Worse Than a Pledge Drive

A southeast Denver neighborhood howls about a public-TV station's profit-making development proposal.

A three-acre plot of land along Leetsdale Drive has become a major headache for nonprofit KRMA-TV Channel 6, which has been battling neighbors over its proposed profit-making commercial projects on the property it's owned for the past decade.

A recent proposal to build a 24-hour Amoco station and a Grease Monkey oil-change shop on the site--directly across the street from George Washington High School--has angered residents of the Virginia Vale neighborhood.

"Channel 6's public image doesn't coincide with what it's trying to do in this neighborhood," says Duane Schat, who serves on the board of the Virginia Vale Community Association. "They're trying to make money at the expense of our quality of life."

After a series of angry public meetings that featured neighborhood residents shaking their fists at representatives of the station, the two sides have agreed to enter city-sponsored mediation. But no one expects a quick resolution to a dispute that's gone on for years.

"We've been frustrated since 1987," says Don Johnson, a former general manager of Channel 6 who has been handling the negotiations with the neighborhood group. "We went to the neighborhood with two or three different projects, and all of them were rejected."

The saga of the disputed property goes back to the 1950s, when the southeast Denver neighborhood was being developed. The company that subdivided the area donated the small plot of land to the Denver Public Schools, which was then planning a large high school on the other side of Leetsdale. Many Denver high schools have small parks across the street--a legacy of Mayor Robert Speer's early-twentieth-century City Beautiful campaign--and some speculate the property was intended to be a park.

Instead the land was used as a parking lot for George Washington after the school opened in 1959. No one gave much thought to the property until 1987, when DPS and Channel 6 were negotiating a separation agreement.

DPS founded the public station--then known as educational television--in the mid-1950s. For years KRMA operated out of the district's Emily Griffith Opportunity School building, at 1250 Welton Street. But by 1987, the station and the school district decided to end their affiliation, and Channel 6 acquired a building at 10th and Bannock streets.

As part of the agreement between DPS and the station, the school district agreed to give Channel 6 several small parcels of land to compensate for the loss of its studios at Emily Griffith. One of those was the three acres along Leetsdale.

Almost immediately, the station wound up in dispute with the neighbors. Proposals for a McDonald's and other high-traffic uses were shot down after residents bitterly opposed the ideas. The property is zoned for residential development, and Channel 6 has the politically difficult task of winning a rezoning on the property before it can sell it for commercial use.

Both sides acknowledge that the property is ill-suited to residential purposes, since it faces a heavily used street that is already lined with strip malls.

"If you asked somebody if they'd want a home on Leetsdale, they'd look at you and ask what you'd been smoking," says Johnson.

Schat agrees, but he says the neighborhood isn't willing to accept the sort of high-revenue, high-traffic uses on the property that Channel 6 has proposed. "It would be less than desirable for people to live there, but we don't think it needs to go to high-traffic retail," he says.

The Virginia Vale neighbors would prefer to see the property developed as a park, but short of that option, they say they'd be willing to accept less intensive commercial development, including an office building or quieter retail uses. But they draw the line at a 24-hour gas station and convenience store.

"That would be horrible," says Nancy Sharpe, a Virginia Vale resident. "You'd have cars pulling in and out all the time, and the bright lights. The kids from George Washington will just run across the street. It would be a danger with all those kids."

Channel 6 has a tentative agreement to sell the property for an undisclosed sum to Emerald Properties, which wants to build the Amoco station, but that agreement is contingent on getting the property rezoned. Johnson readily acknowledges that KRMA wants to make as much money as it can off the property, and that means getting permission to do a retail project on the site.

"If it were zoned for commercial use, of course it would be more valuable," he says.

But getting a rezoning in the face of fierce community opposition would require a majority vote of city council, and most councilmembers don't like to approve changes in zoning without the support of neighborhood groups. As commercial development accelerates in Denver, disputes over retail projects in residential areas have become more common, and few councilmembers want to risk antagonizing voters.

"If this neighborhood is this vociferously against any project, it's a very big hurdle for them to clear at council," city councilwoman Sue Casey told the Virginia Vale group at a recent meeting. Casey, who represents the area, is encouraging Channel 6 and the neighborhood to try to resolve the dispute through mediation.

However, there's already so much rancor between the two sides that ending the controversy anytime soon seems unlikely.

"The opposition from the neighborhood is nearly unanimous," says Schat. "I'm through letting Don Johnson characterize our neighborhood as anti-development. We've offered alternatives, but we don't need a gas station.

 
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