Hentzell Park: Mayor Hancock forges ahead with open space land swap

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Despite an emphatic recommendation against the move by her advisory board, Denver Parks and Recreation manager Lauri Dannemiller has okayed Mayor Michael Hancock's plan to swap open space in the Cherry Creek corridor for an office building downtown. The decision sets up a showdown between the administration and some Hampden Heights neighbors and park activists when the controversial exchange heads to Denver City Council for final approval.

A Hancock appointee, Dannemiller agrees with the mayor's depiction of the deal as a "win-win-win" scenario for the city and Denver Public Schools. DPS plans to build an elementary school on nine acres of a designated natural area south and west of Yale and Havana, adjoining Paul A. Hentzell Park. In return for that land, DPS has offered the city an office building at 13th and Fox that Hancock wants to turn into a "family justice center," a one-stop shop housing various agencies that provide services to victims of domestic violence.

The Parks and Rec chief contends that the city won't see any net loss of open space from the deal because of recent acquisitions of additional acreage elsewhere. But critics say it sets a bad precedent for the city to give up any open space -- one of the reasons Dannemiller's advisory board voted against the proposal 11-6 after hearing extensive public comment on the issue three weeks ago.

But the board's recommendation isn't binding, and Hancock has claimed that the nine acres in question aren't exactly the jewel of the park system. "They have have become blighted, overrun with weeds and have lost any significant natural area values," he wrote in a recent email to a constituent.

Park advocates say the weeds are a direct result of neglect by the parks and rec department, which designated the area as worth preserving five years ago because it contains some of the last traces of prairie vegetation within city limits -- and then failed to follow up with needed maintenance. At the advisory board meeting, regular visitors who've seen owls and coyotes on the property took issue with the mayor's characterization of the land as expendable. Dannemiller's decision letter de-designating the open space describes the area as a "degraded site."

Critics of the move say the city and DPS have failed to explore adequate alternatives to the swap or considered using funds freed up by the city's "debrucing" property tax measure or bond issues approved for schools to acquire other land. An ad-hoc group of open space supporters is hoping for a strong turnout of like-minded residents when Hizzoner seeks to persuade city council members that the deal's still a winner.

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