Hentzell Park natural area "simply not a park," city insists

Denver residents have roamed, biked and ridden horses along the natural area adjoining Paul A. Hentzell Park for decades. Now, Denver District Judge Herbert Stern must decide if that usage -- along with some signage, maps and other historical reference points -- do indeed make a park out of a much-disputed, much-maligned eleven-acre sliver of vestigial prairie that Mayor Michael Hancock is eager to turn over to the Denver Public Schools, in exchange for an office building downtown.

Hancock's plan to swap the land, allowing DPS to build an elementary school on the property in exchange for a building that the mayor wants to transform into a one-stop assistance center for domestic violence victims, won city council approval in April despite considerable opposition from neighbors, environmental groups and even some longtime employees of Denver Parks and Recreation, which had designated the site as a "natural area" just a few years ago. It's also triggered a lawsuit by a group called Friends of Denver Parks, which contends that the city needs voter approval to transfer the land.

In documents submitted in response to the lawsuit, the Denver city attorney's office argues that "the land simply is not a park and never has been." A closing statement points out that a small portion of the site was turned into a parking lot in the 1990s and leased to a commercial property owner -- a step that demonstrates city officials didn't consider the area to be a formally designated park long before the Hancock administration came along. Maps from 1957 also fail to list the area as a park.

But Friends of Denver Parks attorney John Case maintains that the area is part of a 26-acre parcel purchased by the city in 1936 "so that Denver citizens would have unobstructed use of the trails along Cherry Creek for horseback riding and recreation." Although it was never actually declared a park by ordinance, various city maps and signs have referred to the area as a park, and longtime residents of the area testified that they'd relied on representations by city officials (including one 1979 letter from Mayor Bill McNichols) that the area would remain undeveloped.

The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the swap and the ability to proceed with a petition to put the proposal on the ballot for voters to decide. The city contends it has the right to dispense with the land without voter approval. Judge Stern is expected to rule on the matter on June 28.

More from our Environment archive circa December 2012: "Hentzell Park flap: Should Denver trade open space for offices?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast