Future of Denver’s Park Hill golf course unlikely to be on November ballot
As the tug-of-war over the future of the former Park Hill Golf Club continues, city planners and the development firm that owns the 155-acre property are gearing up for another round of public feedback on plans that would better define what redevelopment there could look like.
Meanwhile, opponents of commercial and residential development that could pop up on the former links, are calling the city planning process irreparably flawed and working to share their own ideas about what the property could look like.
Amid the noise, one thing is becoming clear: Denverites should not expect to see a question pertaining to the golf course on their ballots in November.
Just last year, voters approved Initiated Ordinance 301. That measure strengthened the protections of the taxpayer-funded conservation easement that covers the land, giving the city’s electorate the final say on if that easement can be lifted or not. As long as the easement is in place, no development that isn’t golf-related can take place on the property located along the east side of Colorado Boulevard between East 35th and East 40th avenues.
“We absolutely plan to abide by (the ordinance) and put this question to the voters,” said Kenneth Ho, a principal with Westside Investment Partners, the real estate company that bought the course for $24 million in 2019. “The timing is still to be determined, but I think we can pretty much say it will not be November.”
Last week, Westside submitted an application to the city planning department for the large development review process, a special track for large projects likely to develop over extended periods of time. That application is summarized on Westwisde’s ParkHillGolfCourseReimagined.info website. It calls for the creation of hundreds of units of affordable for-sale and rental housing (well beyond what the city’s affordable housing policy requires) and donating more than 100 acres to the city for a regional park.
“We need to have a clear vision in order to put that to the voters and that’s what this process is,” Ho said. The large development review effort is expected to lead to a binding affordable housing agreement with the city and other legal guardrails.
The next step for Westside is an open house scheduled for the golf course’s clubhouse on Aug. 4.
“We are getting ready to announce some pretty incredible partnerships and additional features and community benefits that will we announce at that Aug. 4 meeting,” Ho said. “We’ll be able to provide more substance beyond just want is presented in the application.”
That effort is running parallel to the city-controlled planning process for the property that dates back to early last year. In December, Denver Community Planning and Development officials released the “prevailing vision” for the property. The eight-point vision included the creation of a large public park but also called for commercial space for local businesses, especially those owned by people of color, and providing space for a grocery store and other fresh food options.
Under the guidance of city planner David Gaspers, the city is preparing a draft of a plan expected to be ready for public scrutiny next month. The plan, meant to serve as a guide rather than a set of demands, would cover things like recommended land use, mobility and a road map for incorporating housing.
A draft of the land use recommendations available on the city’s website shows the portion of the property closest to Colorado Boulevard set aside for denser development. The eastern half of the property is set aside as park space. That draft map highlights the corner closest to East 40th Avenue as potentially hosting buildings as tall as 12 stories.
Save Open Space Denver, the community group that has been fighting changes to the golf course, is still working to oppose the city planning process. Fronted by former state senator (and possible 2023 Denver mayoral candidate) Penfield Tate, SOS Denver has called the city’s work a sham.
The group’s dedicated seat on the city’s steering committee for the property was taken away earlier this year, something Tate says shows the city is putting its fingers on the scale in favor of redevelopment. Gaspers noted that Shanta Harrison, an SOS Denver member, remains on the committee as a representative for the greater Park Hill neighborhood.
The prevailing vision released in December is also illegitimate in Tate’s eyes because the steering committee didn’t have a chance to review it before it was released publicly. Gasper emphasized that community surveys and interviews also informed the vision, not just the steering committee.
SOS Denver sued to stop the planning process, a lawsuit that was dismissed earlier this year. For Tate and other supporters of preserving the land as a park or open space, the ongoing planning effort is a demonstration city officials are shrugging off what voters want as expressed in last November’s election. Not only did Initiated Ordinance 301 pass by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, Initiated Ordinance 302, a Westside-backed, competing measure that would have exempted the golf course from voter oversite, failed by a similar margin.
“They basically decided to ignore the will of the people and just push forward,” Tate said.
Tate and SOS Denver are gearing up for a question asking voters to lift the conservation easement to appear on ballots this fall.
“We don’t feel the city has been a bunch of straight shooters on anything so we’re going to be prepared to deal with this in November,” he said.
If city staff members do intend to ask the council to refer a question to the ballot this year, they are low on time. The last chance the council would have to take action and meet the election deadlines is Aug. 29, according to a council spokesman.
Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who represents that city at large but lives within two miles of the golf course property, said she doesn’t think there is enough time for a question to make the November ballot. She’s OK with that. She’s not in a hurry.
She wants to see Westside commit to a community benefits agreement focused on equity outcomes in the neighborhood. She wants commitments to abundant affordable housing and a huge swath of open space.
“I think the community needs to have time to have an authentic conversation with this development team,” she said.
A contractor has begun the process of gathering input for a community benefits agreement. In the meantime, SOS Denver has enlisted its own landscape architect and come up with a rendering of what the property would look like if it was kept entirely as park space with new athletic fields, a water park and other features.
“It’s still the same message. It’s green space over concrete,” Tate said. “People have already spoken on this issue.”
Ho and his colleagues maintain that if the conservation easement remains in place, it only allows one use: a regulation length, privately owned 18-hole golf course. Whatever SOS Denver proposes, they don’t own the property or have plans to fund it, he said.
“One of the things we are actually burdened by is reality,” Ho said. “What they are putting out there is fiction.”