Hentzell Park: Board rejects Mayor Michael Hancock's plan to trade open space for building

Despite a personal appeal from hizzoner himself, the Denver Parks and Recreation Advisory Board gave a thumbs-down last night to a controversial plan by Mayor Michael Hancock's administration to swap a parcel of open space in the Cherry Creek corridor for an office building. Amid much soul-searching and head-scratching by the board, the deal was promoted as a "win-win" by backers and denounced as a land grab by opponents.

"This deal simply makes sense," Mayor Hancock told the board -- including several mayoral appointees -- at the start of the lengthy discussion. But few members of the eighteen-member board, whose recommendation isn't binding and probably won't be the final action on the scheme, seemed eager to embrace a proposal that pitted the needs of schoolchildren and domestic violence victims against the board's mission to protect park land.

As reported here previously, the proposal would turn over 11.5 acres of city property in a designated "natural area" adjoining Paul A. Hentzell park in southeast Denver to the Denver Public Schools. DPS wants to build an elementary school there to take the pressure off other overcrowded schools in the area. In return, the city would take over a DPS building at 13th and Fox and convert it to a "family justice center," housing various agencies that provide services to domestic violence victims.

The board's published agenda for last night's meeting allotted only five minutes for public comment on the proposal, but at the last minute, the board decided to allow more of the strong turnout to speak. Supporters of the plan described the open space area as "underutilized" -- two acres of the parcel is a parking lot -- and stressed the need for the Rose A. Andom Center, a one-stop clearing house for abuse victims. "I understand the opposition and the desire to protect land," Victoria McVicker, the CEO of Safe House Denver, told the board. "But we're talking about protecting women and children."

Yet several board members expressed concern about the lack of transparency in what they'd been told and not told about the deal, DPS's need for that particular site, and what other options might be available for the school and the acquisition of the center -- particularly in light of the recent "deBrucing" and bond issues that have given the schools and the city new sources of revenue. Park boosters pointed out that Parks and Recreation had designated the targeted parcel as a natural area just five years ago and had failed to follow through on restoration.

Neighbors described seeing horned and snowy owls, coyotes and other wildlife and native vegetation at the site -- which, along with areas of Babi Yar Park, constitutes the last remnants of relatively undisturbed prairie within the city limits. They took issue with efforts to portray the parcel as "damaged" by a prairie dog colony (a keystone if troublesome species) or of limited significance.

"This land is personal to me," said Bob Connelly, who's been biking the area for decades. "This land is an oasis."

"To see what this has devolved to makes me very sad," said Jeannie Kaplan, a Denver School Board member -- who stressed she wasn't speaking for the board. "Why has this been such a secretive process? It raises questions about what other deals are being made that we don't know about."

Board chair Keith Pryor expressed disappointment in the vagueness of DPS's plans for the site, calling it "a cookie-cutter school proposal," and alarm at the precedent of giving up precious open space and abandoning the department's vision of creating natural areas as well as groomed parks. (There's only 165 acres of designated natural areas in the city, none of which enjoy the degree of protection of officially recognized park land.) The board voted 11-6 against recommending the de-designation of the Hentzell parcel; one member, J.T. Allen, recused himself from voting because he is the board's DPS representative.

Parks and Recreation manager Lauri Dannemiller, a Hancock appointee, must now decide whether to overrule her board and take the proposal to city council for a final decision.

More from our Environment archive: "Hentzell Park flap: Should Denver trade open space for offices?"