Denver Development

Initiative to Block Park Hill Golf Course Development Makes Ballot

What would you like to see here?
What would you like to see here? Sara Fleming
Denver residents will get the chance to vote on whether the Park Hill Golf Course can be developed. While the 155-acre property just off Colorado Boulevard isn't mentioned in the ballot measure, it definitely inspired the action.

“This is great news for us and great news for Denver,” says Penfield Tate, a former state legislator, mayoral candidate and leader of Save Open Space Denver.

Yes for Parks and Open Space, the campaign that Save Open Space Denver organized to land an initiative on the November 2021 ballot, submitted over 14,000 signatures on June 2. On June 21, the Denver Elections Division determined that 10,720 of those signatures are valid — well over the 8,265 signatures needed to land the measure on the ballot.

If approved by voters, the Yes for Parks and Open Space initiative would require that Denver hold a citywide vote whenever it wants to lift a conservation easement. The Park Hill Golf Course happens to be the only property in Denver that has such an easement, approved by Denver City Council over two decades ago, when the $2 million that the city had allotted to buy the property proved inadequate.

Save Open Space Denver advocates preserving the parcel as open space, since properties this size are rare in the city.

"Ensuring protection for parkland and open space in this city is something that every citizen should have a voice in — and our 'green' initiative gives them that voice. There is a very clear choice for Denver voters: green space versus concrete and asphalt. Now, on to a victory in November," Tate says.

But Westside Investment Partners, the development company that owns the property in partnership with the Holleran Group and hopes to create a mixed-use development there with at least sixty acres of open space, is currently funding a campaign to put an initiative on the same Denver ballot, one that would effectively neutralize the Yes for Parks and Open Space vote.

The Westside-funded initiative nearly mirrors the language of the Yes for Parks and Open Space initiative, with one key difference: The Westside initiative defines "conservation easement" in a way that exempts the Park Hill Golf Course conservation easement from being subject to the Yes for Parks and Open Space initiative requirements. So if both were to pass, Denver City Council could lift the conservation easement without a citywide vote.

Carroll Watkins Ali, one of the proponents for Empower Northeast Denver, the Westside-funded campaign, says that the Yes for Parks and Open Space initiative purports to be about preserving open park space, but is really an attempt to silence the voice of Northeast Park Hill.

“The majority of the people working on that ballot initiative don’t even live near this property, and our majority Black, Indigenous and People of Color community has a lot of needs we can address with the Park Hill Golf Course. We are filing our ballot initiative in direct response to their attempt to take away our right to a visioning process and to let the entire city decide what our community needs," says Watkins Ali, who runs the Greater Denver Interfaith Alliance, located near the golf course.

Empower Northeast Denver is still collecting signatures for that campaign; it must submit 9,184 valid signatures by July 6 in order to land the measure on the ballot. (Yes for Parks and Open Space had declared its signature-gathering intent in 2020, when a lower threshold applied.)

Save Open Space Denver, which counts former Mayor Wellington Webb as a member, believes that the conservation easement — which was approved by Denver City Council in 1997, when Webb was mayor — allows for general open space on the property. Its wish list is topped by having the City of Denver buy the property, which houses a golf course that closed in 2018, and turn it into a municipal park, without ever lifting the conservation easement.

Westside Investment Partners and attorneys for the City of Denver interpret the conservation easement differently, arguing that it requires the property be mainly used as an eighteen-hole golf course and doesn't allow for a city park. For the land to be used as a park — let alone be developed in a mixed-use fashion by a developer — Denver City Council would need to lift the conservation easement, they say. That's what Westside is pushing for, and why it funded the Empower Northeast Denver campaign.

As the two sides look to the November election, the Department of Community Planning and Development has been leading a "visioning process" for the Park Hill Golf Course property. Later this summer, a community steering committee will provide recommendations to city officials on what should be done with the land.

As this process progresses — and assuming it isn't upended by the results of the November election — it will eventually result in a small area plan crafted by CPD and a development agreement with Westside and Holleran. All of these steps would play out before Denver City Council takes a vote on lifting the easement and agrees to any rezoning of the property to accommodate the development plans.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.