“This is one of the last large tracts of open space in the city, and it happens to be adjacent to, or in the middle of, a community of color,” says Penfield Tate, a former state legislator and candidate for Denver mayor.
In 2019, Tate and other Park Hill residents formed Save Open Space Denver, with a goal of blocking development on the land. Currently, SOS Denver is gathering signatures in order to get an initiative on the November ballot that would effectively block its development by Westside Investment Partners, the company that now owns the land and is also in the process of revisioning the Loretto Heights College campus in southwest Denver.
SOS Denver wants to see the land become a public park. Westside is proposing a mixed-use development, and some neighbors are looking forward to a project that would include not just a park, but an affordable housing component and a grocery store. They say that SOS Denver’s advocacy isn’t representative of the needs of those who live and work around the former golf course.
“We’ve got plenty of park space with trees. I think individuals having a roof over their heads is healthy. I think having food that they can access is healthy. This is about a small group of people who have this artificial thinking that everything should revolve around them,” says Abdur-Rahim Ali, who serves as the imam at the Northeast Denver Islamic Center, which is located one block south of the property. Ali also serves on the steering committee set up by Denver Community Planning and Development that’s currently crafting a vision for what to do with the land.
"The good news is there doesn’t have to be winners and losers; we can accommodate all of this on this property. This community wants more than a golf course, and we are committed to working with them to bring their vision of mixed-use development that includes a large, new park for the city and the neighborhood to life," says Kenneth Ho, the Westside lead on the project (it’s partnering with the Holleran Group), who has committed to maintaining sixty acres of open space.
While the size of the Park Hill Golf Course property is close to the size of the Pillar of Fire Church land that could be developed in Westminster, there are more complications involved with this deal. Beyond the debate over what to do with the land, there’s the question of what can be done with it legally.
The property was previously owned by the George W. Clayton Trust, which is connected to Clayton Early Learning, a nonprofit that works with low-income children and runs a preschool and education research institute. It had been a golf course for close to a century until it closed in 2018. Denver once had control of the trust; over three decades ago, the city wanted to purchase the golf course outright for $2 million generated by a 1989 bond measure. But that proved to be an insufficient amount for the deal, so the city instead paid $2 million to the trust in exchange for a conservation easement that limited the land’s potential uses. Denver City Council approved that easement in 1997, while Wellington Webb was mayor.
In 2019, Westside bought the property for $24 million, essentially banking on being able to develop it after the conservation easement issues were sorted out. With the easement still in place, the Denver Assessor’s Office has the property valued at $6.96 million.
As Westside and attorneys for the City of Denver read the conservation easement language, they believe the land is required to be used primarily as an eighteen-hole golf course; as a result, Westside wants Denver City Council to remove the easement. Save Open Space Denver advocates, including Webb himself, are in favor of keeping the easement in place, arguing that it allows for the land to be turned into a city park.
“Our fight to protect the conservation easement on the Park Hill Golf Course land is more than just about the false notion that it has to remain a golf course,” says Tate. “Save Open Space Denver is currently working on some broad-brush plans to present the space as open and recreational, without development. What the community needs to understand about the easement is that it is their leverage, their voice. Once it’s gone, the developer can do anything it wants to with that land, based upon the deal they would strike with city administration — and regardless of what they may have promised on the front end.”
SOS Denver’s ballot initiative would require voter approval before Denver City Council could lift any conservation easement — unless it's doing so in order to create a new park. The proposal is definitely inspired by the Park Hill Golf Course situation, even if that’s not mentioned in the language.
While opponents collect signatures, the city is hosting a public visioning process for the property that could wrap up before the election; the next steering committee meeting is June 8 (find out more here). But no matter what is envisioned for the property, any potential groundbreaking is years away.