Hentzell Park flap: Should Denver trade open space for offices?

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Five years ago, Denver park officials thought highly enough of a little-known parcel of open space along the Cherry Creek corridor, containing some of the last traces of native prairie vegetation to be found in the city, to officially designate it as a natural area. But now, Mayor Michael Hancock's administration is keen on swapping nine acres of the site for an office building downtown -- and some neighbors and park activists are fuming over the proposed deal.

City officials say it's kismet. Denver Public Schools wants the land, located west of Havana and Yale, for a new elementary school. In exchange, the city gets a DPS office building at 13th and Fox, 40,000 square feet that Mayor Hancock wants to transform into a "family justice center," a one-stop shop housing various agencies that provide services to victims of domestic violence.

"All in all, I think it's a win-win," says city councilwoman Peggy Lehmann, whose district surrounding Paul A. Hentzell Park is squeezed for classroom space for a growing population of schoolkids. "There's going to be lots of natural area left after we build this school. We're only taking 11.5 acres, and part of that is going to be a playground and a ball field. Those are things the community needs."

But critics of the swap, which includes a city-owned parking area as well as the nine acres of open space, say it sets a bad precedent -- and exposes how vulnerable some of the more recently acquired Denver parks and open space lands can be to conversion to other uses without a popular vote. "Natural areas are pretty precious," says Polly Reetz, conservation chairman for the Audubon Society of Greater Denver. "This was designated as a natural area for specific reasons, and those reasons have not gone away. The city was supposed to do restoration work and hasn't, but that doesn't mean it should be given away."

Park officials have described the tract as damaged goods, largely because of the presence of a prairie dog colony that makes it difficult to manage. (The Parks and Recreation department's sole wildlife ecologist was laid off last year.) But defenders say the naturalness of the area is the point; a position paper by an ad hoc group calling itself Advocates for Denver Parks says the department's failure to proceed with its management plan for the area and subsequent effort to turn the land over to DPS has "unearthed serious problems with the way in which Denver parkland is classified and protected."

Continue for more about the Hentzell Park meeting tonight. Neighbors complain that city officials represented the swap as practically a done deal before any public comment was sought -- and misrepresented what was at stake. Signs announcing the proposal posted in the area proclaimed the amount of land involved was 5.7 acres, not nine. And the website for the future Rose A. Andom Center announced that it had already obtained a lease for the use of the Fox Street building, a bit of news that has since been removed from the site.

Last month, the Parks and Rec advisory board delayed making a recommendation on the "de-designation" process after hearing from citizens that not enough public input had been sought. (Several pages of comments have since poured in.) The board meets tonight to issue its recommendation, but the decision whether to remove the open space designation and commence development rests with Parks and Recreation Laurie Dannemiller and, ultimately, with the city council, which must approve the deal.

Lehmann points out that the city has been adding open space and preserving natural areas from Heron Pond to Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, "but we never hear about that," she says. In exchange for the swap, she's committed to drafting a measure to take the remaining fifteen acres of the Hentzell Natural Area and incorporate them into the existing park for additional protection.

Nancy Stocker, who lives in Lehmann's district and is battling the exchange, counters that the city has only 167.5 acres of officially designated "natural areas," even though Parks and Rec claims thousands of such acres on its website. A surprising amount of Denver's open space and parks isn't officially recognized as parkland by ordinance and could be subject to the same "de-designation" process as the Hentzell parcel, she contends.

"Something's gone wrong with the city's process for protecting natural areas," Stocker says. "The officially designated natural areas are miniscule, and taking this one away is a very bad precedent."

The Denver Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meets at 5:30 p.m. tonight, December 13, in conference room 4F6 in the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building, 201 West Colfax. For additional information, call 720-913-0670.

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