways to maximize accessibility and inclusivity and I’m not sure that we’re in my perfect world at this point,” said Butler who became the agency’s director in March. “So, do I wish this had happened 10 years ago? Absolutely. Five years ago? Absolutely. Do I understand city budgets and logistical issues? I do. And I’m glad that it’s happening now.”

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: oliviaprentzel@coloradosun.com