We walked around the Park Hill Golf Course with Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston and asked what they’d do with the space

If elected mayor, here’s how they’d create a park and address Northeast Park Hill’s many other needs. 
18 min. read
Apartments just off the Park Hill Golf Course. April 18, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The next Denver mayor will have to decide how to handle the uncertain future of the former Park Hill Golf Course, a massive 155-acre plot of land near I-70 and Colorado Blvd.

Go with landowner Westside Investment Partners' current plan to make it a golf course. Try to make it a park? Something else?

The former Park Hill Golf Course is the 155-acre plot of land in Northeast Park Hill that has a conservation easement limiting how the spot can be used: basically, the land use agreement says the area has to be used as an 18-hole fee-based golf course with other recreational possibilities, as long as they don't interfere with golf.

The golf course is in the historically Black neighborhood of Northeast Park Hill. For decades, nearby neighbors have expressed a variety of pressing needs. Those include access to fresh food, clean air, housing for people of all income levels, business opportunities for Black and brown entrepreneurs, and more park space.

In April, the public had the chance to weigh in on a big development proposed by landowner and developer Westside Investment Partners. The project would have met some of these goals on the land, but voters said no. They voted to keep the easement on the land limiting its use to golf.  Some hoped there would be a path forward for an even bigger park than Westside proposed, though that too would likely require an amendment of the conservation easement.

The Park Hill Golf Course. Dec. 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

All this leaves a mess -- and high expectations -- for Denver's next mayor, who will take office in mid-July.

While voters shot down development on the site, both mayoral candidates in the runoff -- Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough -- supported development on the land.

They argued the city has a moral obligation to build more housing.

Both now say they will respect the wishes of the voters and attempt to secure the land for a massive park or open space. Both candidates said they would be unlikely to use eminent domain to take the park and both believe they can broker a deal with Westside.

The two also believe development is virtually guaranteed to increase in the neighborhood. And they want the community to be involved in shaping what that future looks like.

We invited both Brough and Johnston to walk some of Northeast Park Hill and the golf course with us.

Brough's campaign met with us on April 18; Johnston's campaign met with us on the afternoon of April 20.

Mayoral candidate Kelly Brough takes a walking tour of the Park Hill Golf Course. April 18, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

As we walked past industrial buildings and a mix of one-story duplexes and single-family homes, into the industrial area, Brough said she doesn't have a big vision for the area. Even if she did, it would be less important than the community's.

"Often what we do in neighborhoods is we come in and say, 'Here's my vision, I've mapped it out. And I'm going to spend the time and energy to convince you that this is a brilliant approach,'" she said. "I think what you would see in my administration is where we come out and say, we're going to create a way that together, we create that vision of what this can look like and what works for your community."

With deep engagement, "you end up with a more special place that is culturally relevant," she said. "It feels like you're in a different part of our city and in our community."

Also such community input "creates ownership, where people say, 'This is our space, and we're going to join you in taking responsibility to maintain it and ensure it is the space we all envisioned,'"

Yet the neighborhood has gone through community engagement processes led by the city's planning department in recent years. There have been surveys, community meetings and online conversations. And a lot of needs are already identified -- almost none of which involve golf.

"When I was trying to decide what I was going to do about the golf course or what my position would be on it, I met with probably two dozen people on all sides," Brough said. "And one thing everybody agreed on is the process was terrible."

While she was not directly involved with the process, it was a great opportunity missed, she felt. "We not only figured out how to divide a neighborhood, we figured out how to divide an entire city," she said. "I do think we could do better than that.

"I think there maybe were moments in that process where either side might have been able to say let's stop and back up and do something different here," she said. "To build trust and relationships and work better together."

The city and developers should have done more to acknowledge the lack of trust in the process, Brough said, and asked what they could do to earn it.

Opponents of development on the golf course frequently pointed to the industrial part of Northeast Park Hill as a better site for new housing, retail and a grocery store. Here's how Brough views that industrial area.

"I think we could probably have better sidewalks and easier walking on it," she said. "But I also don't see it all as negative. Of course we have more business and all-industrial parts of our city. I don't see all negative when I look around. I see jobs. I see local small businesses making a go of it -- people I want to help too."

The area is a short walk to the 40th and Colorado A-Line stop and near what will likely become bus rapid transit along Colorado Boulevard. Denver has long emphasized the importance of building density near transit.

"Listen, the closer we get to light rail stations, major bus routes, that's where we have to be thinking about, could we do more mixed-use here?" she said. "What could it look like? And how do we help make sure there's still space for the kind of uses you see here down today?"

But what about all the empty parking lots?

"Building on top of them could be a great way to utilize the space you have and not even give up the parking lots," she said. "But that's up to the person who owns that land."

The Park Hill Golf Course. Sept. 14, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Northeast Park Hill has seen a lot of change over the past decade, and the significance of all of this is not lost on Brough.

More white people have moved in, walking dogs and pushing strollers. A nationally celebrated coffee shop, a contemporary ballet company and one of the city's best recording studios have opened nearby.

"We know in cities, you know, artists will find those less costly, grittier places to live," Brough said. "And that often is a precursor to development. I would say that kind of flags that this may become a space that gets riper and riper for opportunity."

But the city has learned tough lessons about what happens when such development arrives. It often leads to displacement, she acknowledged.

"The beauty of a city is when this area develops, and it's the local people here who helped shape what that looks like, from their view," Brough explained. "And I'm excited to kind of see that evolution and be part of helping guide it with local community."

Now that the voters have weighed in on the Park Hill Golf Course conservation, Brough's interested in finding ways of making the space a boon for the community. And she said turning the golf course into a park -- which she hopes to do -- will almost guarantee more density in Northeast Park Hill.

"When you create this kind of open space and access to it, it also, I think, allows for the kind of density that we'd probably like to see, because people now have access to the green space and the open space that they should have," she said. "And so I would argue our commitment now to make this a park, our Denver residents saying that's what they want, we probably should, with earnest, approach density up here to make sure we get it right."

The Park Hill Golf Course land is bordered by single-family homes on one side and large apartment buildings on the other. While Brough sees value in single-family homes -- and lives in one herself -- she believes the sprawl required to build more is the wrong way to grow.

Mayoral candidate Kelly Brough takes a walking tour of Northeast Park Hill. April 18, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"The one thing every city has learned is sprawl doesn't work," Brough said. "It doesn't work for affordability, for transportation reasons, for air quality reasons, for water use -- all of those things. And so we have multiple reasons why we can't just keep growing out further. And single-family alone is not going to work for us as a continued strategy. And so this is why we do have to go up."

Brough's hopeful some people are evolving away from wanting to mow yards and shovel walks and find common green space in public parks for dog walking and picnicking.

"This is only new to us in the United States," she said." When you travel, what you discover is those public spaces really are where people spend their time, that they're used to living in much more dense environment and they're some of the most beautiful cities in the world."

And it's more density that might attract a grocery store, retail and other amenities back to Northeast Park Hill.

As for the park itself, Brough wants the community to have plenty of input.

Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport, so she'd like to see courts on the land. And she's a big fan of trails, which could also be added. The massive detention pond, which is a critical part of the Platte to Park Hill floodwater project, could use a better design.

But she doesn't want to focus on ugly infrastructure. She looks across the park toward Downtown and the mountains.

"What I see is the potential to unite a city around a vision for our future," she said. "And that is both what can happen here but also to bring a city back together. That's what excites me."

And part of uniting the city is letting the community own the process.

Mayoral candidate Kelly Brough takes a walking tour of Northeast Park Hill. April 18, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"I think this notion that one person knows what's best is ridiculous," Brough said. "Our best ideas come when we actually accept we're going to come up with them together. And it's going to be a little messy and a little hard. But we got to do this work together to define what this should look like."

As she heads back to her car, she looks around again at the neighborhood.

"What I see are hardworking families, and small businesses who are in the same city and making it work," she said. "And there's no reason our future, however we envision the physical development, can't have both of those things. For me, what I envision is both of those things are part of this space in the future. I don't know what it will look like. I'm excited to help co-create it. But my eye is on those two: that small business and those hard-working families. Because I guess that was me. That's my life. And I want them in my city."

"This is my old hood," said Mike Johnston, bounding out of his car, in front of Dandy Lion Coffee Co. "It's good to be back. This used to be my old coffee shop when I was in the Holly."

Johnston, then a state senator, had an office half a mile away in the Holly. That block had once been a thriving retail hub with a grocery store that eventually shuttered. For years, it had also been a hangout for members of the Bloods and the rest of the community.

Before he moved in, one business strip on the block, had been firebombed by Crips in 2008. It wasn't the kind of spot where white politicians raised in Vail usually set up shop, but Johnston said he wanted to connect with the underserved community.

Looking around the industrial part of the neighborhood, Johnston described homes with families that have lived in the neighborhood for decades, a light industrial area, and an overall lack of housing density.

This is the last plurality Black neighborhood in the city, he said. And the neighborhood has deep needs.

He recalled people walking into his old office and saying, "I want to make sure this neighborhood stays accessible to the families that lived here. I've been here one generation, two generations, three generations. And I don't know if my kids will be able to live here. And a lot of families that grew up here, then their kids moved to Aurora, you know, because they can get a house more affordably, they like the school system, you name it. And so I think that was something we were worried about then."

Denver mayoral candidate Mike Johnston on a windy day at the former Park Hill Golf Course, in Northeast Park Hill, April 20, 2023. (Kyle Harris / Denverite)

As Johnston looks around, he sees opportunities for greater mixed-use density and tiny home villages that could help address homelessness.

"We know we have massive shortages of housing, particularly affordable housing," he said. "And we know that it makes the most sense to try to put that housing as close to public transit as you can. So when you're not far from a light rail stop, that's a pretty great benefit."

So what about the site of the former Park Hill Golf Course?

As we walked toward the former golf course, squeezing our way down narrow sidewalks, where any exist at all, Johnston talked about what both advocates for the development of the course and opponents agreed on: the city's need for affordable housing. While everybody sees that as important, residents didn't agree whether the former golf course was the right site. A majority didn't want it there.

"I think we now want to bring that coalition back together to say, great, now let's really collaborate on a collective community vision on where we would put housing and how we would make it affordable and accessible, and how we would create really great lived community spaces, you know, not just housing, but places where you can walk out where you're living and go to a great restaurant, or go to a great bar or go to a grocery store or get your dry cleaning picked up or whatever it might be.

Mike Johnston stands at the Park Hill Golf Course on Apr. 20, 2023.
Kyle Harris / Denverite

"Because you want shared living space where people feel like they have a sense of community as well as housing," he continued. "And so that's why I think some people got excited by the potential proposal. I think we could bring that kind of vibrance to a different part of the community. I think that'd be a great win-win."

Johnston was not involved in the community planning around the golf course and doesn't feel qualified to assess whether the process was extensive enough.

So what does he want Northeast Park Hill to look like in the decades to come?

"I would love for this to be a vibrant, mixed-income, mixed-use community that maintains the historic identity of the neighborhood," he said. "You still have a lot of Black families who either grew up here or want to stay here that could still own homes here.

"I'd love to have walkable streets and walkable neighborhoods with some vibrant commercial that is homegrown, that are entrepreneurs from this community who want to start restaurants or retail or businesses and where they can drive easily to downtown or take the light rail easily to downtown, but where there have enough services right here in their community where they can be able to access all the things that make life vibrant in Denver."

The intersection of 39th Avenue and Forest Street in Northeast Park Hill. April 18, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

He imagines it being something like the City Park neighborhood, where you can walk two blocks to Colfax for dinner or a beer and then another couple blocks in the other direction to the park itself.

How does he actually plan to acquire the former golf course land and turn it into a park?

Negotiation, Johnston said. And his goal will be to get the very best deal he can for the city and the taxpayers.

Johnston looked at single-unit homes bordering the golf course at the Overlook at Park Hill and mused about the role of such homes in the future of Denver. He sees value in continuing to build them, alongside denser options.

"That's where we have things like the land-trust models that Elevation Land Trust or Urban Land Conservancy create, where you can have property that's owned by a land trust, but the homes on top of them are permanently affordable," he said. "So someone can buy it and keep it and sell it later. But they're not doubling their money, when they sell it. They might get some upside, but the next buyer can still buy it and stay affordable. So I think there is always a place for that."

Density, too, is crucial, and figuring out where to build both will be his priority.

Johnston was quick to envision possibilities wherever he looked.

Eying the long concrete trough at the Park Hill Golf Course stormwater detention area, he saw a spot his son would like to use as a skating feature. He can imagine turning the area into a fishing pond or lake. He can also picture sledding and potentially even Ruby Hill Park-style skiing in the area.

"This might not be quite big enough for that," Johnston said. "But I love the idea of how do you think of real creative uses that can work with the natural terrain here and the natural needs to attract creative neighbors who want to be able to come play here.

"Whether it's a skating rink sometime in the winter, or whether it is a sledding hill or whether it is a pond in the summertime, I think there are certainly creative landscape architects and creative residents who give us good ideas for what to do with this space," he added.

Kyle Harris / Denverite

As Johnston walked back through the industrial area, he noticed a rotting electrical pole.

"As the mayor, I would have a constant notebook of all these things," he said, explaining that he wants every neighborhood to feel clean and taken care of, so that people have pride in their communities, places of work and homes.

But filling potholes and fixing poles wouldn't be his only priority, he said. He wants to find innovative ways to create a more enjoyable city.

That could mean turning an underused parking lot into a pocket park -- perhaps an athletic field with turf, adding a basketball hoop to the side of a building, or commissioning artists to use the gray and brown walls as canvasses.

As mayor, Johnston would meet with community leaders and organizations to figure out the future.

Instead of dumping density on communities, he'd work with them to determine the best sites for new developments and amenities, whether childcare centers, grocery stores or coffee shops.

Not all of that is easy to attract. Johnston has tried and failed to bring a grocery store to the community, and he's convinced it's still possible -- likely along Colorado Blvd.

"Maybe it's not a massive King Soopers," he said. "Maybe it's a smaller scale where you could still have fresh food and fresh vegetables and meats and others. But I think that that is still a solvable problem. We just have to go back to the drawing board on that one."

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