Hentzell Park: Neighbors launch drive to stop Denver land swap

A much-contested deal to trade eleven acres of open space in the Cherry Creek corridor for an office building in central Denver, pushed by Mayor Michael Hancock and approved by city council in April, has triggered not one but two citizen petition drives to nix the swap and protect the land in question -- one of the last remnants of a prairie ecosystem in the city limits.

Voters may get to decide the matter this fall, although the city's efforts to squelch the campaign may result in a battle in court first.

As we've previously reported, the transaction involves turning over 11.5 acres of city property in a formerly designated "natural area" adjoining Paul A. Hentzell Park in southeast Denver to the Denver Public Schools. DPS wants to build an elementary school there to take the pressure off other overcrowded schools in the area. In return, the city would take over a DPS building at 13th and Fox and convert it to a "family justice center," housing various agencies that provide services to domestic violence victims.

Hancock, who's described the area as "blighted" and overrun with prairie dogs, and Denver Parks and Recreation director Lauri Dannemillier obtained city council approval of the swap on April 1 -- even though Dannemiller's own advisory board urged rejection of the proposal, saying that it set a dangerous precedent for commercializing open space.

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At public hearings, numerous park advocates and nearby residents spoke against the proposal, disputing Hancock's description of the property and questioning the appropriateness of the site (adjacent to busy Havana Street) for a school. Now, a recently formed group called Friends of Denver Parks is launching two petition campaigns to put the issue on the ballot this fall -- a referendum to repeal the ordinance that okays the swap and an initiative to dedicate the "de-designated" natural area as park land to be protected in perpetuity.

Late last week, Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson rejected the paperwork submitted on the referendum drive, claiming that it didn't contain sufficient language for a repeal effort. But John Case, a Hampden Heights resident and attorney for the repeal campaign, contends that Johnson's objection wasn't filed in time and is erroneous.

"If they want to take us to court, that's fine with us," Case says. "We like the issue."

Case's group is meeting with representatives of the city attorney's office and city council this afternoon (3:30 pm in Room 391 of the City and County Building, 1437 Bannock) to try to thrash through some of their differences. A citizen's petition in Denver requires around 6,500 signatures to make it on the ballot; Case says his group is shooting for 10,000 on each of the two efforts and believes voters will rally behind the effort to protect the conversion of open space to other uses.

"What DPS would do would totally change the character of this property," he says. "It's been listed as a park since 1927. Starting in 2007, it's shown in city maps as a park. We feel the issue is pretty clear."

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

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