City Council passes a Park Hill Golf Course small area plan to make way for rezoning 155 acres of northeast Denver

At stake: whether a shuttered golf course can be turned into a massive mixed-use development. 
9 min. read
The Park Hill Golf Course. Sept. 14, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Developer Westside Investment Partners' attempt to convert a 155-acre shuttered golf course into a mixed-use development continued to move forward Monday night, despite public opposition.

City Council voted to approve the Park Hill Golf Course Small Area Plan on a 10 to 3 vote, with Councilmembers Amanda Sawyer, Paul Kashmann and Candi CdeBaca voting against the plan.

By approving the small area plan, City Council paved the way for its next decision: whether to rezone the property.

Current zoning rules would prevent residential and retail development on the site.

The plan, as passed, recommends the following uses:

While Northeast Park Hill residents have long asked for a grocery store, there are no guarantees a grocery store would be coming -- though space for one would be available in the project.

Details of the project -- what stores, how many units of housing, how the design will actually look -- are still being hammered out between Westside and community members through the development agreement and community benefits agreement, said Westside Principal Kenneth Ho, before the City Council meeting.

What's possible will largely be determined by if and how the city says the land can be used.

Opponents of the project say City Council has gotten ahead of itself. There's the matter of a conservation easement limiting how the land can be used.

Penfield Tate III, an opponent of Westside's development, said City Council voting on a small area plan is premature if the City of Denver can't explain how it will dissolve a conservation easement. The public paid for the easement in the late '90s, and Tate wonders what "deals the city is cutting with respect to an easement that belongs to the city on behalf of the people."

The conservation easement mandates the property be preserved as an 18-hole, fee-based, regulation-length golf course and open space. The only exception to this land use would be if running a golf course was no longer possible, which the Park Hill Golf Course's current owner, the developer who wants to change the zoning and build a massive mixed-use project, says is not the case.

Tate and other opponents of Westside's mixed-use development contend the purpose of the conservation easement is not to protect the land as a golf course -- which nobody seems to want -- but as scenic open space. They argue golf is only one of many purposes the land can serve.

Other purposes, like tennis courts, are specified in the conservation easement, but only in the case that they do not interfere with a golf course.

Yet the easement, as opponents of the project see it, could continue to mandate the land be used exclusively for open space and recreational uses, even if golf is no longer the dominant use. Those purposes would not violate the purpose of the easement, they argue, but a mixed-use development would.

Retired attorney Woody Garnsey argued to City Council the contract could easily be amended to eliminate golf as the purpose of the conservation easement.

That decision would require both the city and the developer Westside to strike an agreement, according to Senior Attorney with the City Attorney's Office, John McGrath.

Westside has promised to make 25% of the housing units on the land income-restricted.

If all goes as planned, Westside plans to build 2,500 to 3,200 units on the site, at least 625 of which will be permanently dedicated as income-restricted housing.

On Monday, Brothers Redevelopment and Volunteers of America announced that if voters approve the redevelopment of the golf course, they will build more than 300 units of income-restricted housing. Those units would include some for families and others dedicated to people with developmental disabilities.

Denver, which is facing a housing crisis, is behind roughly 20,000 units of income-restricted rental housing for people making less than 50% of the area median income, according to Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Stability.

The number of income-restricted units at the Park Hill Golf Course site would increase based on how many total units were created. Half of the income-restricted units would be rentals and the other would be to own.

Most of the people who spoke to City Council during the public hearing supported the development.

Kevin Marchman, the former director of the Denver Housing Authority, endorsed the plan.

"Denver does not have a park crisis," he said. "We have an affordable housing crisis. And if we don't do anything about it, it will become an emergency."

Veronica Valenzuela, who lives near the golf course, questioned whether the proposed development would create enough income-restricted housing.

"The small area plan includes approximately 3000 units, and only 25% is affordable housing," she said to City Council. "I think we can do better. Especially if the main goal and the buzzword throughout this whole process has been affordable housing."

Most on City Council supported the Small Area Plan, and its critics were split on why they voted against it.

"As the Secretary said, we had 80 speakers, 62, including two applicants, were in favor of the development, and 18 speakers were against," said councilmember Kashmann. "I just wanted to even it out. We had 46 emails come in today, in favor of this plan... And we had 111 emails against. So the speakers and the emails combined, we had 129 people against the small area plan and 108 in favor."

CdeBaca, who has long objected to the redevelopment of the land, described the process as a "sham" and raised concerns that Black and Latino people in Northeast Park Hill, Elyria-Swansea and the Clayton neighborhoods were being bamboozled by a developer and Mayor Michael Hancock's administration.

She wrote to constituents ahead of the meeting: "I participated in the 'visioning process' from the beginning. Based on what I've witnessed throughout, I do not believe the plan we are voting on was arrived at through an authentically community-led process." Instead, she described the community engagement as "a developer's fig leaf of a process."

Ho points to members of the public, at a Denver Planning Board meeting, who celebrated the rigor of community engagement around the process. Proponents of the development appreciated how the process was led by a community navigator who elevated voices who might otherwise not have been heard.

"Those are best practices going forward," Ho said.

Councilmember Amanda Sandoval echoed the sentiment, saying it should set the bar for how Community Planning and Development (CPD) does outreach in considering a new area plan.

"I wish all plans in Denver had the same type of outreach the Park Hill Area Plan has," Sandoval said.

Sawyer said she appreciated the content of the plan but argued Community Planning and Development went about the process "backwards."

"We shouldn't have spent CPD dollars and time and energy on a plan until we knew whether the conservation easement was going to be lifted by the voters of the City and County of Denver, whose tax dollars paid for it -- $2 million back in the '90s," she said. "So, you know, we shouldn't be here tonight, unless it's only to refer to the voters to see whether that conservation is lifted or not.

"There are so many other projects in this city that could have used that funding that was directed towards this process," Sawyer added. "And that's not okay."

For Councilmember Robin Kniech, the plan has been endorsed by Black and Latino community leaders from the neighborhood who she trusts.

"No one who heard the hearing today and no one who read the letters that we got would deny that there is a critical mass of leaders and residents of color who believe they have a chance to define something about this development, and they want that chance," she said. "When a community like that says to me, we want a chance to shape something in our community, I have to weigh that."

She also expressed concerns that if the Northeast Park Hill community does want a mixed-use development on the site, people are going to have to advocate for the project to voters who will likely be weighing the development in the spring.

Here's what's next.

Next week, City Council's Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure committee will consider whether to ask the full Council to rezone the property. Current zoning prohibits the new development, and new zoning would expand the types of land uses allowed by the city on the site. Rezoning would not affect the terms of the conservation easement.

The Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure committee will also decide whether the full Council should consider referring a measure to voters who would ultimately decide whether to lift the conservation easement to make way for the new development.

If the committee advances those to City Council, the full Council will have two hearings and the public will likely have another chance to weigh in on the future of the golf course Jan. 23.

Then, if City Council refers the conservation easement issue to voters, the public will weigh in on whether to lift it in municipal elections in April.

Ho's team plans to continue to champion the project, arguing it will bring retail and much needed housing to Northeast Park Hill, boost environmentally conscious and economical transit-oriented development and still bring a large-scale park to the neighborhood.

Opponents are ready to make the case that Denver voters should support open space over new development.

"We're going to keep making the point on behalf of citizens of the city that we've got a conservation easement that we paid for and that it shouldn't be gifted to a developer," Tate said.

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