Denver City Council Set for Park Hill Golf Course Vote

After years of fights between developers and community advocates, legal battles and dueling ballot measures, Denver City Council will vote on January 23 on whether to advance a measure to the ballot that would lift a conservation easement that rests on the Park Hill Golf Course property.

“Just three months ago, 70 percent of Denver voters approved a statewide proposition to fund more affordable housing. If council approves the project on Monday night, Denver voters will have the opportunity to vote their values by approving new affordable housing and public parks at a specific site,” says Kenneth Ho, the Park Hill Golf Course lead at Westside Investment Partners, the company that owns the property.

If the measure is approved by the council, then voters would get the ultimate say on the conservation easement on April 4, the same day that Denverites will choose a new mayor and councilmembers.

The future status of the Park Hill Golf Course has remained a hot-button political item ever since Westside bought the 155-acre parcel from the Clayton Trust for $24 million in 2019. Westside and Mayor Michael Hancock‘s administration have wanted to lift the conservation easement that sits on the defunct golf course and prevents any development. Westside’s plan has been to build a mixed-use development on the property with residential units, including affordable housing; retail outlets, such as a grocery store; and open space.

But the development firm’s plans — and the desires of Hancock and his team — ran into steadfast opposition from Save Open Space Denver, a group formed by community members to block any development on the property. Save Open Space, which includes former state legislator and current at-large city council candidate Penfield Tate and former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, has been successful in that regard until now. In November 2021, voters approved a ballot measure that called for a citywide vote in order to lift the Park Hill Golf Course conservation easement. A separate measure that was bankrolled by Westside that would have exempted the Park Hill Golf Course easement from the other measure failed to get a majority of support from voters.

Those opposed to development on the Park Hill Golf Course property have claimed that the conservation easement allows for general open spaces uses and not just an 18-hole golf course — a legal argument the City Attorney’s Office and Westside reject. Opponents instead want to see the property turned into a municipal park.

“From an environmentalist perspective, where we are losing our percentage of park space per individual citizens of Denver, and we’re behind the national average, I view this as a great opportunity to up our average,” says Tracey MacDermott, a member of the Greater Park Hill Community Inc., which has taken an opposition stance toward lifting the conservation easement.

Activists associated with Save Open Space Denver also filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to prevent the City of Denver from moving ahead with plans for the Park Hill Golf Course property.

And on January 17, a collective of residents in Northeast Park Hill filed protest petitions with Denver City Council to require a supermajority of ten council members — instead of the usual seven — to approve the rezoning application associated with the Park Hill Golf Course. This rezoning would need to go through in order for the property to be developed.

However, on January 19, city staff, including lawyers from the City Attorney’s Office, completed a review of the protest petitions and ultimately determined that there weren’t enough.

In particular, signatures are needed that represent 20 percent of the land area within 200 feet of the property. But the Department of Community Planning & Development notes that only about half of that square footage was represented by the total number of valid signatures.

“The Protest Petition Guide delivered to the requestor on December 15, 2022, explicitly states that for properties owned by a company — for example, an LLC, LP or Living Trust — proof of authorization for an individual to sign on behalf of the organization is required,” says CPD spokesperson Laura Swartz, adding that State of Colorado Statute C.R.S. Sec. 38-30-172 establishes the minimum requirements for a statement of authority’s validity. “The city does not have the authority to waive this requirement. The City Attorney’s Office reviewed documents submitted on behalf of organizations and determined whether they met the threshold to be considered valid under state law.”

Given the failure of that petition effort, the vote on the Park Hill Golf Course rezoning on January 23 will remain at a threshold of seven “yes” votes, which is the same as the threshold for the ballot referral item.

“Once again, the City has reached into its bag of tricks and found a way to deny a petition gathering effort that has met or exceeded their requirements. At this point in time, we are evaluating our response to this denial of our effort, and the City’s desire to silence neighboring residents and businesses,” says Colette Carey, a spokesperson for YES for Parks and Open Space, a group that overlaps in membership with Save Open Space Denver.

While Save Open Space Denver opposes any development on the property, there would be certain community benefits that would come from the development.

“Our proposal has been shaped by years of neighborhood input, and it very intentionally includes legally binding commitments with both the city and the community for unprecedented community benefits that will be unlocked only if council and voters support our plan. We’re confident that both City Council and the public would rather have all those benefits than keep this site as a golf course,” says Ho.

click to enlarge

If the conservation easement is lifted after the Denver City Council vote, the 303 ArtWay Heritage Trail would weave through the Park Hill Golf Course property, as depicted on this rendering.

Courtesy of Radian

Of the 155 acres, 100 of them will be designated as open space. Twenty-five of those acres would fall under a flood detention area, which can still be landscaped, but just cannot be the site of any structures.

The property also would feature part of the 303 ArtWay Heritage Trail, an art-themed multi-use trail that is designed to connect the 40th and Colorado RTD station with Holly Square. And in addition to the grocery store and other retail outlets, the developers have committed to earmarking 25 percent of the units as affordable homes.

For MacDermott, the housing and retail arguments fall flat.

“Look, we just went through COVID. We’ve got empty office buildings downtown. We’ve got open storefronts where there’s no businesses. Do we really need more retail right now when we should be maybe filling the buildings that already exist?” MacDermott asks.

The Hancock administration hired Eugenia Di Girolamo in 2022 as the city’s first-ever chief urban designer and has tasked her with helping out with adaptive reuse projects in downtown.

On first reading of the ballot measure referral item on January 17, only two council members — Candi CdeBaca and Paul Kashmann — voted against it. Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval joined them in voting “no” in two other items related to the Park Hill Golf Course proposal.

But if the “no” votes are limited to just those three, then the measure will head to the April ballot.

“How many times do we have to vote on this?” MacDermott says, with evident sarcasm. “So we’re just going to keep voting until we get the answer that we want?”

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