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Criticism Clouds the Park Hill Golf Course Visioning Process

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As part of a city-organized "visioning process," a community steering committee will meet today, March 9, to discuss what to do with 155 acres of land comprising the defunct Park Hill golf course, a prized swath of undeveloped land now owned by Westside Investment Partners.

"My job is to facilitate the steering committee process and meetings so that people have answers to questions or, when debating what things say, I can help broker resolutions. But there might be cases where we’re not going to reach consensus on things. For me, it feels too early on to know that," says Nita Mosby Tyler, who runs the Equity Project, a Denver-based consulting firm, and has been hired by the city for this project.

The group Save Open Space Denver wants all 155 acres to remain open space — albeit a massive park rather than a golf course. Westside, which purchased the property from a trust for $24 million in 2019, wants to develop the land to include commercial and residential areas, and has said it would leave at least 60 acres of open space; affordable-housing advocates have expressed support for that development plan.

But there's a confounding factor to any future development: For decades, the land has been under a conservation easement. According to the Denver City Attorney's Office, that easement requires the primary use of the land to be a golf course. Save Open Space Denver, which counts former mayor Wellington Webb and former mayoral candidate and state legislator Penfield Tate as members, maintains that the conservation easement protects the land as open space generally, and doesn't require that an 18-hole golf course remain there.

Both groups agree that any major development project would require the easement to be lifted, which would involve both a Denver City Council vote and a judge's order. But SOS Denver believes that even with the easement left in place, the land could become a large public park.

The future of the land isn't the only matter of debate. SOS Denver has expressed concerns that the steering committee's "visioning process" is simply subterfuge on the part of Community Planning and Development and Westside that would allow them to say they engaged with the community and then simply proceed with plans to get the easement lifted and the property developed.

Mosby Tyler disagrees with that take. "I have to do my very best as a facilitator to keep having this steering committee hold the hope that we’re really contributing toward something that’s equitable. I don’t want people to write it off as it’s fixed, and there’s no point in going through the process. We’ve got to keep our hope," Mosby Tyler says. "I'm doing it because I honestly care about the community and the community’s voice."

The members of the 27-member steering committee includes representatives of registered neighborhood organizations, residents who live near the property, the Westside project lead, community advocates and affordable-housing proponents. One member of Save Open Space Denver serves on the committee.

"The committee clearly has a developer bias and slant in perspective," says Tate, who represented the area that includes the golf course land when he served in the Colorado Legislature.

Community Planning and Development rejects these assertions. CPD is responding to everything it hears "from the residents of the neighborhoods closest to the golf course and to promote transparency during this process," says CPD spokesperson Laura Schwartz.

"SOS Denver, like other neighborhood groups on the steering committee, designated their own representatives. Additionally, the city received applications for the committee from over 200 people. We used this selection criteria to narrow down the applicant pool while keeping a focus on ensuring the committee reflects the surrounding neighborhoods," Schwartz explains.

And Kenneth Ho, the project lead for Westside, offers this: "It is unfortunate that some people are preemptively trying to discredit the process, because it's dismissive of the diverse community perspectives that have been assembled on the steering committee and the time community members will invest in filling out surveys, participating in town halls and engaging in other ways. The Northeast Park Hill neighborhood has been systematically disenfranchised for decades, and they have been waiting too long to be heard. We believe this visioning process will give them that opportunity."

While SOS Denver has been vocal in its opposition to developing the land, some people who work or live nearby think that there's significant community support for a mixed-use development that includes affordable housing.

"We've got plenty of park space with trees. I think individuals having a roof over their heads is healthy. I think having food that they can access is healthy. This is about a small group of people who have this artificial thinking that everything should revolve around them," says Abdur-Rahim Ali, a member of the steering committee who serves as the imam at the Northeast Denver Islamic Center, which is located one block south of the golf course land.

After monthly meetings throughout 2021, the steering committee will send its recommendation for how to proceed to Community Planning and Development, which will create a formal Small Area Plan for the land that will include development agreements and open-space commitments, That plan will then go to the Denver Planning Board and Denver City Council for votes.

After that, the city and Westside can decide whether to pursue lifting the conservation easement.

The property, officially known as the Park Hill Golf Club when it was operational, was previously owned by the George W. Clayton Trust, which is connected to Clayton Early Learning, a nonprofit that works with low-income children and runs a preschool and education research institute. Over three decades ago, the City of Denver had intended to purchase the golf course for $2 million generated by a 1989 bond measure; when that amount proved insufficient, the city instead paid $2 million to the trust in exchange for a conservation easement that limited the land's potential uses. Denver City Council approved that easement in 1997, while Webb was mayor.

The Park Hill Golf Club closed in 2018; a year later, Westside bought the property, essentially banking on being able to develop it after the conservation easement issues were sorted out.

In the summer of 2019, a group of residents formed Save Open Space Denver, which started out as a campaign to give residents the right to vote on such easements. After members decided not to collect signatures for a petition during the pandemic, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca took their initiative to Denver City Council. But in August 2020, councilmembers voted against placing the measure on the November ballot.

The steering committee meeting runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9; find the link to watch it here.

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