“I want to reaffirm our commitment to honestly listening to the people who will bring this project to life and to a transparent and equitable dialogue," says Kenneth Ho, the project lead at Westside Investment Partners, in a statement announcing the agreement. “We recognize that there is a higher bar for community benefits on this site, and we are committed to ensuring that the end result of this project reflects the values and needs of the community.”
The announcement comes two months after Denver City Council voted against referring a measure to the ballot that would have required voter approval for the city to lift any conservation easements, which limit development possibilities for the property. For decades, the Park Hill Golf Club has been under a conservation easement that largely prevents it from being used for anything other than a golf course, according to an analysis by city attorneys.
In 2019, Westside purchased the Park Hill Golf Club property from 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. It paid $24 million; with the easement in place, the property currently has an actual value of $3.15 million, according to the Denver Assessor's Office.
Westside would need to get Denver City Council to lift the conservation easement in order to develop the property and come anywhere close to recouping its investment. The company has contracted with the Holleran Group, a community-engagement consulting firm, to help work with the city on the small-area planning process. Ho estimates that the process will take around a year, and then a rezoning proposal could take another year, pushing any possible vote on lifting the easement at least two years down the line.
"We think it is vitally important that the city is able to meet with and hear from the Northeast Park Hill community surrounding the course, so we can understand residents’ vision for this land, whether that is to continue as a private golf course or to incorporate new uses — which could include public park amenities, simply open space, neighborhood stores and services, some combination of these, or something completely new that we haven’t considered yet," says Laura Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Department of Community Planning and Development.
"If a community vision supports the idea of adding new uses in this area, then creating a formal small-area plan that can be reviewed by residents and adopted by city council would be the next step," Schwartz adds. The city had intended to start a small-area planning process for the Park Hill Golf Club property earlier in the year, but those efforts were delayed because of the pandemic.
Asked what he envisions for the property, Ho says that Westside has already committed to preserving at least sixty acres of open space. Community members have asked for a "diverse mix of housing, including affordable rent and for sale" and a grocery store, he notes. "The City Park Golf Course is closer to this property than the next grocery store. This is a food desert as well as a parks desert."
Denver City Council members have been split on what they'd like to see on the property. Several have said they're not interested in lifting the easement. But Councilman Chris Herndon, whose district includes the Park Hill Golf Club, wants the surrounding community to figure out what to do with the property.
"I want Northeast Park Hill to determine what happens to that park," Herndon said at a council meeting a few months back. "If they were to say, 'I want 155 acres of open space,' rest assured, I would be their biggest champion of that. And if they were to want something else, I would continue to be the biggest champion of that."
Other councilmembers would like to see the city purchase the property.
Decades ago, that was the city's plan; it intended to purchase the golf course using $2 million generated by a 1989 bond measure. When it turned out that amount wasn't enough to buy the property, the city instead paid the $2 million to the trust, which is managed by Clayton Early Learning, in exchange for a conservation easement that limited the land's potential uses. Denver City Council passed a measure establishing that easement In 1997, while Wellington Webb was mayor.
Since then, there have been varying interpretations of that easement: Some have said it prevents the land from being used for anything other than a park, while city officials and Westside agree that it dictates that the property must remain a golf course...by and large.
In the summer of 2019, after Westside bought the property, a group of residents that included Webb and former state legislator and recent mayoral candidate Penfield Tate III started Save Open Space Denver, a campaign to give voters the right to vote on such easements. Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca took the initiative to council after SOSD members realized that trying to collect signatures during a pandemic would be too risky.
Denver City Council ended up voting down the measure nine to three in August, which ensured that it wouldn't make the November ballot.
While the initiative had support from Webb, Tate and the Greater Park Hill registered neighborhood organization, all of whom want to see the golf course remain open space, many neighbors said that they hadn't been given a chance to weigh in.
"Our biggest concern is we feel that we haven't been at the table," said Stephanie Syner, a ten-year resident of Northeast Park Hill, at the August council meeting. "Nobody has come to us and asked our opinion. We have not been able to voice our concerns or be part of the process."
Now they can.