The Cultural Landscape Foundation says City Park Golf Course is threatened. Denver says it’s not.

7 min. read
Thomas Bendelow, designer of City Park Golf Course. (The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

A flag waves in the breeze at City Park Golf Course. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver wants to use City Park Golf Course as the site for a 50-acre detention area as a part of a massive flood control project. That proposal has put the golf course on the "Landslide" list maintained by The Cultural Landscape Foundation to raise awareness of threatened American landscapes.

Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, said that, too often, park land is seen as blank space available for whatever other needs arise. That's what he thinks the city is doing with its detention area proposal, and he thinks that creates a slippery slope.

Today, City Park Golf Course. Tomorrow, Cheesman Park or Washington Park.

"We're saying we don't put a value on a historic golf course," he said. "We think it's more important to take that land and use it to store water during peak flows."

"We" here is, of course, the city of Denver in Birnbaum's view, not The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

"So if you set this precedent, what happens to other historic parks in the city going forward?" he asked. "I think that's a slippery slope in a city that prides itself on its heritage."

So what's the city have to say for itself?

Jenn Hillhouse, a project manager with Denver Public Works, and Greg Cieciek, a senior landscape architect with Denver Parks and Recreation, said the city went through an extensive process to identify the best location for the detention pond, and they'll do another public process as they redesign the golf course.

Hillhouse led the study of alternative locations and Cieciek is heading up the golf course redesign process, which is just getting started.

The city rejected other locations because they either didn't work well with the drainage patterns or they would have required buying up a lot of private property. Hillhouse said the city also considered multiple smaller detention areas but decided that would be inefficient and ultimately require the taking of more total area for detention.

The creek used to run through the Cole neighborhood and the golf course before that natural drainage was built over. Using golf courses and other parks lands for flood control has become standard practice around the country.

"We cannot think about a single use anymore but how we integrate it and use open space," Hillhouse said.

The detention pond lies in the middle third of the Montclair Basin. The idea is that in major flood events -- 100-year floods and greater -- water would collect in a lowered area and then be released in a controlled way through pipes to Globeville Landing Outfall rather than flooding streets in north Denver.

(This is a controversial project that many area residents fear would affect them without creating enough benefit. You can read more about that here and here. It's tied up in the plan to widen I-70.)

The rest of the time and even in storms that create some risk of flooding, the detention pond would be dry and usable and part of the driving range, and water would be carried by gulches or gullies throughout the golf course. These, too, would be new additions to the golf course design that Cieciek said would function like water hazards.

The city doesn't like the term detention "pond." (Some critics have referred to it as a pit or a hole.) It's an area, taking up more than a third of the 138-acre course, that would be lower than the rest of the course but have dips and swales and topography and be a usable part of the course.

What will it look like? "Like a golf course," Hillhouse said.

"This is going to remain a golf course, and the detention is not going to be what you would consider a basin or a bath tub," Cieciek said. "In an event, there would be water on the course, but you would play around it. There would not be water on the fairway."

Yes, it would be a change. But it's also a chance to make the course better, they said. Fairways might be redesigned. The clubhouse might be moved. The city might even bring back historic features like horseshoe bunkers around the greens that were covered over or filled in.

"I think we have a real opportunity to mimic that original design by Bendelow," Cieciek said.

That would be Thomas Bendelow, the "Johnny Appleseed of American Golf."

Bendelow designed somewhere between 500 and 800 golf courses during his lifetime. Many of those have been significantly altered, but two, City Park and a golf course in Baton Rouge, are on the National Register of Historic Places. City Park's designation is as a contributing feature to the overall Denver Park and Parkway System.

Here's how the city described the golf course in its application back in 1986:

The natural topography of the land permits an unequaled view of the mountains and the Denver skyline. From the high point near Colorado Boulevard, the terrain drops to the west. In a natural swale there are giant plains cottonwoods (which also are the street trees along the west perimeter) and willows. Looking back to the east, the rise in the course becomes the horizon, providing an illusion of vast space.

The layout of the course itself is conventional, consisting of wide and straight fairways. The fairways are, for the most part, planted only with grass. As if for counterpoint, however, the greens and tees are surrounded by islands of evergreens (ponderosa and white pine, spruce, Douglas fir, cedar, and juniper), all of which appear to have been planted subsequent to 1935. These islands are an expert mixture of forms, colors, and textures and they are both a sculptural contrast and measuring scale against the horizon and the sky.

This is what The Cultural Landscape Foundation wants to preserve.

"It's taking something that is recognized as a work of art, in this case a significant golf course, and making it something different," Birnbaum said of the city's plans

Jacqueline Lansing, a Park Hill resident and golf course patron, described the course's historical significance in an article for The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

This isn't the only effort to use the impact on the golf course to divert the stormwater project. John D. MacFarlane, a resident of northeast Denver and a former Colorado attorney general, has sued the city. He alleges that the stormwater plan violates the city charter, which requires that park land only be used for park purposes.

Cieciek said many of the features described in the national register application no longer exist or are significantly different. Many of the evergreens have died. The "snack shack" has been moved.

"We really value the course," Hillhouse said. "We know this a gem of the city. We want to maintain it and maybe improve it. But when you think of the things that made it historic, many of those things are no longer there."

The city is working with the State Historic Preservation Office to document the existing conditions on the course and any changes that will be made as part of the redesign.

Most importantly, they said, the views of the mountains and the skyline will be preserved.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation's "Landslide" list has its wins and losses, but Birnbaum said the designation has value even when it doesn't result in preservation because it gets people talking about the spaces we take for granted.

"When I look at this golf course, we know it's the work of a master," he said. "We know that there are hundreds of his golf courses that have been changed over time. This is one of only two on the National Register. That should mean something. It's not just open space for the taking."

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