Denver voters to set future of Park Hill golf course in 2023 election

The future of the dormant Park Hill golf course in northeast Denver is headed back to the ballot.

The Denver City Council on Monday night referred a question to the April 4 municipal election that would give voters the option the wipe out the legal agreement that prevents most things from being built on that green space and open it up to a redevelopment future that could include up to 3,200 new housing units, retail, and many neighbors hope, a grocery store.

A years-long city planning process and hours upon hours of public testimony culminated Monday night in a marathon meeting and four council votes that will have a heavy bearing on the future of the 155-acre property located at the northeast corner of Colorado Boulevard and East 35th Avenue.

The most impactful of those votes came after midnight. The council voted 11 to 2 to put the future of the property back in the hands of the city’s electorate this spring. Council members Candi CdeBaca and Paul Kashmann were the two no votes, having consistently opposed the redevelopment of the golf course land.

The forthcoming ballot measure is the result of the 2021 election in which Denver voters passed Initiated Ordinance 301. That measure strengthened a city-owned conservation easement on the property by mandating that any attempts to lift it must first be approved in a city-wide election.

The question that will appear on the city’s packed April 4 ballot reads:

“Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver authorize the release of the City-owned conservation easement on privately owned property known as the Park Hill Golf Course, which requires the land to be used primarily for golf-related purposes, and allow for commercial and residential development, including affordable housing, and public regional park, trail (sic) and open space.”

“It’s going to be up to the people, not us,” Councilman Kevin Flynn said.

The council approved three other bills dealing with the golf course property Monday.

First, the council voted 9-4 to approve the creation of five metro districts with the authority to collect property taxes on the land to pay for the construction of infrastructure and some maintenance going forward.

Next the council approved rezoning the land, turning it from privately-owned park space into a variety of zonings that will clear the western portion of the property for development that could reach as high as 12 stories tall at the northwest corner. The eastern chunk of the land, which includes a 25-acre stormwater detention area, is zoned as park space. The changes line up with a long-term plan for the property approved by the council last month. The rezoning also passed 9-4.

In the metro district vote, CdeBaca, Kashmann and Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval and Council President Jamie Torres voted no. In the rezoning vote, Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer joined CdeBaca, Kashmann and Sandoval in opposition.

Torres and Sawyer joined the majority in passing a development agreement between the city and the property’s owners, development firms Westside Investment Partners and the Holleran Group.

That 10-3 vote binds Westside and any future owners it might sell pieces of the property to an agreement that mandates 25% of all housing built there is income-income restricted affordable and that 100 acres of the land (including the 25-acre stormwater area) be donated to the city as parks and open space including 80 acres immediately upon the passage of the ballot measure lifting the easement. If the ballot measure does not pass, the agreement dictates Westside must file a rezoning application to turn the property back into open space and then reopen it as a golf course.

“This development agreement is about the city listening to community, empowering community,” said Councilman Chris Herndon, whose district encompasses the golf course.

The city can enforce the agreement through means including rejecting permits if Westside or other groups its sells to are not keeping up on building income-restricted housing, city staff remembers said.

More than 100 people spoke during the cluster of public hearings. The core arguments around the property have remained largely unchanged since the 2021 ballot fight in which Westside ran a competing ballot measure that was defeated while 301 passed with more than 63% of the vote.

Opponents to redevelopment say that paving over even a portion of the 155-acre property would further damage the city’s environment at a time when Denver is slipping in rankings of park space per resident. Redevelopment would also be a detriment to the surrounding Northeast Park Hill neighborhood, which is already at high risk of gentrification, by driving up property taxes and would create traffic burdens on neighborhood streets, they argue.

“Why would we ever dispense with the easement when we have a growing population and shrinking park land?” resident Jeff Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh and many other opponents to the redevelopment accused the city and Mayor Michael Hancock specifically of steering discussions about the future of the property to an outcome where it will be redeveloped.

Westside donated to Hancock’s re-election campaigns in 2018 and 2019, campaign finance records show. The company also donated to campaigns for Flynn, Herndon, Sandoval and Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore.

For people favoring redevelopment, leaving the property as is under the rules of a conservation easement that dictates it must have a regulation-length, 18-hole golf course is the biggest threat to the community. Years of disinvestment has left Northeast Park Hill without job opportunities while gentrification drives up housing prices and increases the risk of low-income people slipping into homelessness.

“As far as I’m concerned, Denver does not have an open space crisis, Denver has a housing and homelessness crisis that needs to be addressed right now,” neighborhood resident Shareef Aleem said.

Bubbling beneath the surface of the rezoning discussions was a controversy surrounding a protest petition opponents filed last week.

Opponents can force a rezoning to be subject to a council supermajority — 10 yes votes — if they collect signatures from property owners representing at least 20% of the land within 200 feet of a parcel up for rezoning, according to the city planning department.

Opponents delivered what they believed was a sufficient number of signatures last week but after several were disqualified, the petition was thrown out and the vote went back to a simple majority. If it had been held to a 10-vote threshold, the rezoning would have failed.

Opponents accused city planning officials of changing the rules around petition gathering after the fact to invalidate signatures that should have counted.

“This was supposed to be a super-majority vote tonight on the future of this,” opponent Harry Doby said. “We had beaten them at their own game, then they changed their rules.”

Westside purchased the golf course, long owned by a nonprofit educational organization Clayton Early Learning, for $24 million in 2019. By then efforts to preserve the land as open space instead of opening it up to redevelopment were already well underway with grassroots group Save Open Space Denver at the forefront.

Penfield Tate III is one of the public faces of that group. The former state senator is now running for a City Council at large seat in the April 4 election. He spoke at Monday’s meeting arguing that the city didn’t have the legal authority to unwind the conservation easement that is governed by state law.

While not enforceable by the city, Westside on Monday announced that it has also signed on to a legally-binding community benefits agreement it quietly negotiated with some members of the Park Hill neighborhood. That agreement, per a press release, has stipulations including Westside offering free land for any full-service grocery store that wants to build on the property and the creation of a property tax displacement fund to help support surrounding homeowners.

“We look forward to the city being able to vote their values and support this type of development going forward,” Westside executive Kenneth Ho said.

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