"Committee members will meet monthly to help review and consider public feedback, engage others in the visioning process, and ultimately recommend actions for consideration by Denver City Council," according to the Denver Community Planning and Development website. The 27-person steering committee includes, among others, nearby residents, representatives from local neighborhood organizations, and officials with Westside Investment Partners, the development company that bought the land from a trust for $24 million in 2019. The committee's first meeting is set for 5 p.m. February 9.
Not to be one-upped by the city, however, at 10:30 a.m. today, February 8, proponents of keeping the golf course property as open space will hold a press conference to "expose some of the very important concerns facing the future of the Park Hill Golf Course land and its conservation easement," according to Save Open Space Denver.
"It’s our point of view that the entire visioning process is inappropriate and premature. It’s inappropriate because the city has acknowledged it’s developer-led, which is problematic, and it's not based on city needs overall," says Penfield Tate, a former state lawmaker and Denver mayoral candidate who has been one of those fighting to keep the land as open space.
That easement dates back decades. Initially, the City of Denver planned to purchase the land, which had been used as a golf course since 1932, from the George W. Clayton Trust, which is managed by Clayton Early Learning, a nonprofit that caters to low-income children and runs a preschool and educational research institute, using $2 million generated by a 1989 bond measure. (At one point, the city had been the trustee of that trust, but was removed in the 1980s.)
The $2 million wasn't enough to cover the purchase, however, so the city instead paid that amount in exchange for a conservation easement that limited potential uses of the property. In 1997, Denver City Council passed the measure establishing the easement, with language that's the subject of considerable debate today.
Officials with Mayor Michael Hancock's administration contend that the conservation easement requires that the land be used mainly as a golf course. Westside agrees with this legal read; it took a calculated risk that the easement would be lifted, or at least modified, in purchasing the property. (The city itself paid Westside $6 million to use part of the land for the Platte to Park Hill stormwater detention project.)
The conservation easement requires that the land be used as an 18-hole regulation length golf course and driving range, according to Kenneth Ho, the project lead at Westside. He notes that the company does not think a golf course is an appropriate use for the land and is “looking forward to working with the neighbors through a city-led vision process to determine what they want and need in their neighborhood and together coming up with a shared vision that can be so much better than just a golf course.”
But Tate and others who have been pushing to maintain the land as open space argue that the city is misinterpreting the conservation easement language. "It is my position that if you have other recreational activities consistent with using the land for recreation and open space, that’s consistent with the purposes of the conservation easement," Tate says.
Tate, former Denver mayor Wellington Webb — who was in office when the easement was adopted — and others associated with the advocacy group Save Open Space Denver originally sought to put a measure on the November 2020 ballot that would have required a vote of residents whenever the city wants to lift a conservation easement. When the pandemic quashed potential signature-gathering efforts, they found a champion for the measure in Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who introduced it at Denver City Council. But in August 2020, council voted against referring the proposal to the ballot.
Even without that provision, Tate and Save Open Space Denver maintain that the city or the developer will have to go to court in order to have the easement lifted; city officials say that council itself can lift the easement.
And while that debate continues, members of the steering committee will discuss what they'd like to see on the land...and what's possible.
"Northeast Park Hill has many needs — attainable affordable housing; a supermarket, restaurants and retail; a good park with amenities for children; job training and business opportunities; and more," Abdur Rahim Ali, the imam at the Northeast Denver Islamic Center, wrote in a letter to Denver City Council in 2020. "Many of us have been distrustful of development efforts in the past, but we think a balanced plan for the former golf course could help this neighborhood. We need the people who live in the immediate neighborhood to have the conversation to figure out what the right balance can be."
Both Ali and Ho will be on the steering committee. They'll be joined by Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, who believes that maintaining the land as open space is important for the overall health of Park Hill and adjacent neighborhoods. "The Hancock administration [should] cease promoting the interests of its developer friends at the expense of the general public," Dutcher says.
Other members of that public want their voices heard, too.
"Our biggest concern is we feel that we haven't been at the table. Nobody has come to us and asked our opinion. We have not been able to voice our concerns or be part of the process," Stephanie Syner, a ten-year resident of Northeast Park Hill, said during an August 2020 council meeting.
Councilman Chris Herndon, whose northeast Denver district includes the 155-acre property, also spoke at that meeting. "I want Northeast Park Hill to determine what happens to that park," he said. "If they were to say, 'I want 155 acres of open space,' rest assured, I would be their biggest champion of that. And if they were to want something else, I would continue to be the biggest champion of that."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.