Commentary: Denver Voted to Keep Park Hill Golf Course as Open Space | Westword

Commentary: Denverites Voted for Open Space at Park Hill Golf Course; Keep It That Way

It's now rezoned for a golf course, but that's not what residents want.
The defunct Park Hill Golf Course has been a popular place for a walk.
The defunct Park Hill Golf Course has been a popular place for a walk. Amy Harris
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On April 4, Denver voters rejected the sweetheart deal to build a mixed-use development on the site of the Park Hill Golf Course. Just over two months later, the open space is being threatened anyway — both by Westside Investment Partners, the development company that owns the PHGC, and Denver City Council’s unanimous vote on June 20, at the behest of Denver Community Planning & Development, rezoning the land for a new, 18-hole golf course that residents neither want nor need.

Since April 5, Denverites who walk, ride bicycles and take dogs for a stroll at the de facto park have been told by security guards that “the park is closed because of the vote.” And as of the evening of June 21, a fence was being built that cut off the parking lot from the park itself. Now, a lame-duck mayor and council are attempting to roll back the demand for open space on the technicality that the conservation easement requires the land to be used for golf and other recreation activities. These twin moves by Westside and the council are naked retaliation against Denverites for not rubber-stamping a deal that voters did not want, and taking away the open space that Denver’s public voted to maintain.

Retaliation like this is a cynical political and economic move. It is undemocratic. When voters rejected question 2O, they rejected it because we don’t want to live in a city that can be bought and sold so easily. We rejected it because there are several other sites in Park Hill where a grocery store could be developed. We rejected it because once open space is developed, it is no longer be open space. And we certainly did not vote for open space to be preserved so that the losing side of the ballot question could build a fence around it and keep us out all while attempting to make a profit through lease or fees-based activities for an unrepresentative group of hobbyists who already have the large and well-maintained City Park course fewer than twenty blocks south on Colorado Boulevard.

Reverting the zoning to mandate that a golf course be developed shifts what has been open space accessible by anyone to a profit-making enterprise that caters to a relatively privileged minority. Golfers are wealthier (according to Morton Golf Sales, the average — not the median, which is different and higher —golfer’s household income is over $100,000) and older (Morton Golf Sales estimates that the average golfer is 54 years old) than most Denver residents, and more likely to be men. The Park Hill Golf Course itself has a history of excluding Black, Brown and Native players, despite North Park Hill’s history as a predominantly Black neighborhood.

There is no doubt that Denver needs more affordable and low-income housing, and the city bureaucracy under Mayor Michael Hancock has not done enough to encourage and enforce these needs in the new development already happening in the northeastern quadrant of the city that includes Park Hill, Elyria-Swansea, Central Park, Montbello and Green Valley Ranch. The development just north of the park on 40th Avenue and Colorado has multiple fast-food options but no grocery store, when one could have been developed in that space. Still, the voters have spoken, and it behooves the council, Community Planning & Development and the speculators to listen to the real intent of Denverites rather than the cynical and self-dealing interpretation of the easement language. The Park Hill Golf Course should remain an open and accessible space for recreation for the neighborhood residents and all Denverites. The trails should be maintained and the grounds open to the public, with no impediments to access. These are easy short-term solutions.

The long-term solution should be to find a transparent and public means to protect the open space. One way to do this is to make it part of the city’s Parks & Recreation infrastructure, rather than a fee-for-entry private space. The already existing buildings can be used as community centers for events (a church holds Sunday services there at present), a playground could be built in one section, another section could be a community garden for nearby residents and/or displaced Native peoples. Farmers' markets could be held in the expansive parking lots already there. The rest of the park should be maintained as open grassland unaltered save for replacing non-native grasses with native grasses that are drought-resistant. The family of foxes that lives in the park should not be threatened in any way, and the migrations of geese that come through the park twice a year should still be able to land, rest and forage without the threat of being pelted by projectiles. The possibilities for community and public use are endless. The only reason to curtail this is greed and a general disrespect for the residents of Denver.

Failing this, incoming Mayor Mike Johnston and the newly seated Denver City Council should limit the bidding or rental of this land to organizations that plan to maintain the open space. Land trusts have been used effectively in other parts of the country to do this. This is a potential path that keeps the land private but could put its future in the hands of displaced Native nations of the Front Range. There is already graffiti on the few maintenance buildings in the park that give a stark reminder of this violent displacement reading “1851 1861 1864 LANDBACK.” The dates recall the Fort Laramie Treaty (1851) recognizing Cheyenne and Arapaho sovereignty and making way for U.S. settlement and military installations; the Fort Wise Treaty (1861), which repealed the sovereignty of the Cheyenne and Arapaho and forced them onto reservations; and the Sand Creek Massacre (1864), in which over 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho were murdered in cold blood.

I walk this park with my dog most days. As I walk there, I see neighbors walking their dogs, teaching their kids to ride a bicycle, sitting in the grass and soaking up the sun, sitting under a tree getting some shade, and enjoying their daily walk, run or workout; some even hit golf balls from wherever they want. We all smile and greet each other. But recently, the conversations have turned to "I can't believe they're actually building a fence," or "Wow, it's the end of an era!" Denverites voted to keep this space in hopes that it would be open for all of these activities; we should not be barred from them by a developer and a rubber-stamp Denver City Council who didn’t get what they want and now seek to take their metaphorical ball and go home so no one else can play.

Scott B. Ritner lives in Park Hill with his spouse and co-parent, their child, a large dog and a small cat. He teaches political science at the University of Colorado Boulder.

On weekends, frequently publishes commentaries on matters of interest to the community. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to [email protected], where you can also comment on this piece.

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