By: Alayna Alvarez
October 22nd, 2020
The future of one of the largest stretches of open space left in metro Denver will be decided through a community process expected to kick off before the end of the year, developers announced Thursday.
For nearly four years, the now-defunct, 155-acre Park Hill Golf Course property has embroiled the city, open-space advocates and property owners and developers, with some calling for conservation, others for affordable housing, commercial uses and more. Denver-based developer Westside Investment Partners bought the land from Clayton Early Learning last July for $24 million after sales negotiations with the city broke down.
The lease to operate the golf course once brought in a steady source of income for the Clayton school, but revenues have trickled in recent years, resulting in the golf course closure in 2018 after the city filed a permanent storm water detention and drainage easement on 25 acres of the northeast corner of the site.
On Thursday, developers held a virtual press conference to announce the next phase of redevelopment plans. According to Kenneth Ho, who is leading the project for Westside Investment Partners, the city of Denver will lead a small area planning process to come up with a shared, community-inspired vision for the land, which is expected to take a year. After planning will come rezoning, a process expected to take roughly another 12 months.
Before any development can happen, the Denver City Council will also need to amend the land’s conservation easement, which requires the property to be used solely as an 18-hole golf course. In other words, it will be years before ground is actually broken on the sprawling green acreage.
However plans shake out over the next 24 or more months, one thing is already clear: “We believe we can do better for this neighborhood than a golf course,” Ho said Thursday of Northeast Park Hill.
The neighborhood’s residents, who are 43% Black, lack access to parks and fresh food, face involuntary displacement and are offered few business opportunities in the area. One-third of the neighborhood’s jobs pay less than $33,000 a year, according to Westside Investment Partners.
“We believe that the Park Hill Golf Course represents a unique opportunity to address these challenges and revitalize both the spirit and the economy of Northeast Park Hill,” Ho said. “The sheer size of this property really provides a unique opportunity to do that.”
Over the last year, Ho’s team has spoken with neighborhood businesses and community leaders to gain a sense of what they want for the property.
The “number one thing” they heard was that the neighborhood should lead in the process.
To help make that happen, Westside Investment Partners announced a new partnership Thursday with with the Holleran Group, a local, Black-owned social equity enterprise organization dedicated to maximizing social impacts through economic development.
“This partnership today is the culmination for us of two decades of hard work and commitment to the equitable outcomes for Black residents, businesses and neighborhoods,” said Norman Harris, co-founder of the Holleran Group and a native Denverite with deep ties to the Five Points neighborhood.
Harris has been involved in organizing the Juneteenth Music Festival and Five Points Jazz Festival, which he said were focused on driving life and economic activity into historically Black areas, but in a way that remained rooted in the neighborhoods’ culture and history.
As a new partner of Westside’s, Holleran plans to apply those practices to the Northeast Park Hill development project as well.
“We’ll be working with the community to come up with creative ways to ensure that the neighborhood has an active and impactful role” in shaping the future of the Park Hill Golf Course, Harris said. “Our ultimate outcome needs to be the empowerment of the Northeast Park Hill community.”
Developers have already committed to preserving at least 60 acres of land for open space and parks, Ho said. He has also heard interest in building a grocery store and affordable housing units, indicating that the space will likely be a mixed-use property — if that’s what the community ultimately wants, he said.
Two months earlier, the Denver City Council weighed the conservation easement adopted by a citywide vote in 1997, putting in $2 million to preserve the property. The proposed ballot issue would have required voter approval for commercial and residential development.
In a 10-3 vote, however, the council decided to send the measure back to a committee for further discussion, keeping the measure off the city’s November ballot. Only Councilwomen Robin Kniech, Amanda Sawyer and Candi CdeBaca, who carried the measure for the group Save Open Space Denver, voted against referring the measure back to committee.
Councilman Kevin Flynn said the question needed more work. “Every member of council has had to ask clarifying questions,” he said in August, at the time of the vote. “There’s confusion about it.”
Councilman Chris Herndon, whose district includes the land, opposed the measure on grounds that the neighborhoods surrounding the land should lead the development discussion. Whatever they want for the site, he said he will stand behind.
“It is the quintessential sweetheart deal,” CdeBaca said, before comparing it to other property values in the area. She calculated the potential return to developers at “well over a billion dollars,” given market prices for developable property.
“This is one of the last pockets of Denver that has a substantial Black community, and this Black community is predominantly made up of our Black elders, who are homeowners, who have repeatedly called us and asked for help with rising property values and consequently constantly rising property taxes,” she said.
“They’re being pushed out as the neighborhood is right now. That’s without the park being sliced up and sold off at market rates.”
Former Mayor Wellington Webb was part of that group that wanted the measure on the November ballot.
Webb said in an op-ed in July that “it infuriates me that some people are trying to spin an open space issue into a racial divide. They are attempting to pit neighbor against neighbor and create a narrative that nobody outside of the Park Hill neighborhood cares that Denver’s last large tract of open space could turn into another concrete jungle.”
He likened the value of Park Hill Golf Course to Denver’s mountain parks “and other land our forefathers had the wisdom to purchase and set aside for generations. What if their attitudes had been similar to some of our council representatives today? Red Rocks likely would be a subdivision,” he wrote.