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The 155-acre Park Hill Golf Club is set to be sold to developers on July 11.
The 155-acre Park Hill Golf Club is set to be sold to developers on July 11.
Park Hill Golf Club

Wellington Webb Doesn't Want Park Hill Golf Club to Be Next "Paved Paradise"

A deal set to close on Thursday will put 155 acres of open space in the heart of northeast Denver — currently the Park Hill Golf Club — into the hands of developer Westside Investment Partners. The deal is the latest episode in a contentious and lawsuit-ridden negotiation between the city, current owner Clayton Early Learning, and locals who don’t want to see the land built up.

One of the loudest recent voices in the fight is former mayor Wellington Webb, who thought that his administration had protected the land permanently over twenty years ago. “The goal was to save the land as open space,” says Webb, who had no intention of being a stalwart on this issue — “I hoped somebody else would do it. I’m semi-retired!” — but now feels compelled to speak out.

“[Open space] is what makes cities unique,” he says. “Cities without open space, they tend to [have] too much density, too many crowds...just a terrible way for a city to live.”

In 1989, voters approved a bond referendum that included $2 million for the city to purchase the golf course. Webb was sworn into office in 1991, and in 1997, his administration paid that $2 million to Clayton in order to grant a perpetual conservation easement over the land, which specified that it should remain open space, specifically as an eighteen-hole golf course. In 2000, the city and Clayton entered into an "Agency Agreement," which established that if the property was sold, the conservation easement would stay in place.

That’s what is about to happen if the deal with Westside goes through. The conservation easement would be re-recorded, and lifting it would require legal negotiations and the eventual approval of Denver City Council, according to Ryan Luby, a public information officer at the Denver City Attorney’s Office. On top of that, the city would have to change the zoning of the land to allow for residential or commercial development.

Andy Klein of Westside Investment Partners argues that as is, the land isn't open space for everyone to use: "A golf course is not usable for people. You can’t go walk your dog, you can’t go play with your kids," he says.

Despite all the legal and political barriers to development, Webb is still urging citizens that the time to act is now. After all, if the deal goes through, it will eventually be city council that decides whether to lift the conservation easement.

“It’s my hope that I can rally enough citizens to hit city council with phone calls, and the mayors’ office with phone calls, and start taking account of how the council is going to vote on rezoning,” he says. The issue will be a “litmus test” for new members of city council, he adds.

When parks advocates sent a questionnaire to candidates before the election, all of the challengers, including eventual winners Candi CdeBaca, Amanda Sandoval, Chris Hinds, Jaime Torres and Amanda Sawyer, replied that they would support preserving the 155 acres as open space and its designation as a park. Several of these incoming councilmembers are replacing incumbents (such as Albus Brooks and Wayne New) who either supported some development or did not respond to the questionnaire. A spokesperson for Councilman Christopher Herndon, who represents Park Hill, said that he would not comment on the deal until after it closed.

Webb has a warning for any city council member who votes down the conservation easement and wants to run for mayor: "I will make sure they will never fulfill their goal." But Webb did support Michael Hancock against Jamie Giellis during the mayoral election. Giellis supported conserving the golf course as open space, while Hancock's administration has been working to buy the land from Clayton for development. Webb says he still thinks Hancock was the best choice for mayor, even though they disagree on this issue.

Webb doesn't mince words when explaining why he doesn't buy that the land could be sold off while maintaining much of its open character. “Developers like to develop," he says. "They have no heart for parks. That doesn’t fit their DNA. I fought them for that.

“This a Denver trick more than anywhere else in the country, the trick of false promises: ‘We can get you affordable housing and a grocery store, but you have to choose,'" he continues. Webb compared the dilemma to the biblical parable in which the true feelings of two women each claiming to be the mother of a baby were revealed when King Soloman suggested they cut it in half, thus killing it. “We need to be like Soloman on this; we need to keep the park whole. We don’t need to split the baby in half.”

Klein says that once the deal goes through, Westside will follow up on the community comment process started by Clayton two years ago. "Our plan is to spend time, any amount of time that we need, to get all input from stakeholders and determine what the majority of the neighborhood wants to see. If it continues the way it’s had, it includes a large park," he says.

Webb, for his part, will continue to fight. “I don’t care if somebody gets mad. My goal is — and it’s always been the same — I believe that cities [need] to be vibrant, and in order to survive, they have to have a certain amount of open space. ... It’s easier to turn a golf course into a park than it is to turn a grocery store with a parking lot and pavement [into a park]."

To that end, Webb sent Westword the lyrics — yes, all the lyrics — to Joni Mitchell’s 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi”:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
And put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em
No no no
Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Hey farmer farmer
Put away the DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Please!
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Hey, now, they paved paradise
To put up a parking lot

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