Editorial: Empower Northeast Park Hill residents to demand more at the old golf course
Before explaining why we oppose both of Denver’s competing ballot questions 301 and 302, we want to take the time to empower Denver residents with some important history and perspective — the 155 acres at the former Park Hill Golf Course were put under a conservation easement in 1997 with the clear intent of protecting the land from development.
Denver taxpayers spent $2 million to ensure that if Clayton Early Learning ever decided to stop operating its charitable golf course, the land would not be developed. It was a brilliant move on the part of Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. Twenty-four years later the easement has put the city in a position to acquire a once-in-a-lifetime asset for the benefit of all of Denver’s residents.
Land in Denver has become so expensive that acquiring a new park or adding public housing projects or even building new infrastructure has become cost-prohibitive. Land in Denver is so expensive that developers today buy perfectly fine houses, tear them down, build mansions and still make a profit. Park Hill Golf Course represents one of the last opportunities for the city to acquire a large unbroken tract of land.
Unfortunately, the land was bought out from under the city by a developer when the golf course operator sued to exercise the right of first refusal in the company’s lease/operation agreement of the golf course.
And now developers, Westside Investment Partners and its new partner The Holleran Group, are pushing hard to build a mixed-use project on the land despite the conservation easement.
It raises the question, is nothing sacred?
Can developers now ignore conservation easements across the state, buy land at a bargain rate because it is protected from development, and then lobby to get the easements lifted by local elected officials? It’s a dangerous precedent.
It is also something that the City of Denver – led by Mayor Michael Hancock – seems to be on board with. The city’s website frames the issue in a manner that we think is dishonest and is intentionally misleading people who live near Park Hill Golf Course so that their expectations will be low and they will demand very little of the property owner.
This is a huge mistake, and it is also what prompted a group of Denver residents to put a question on the ballot – 301 – that asks voters whether a public vote should be required to lift a conservation easement. There is very little trust at this moment that the city is looking out for the best interests of the public in this matter.
The question is not: Should the land in question remain a golf course?
The question is: Should the land be used for the public good or should the land be used for private gain?
If the answer is private gain, then the people who should be the most upset about this ordeal are running the early childhood non-profit at Clayton. They could have sold the land for at least twice what they did if not three times more if the city had lifted the easement for them.
All of that being said, we cannot bring ourselves to support 301 or 302.
Because while we do not trust the strange game the city is playing, we do trust the residents of Northeast Park Hill who have been put on a task force to come up with a vision for the land.
LaMone Noles sat down with two representatives of the developer and The Denver Post editorial board last week. She described decades of inequality and mistreatment suffered by the Black and Hispanic community in Northeast Park Hill. Her words were earnest and impassioned.
“I feel like the neighborhood is caught in the crossfire between anti-development sentiment and lawyers, OK. Irrespective of what those legal situations are, they need to deal with reality,” she said. “The reality is we cannot continue to allow our neighborhood to be disenfranchised. That space over there on Colorado Boulevard and 35th Avenue has been sitting dormant for a long time. Even when Clayton had it and the golf course vendors had it, they were not committed to run it as a viable golf course. It has been taking up space. It’s an eyesore, and we have an opportunity to change it up.”
Noles’ plea to Denver voters was simply not to take away the voice of her neighborhood by passing 301, and giving the decision to voters across the entire city. We agree with Noles and urge voters to vote “No” on both 301 and 302.
“We’ve got 26 people on the steering committee of which half of them are people of color who live in the surrounding neighborhood. It’s time for people to listen to what we want,” she said.
Noles and her fellow steering committee members, however, should feel empowered to demand so much more of this land than what is being offered.
For example, Noles and Norman Harris with Holleran mentioned several times that the neighborhood needs a grocery store — the stores in the nearby Central Park (formerly Stapleton) redevelopment do not feel accessible to the community. The only way to prevent another new development from doing the same thing is to put land in a trust held by the city so that any business coming in has affordable (subsidized) rent and can actually sell food at prices the local community can afford. If a Whole Foods opens at that location in a market-rate space owned by a developer, it will not fill the need of providing food to a low-income community.
When the developers talk about low-income housing, the task force should demand that the conversation is about giving land to Habitat for Humanity and the Denver Housing Authority so that for those units, profit is taken completely off the table.
And when the developers talk about 60 acres of open space, the task force should demand that in addition to that continuous block of public land (not split up among drainage ditches and sidewalk buffers), parcels of land are set aside for a city-owned recreation center, a public outdoor pool, a skate park, a basketball court, and other needed amenities like through-streets that give Northeast Park Hill direct and unfettered access to the land.
The conservation easement is not a weak document, and the task force has the upper hand in these negotiations. The default is not a golf course. The default is public land that serves the public.
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