Front Porch: Park Hill Golf Course—Neighbors Speak Out

Link to Original Front Porch Article

The Park Hill Golf Course land may not be close enough to your home to make its future feel like a pressing issue—but it may, soon enough, be in front of you.

You may need to decide if you’ll help—or not help—to put it on a Denver citywide ballot. Will you have enough information to make a decision that’s in keeping with your values? In a state with citizen-initiated ballot questions, you may have just a moment to make that decision as you enter the grocery store.

The Northeast Denver neighbors pictured here are participating in democracy, with strongly held views being expressed on both sides of the Park Hill Golf Course land question. Here’s some background and a look at the positions.

In 1997 under Mayor Wellington Webb’s administration, City Council voted to pay $2 million for a “conservation easement” on the privately-owned Park Hill Golf Course land. The conservation easement requires that the property be used solely, or at least primarily, as an 18-hole golf course. Westside Investment Partners purchased the land in 2019 with an agreement that they would take three years to explore non-golf-course uses the community may desire. After that, lacking a City Council-approved plan for other uses, the City, as the holder of the conservation easement, can require Westside to restore the land to a golf course.

Save Open Space Denver (SOS) organized four years ago to keep the land as greenspace and oppose any future development on the land. To this end, they hoped Denver City Council would refer a question about conservation easements to voters on last fall’s ballot. Councilwoman CdeBaca proposed the initiative, but Council opposed it 10 – 3.

In December 2020, citizens, backed by SOS Denver and Yes for Parks and Open Space, submitted a petition for an initiated ordinance on conservation easements; they are currently circulating the following petition to get enough signatures to put it on an upcoming citywide ballot:

Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt a measure prohibiting the following without the approval of voters in a regularly scheduled municipal or special election:

–any commercial or residential development on land designated as a city park and land protected by a City-owned conservation easement except where consistent with park purposes, conservation easement purposes, or for cultural facilities, and

–any partial or complete cancellation of a City-owned conservation easement unless for the purpose of creating a new park?

In a Zoom press conference on Feb. 8, SOS Denver spokesman Woody Garnsey, a Park Hill resident and retired lawyer, argued that a legal decision whether the conservation easement can be lifted needs to occur before the City should spend taxpayer resources on a Community Steering Committee to get input—and he called for the City to “cease and desist” from that planning process. Spokesperson Tony Pigford said he thinks this “can be characterized as a real estate joint venture with Hancock and Westside to have land developed” and he stated the City has created “a sham process where there’s already a predetermined outcome.”

We talked to other community members and two City Council members who told us they support the City’s “visioning” process:

District 8 Councilman Chris Herndon—“I voted no on the proposed ballot question 1) because community leaders said there hadn’t been outreach about it in Northeast Park Hill. 2) I couldn’t think of anything that remotely compares as a precedent to do a citywide vote on something that’s this specific to a particular neighborhood. 3) Yes, every individual gets a vote and that’s equal, but it’s not equitable to the people in NE Park Hill, a community that has been historically marginalized. The primary voice and the decision-making should come from those people that are in that community.”

At-large Councilwoman Robin Kniech—Speaking at a NE Park Hill Coalition meeting on Feb. 11, Kniech said her own life experiences as a part of the LGBTQ community showed why this measure shouldn’t be referred to the ballot. “When a community has experienced oppression, using majority votes is not equitable. Democracy means majority wins. We didn’t win anti-discrimination through majority votes. Due to redlining history, I think the community deserves to have a leading voice, and a ballot measure doesn’t allow that to occur.” Kniech also stated she thought the measure was poorly written in terms of the City’s Charter.

Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali, Northeast Denver Islamic Center (located a block from the golf course land)—“We want to revitalize the community and rebuild the community where we have what we need like any other community would have—affordable housing, grocery store, restaurants, a nice park. Diversity is very important to us, and we want the equity that comes with that. This idea of 155 acres—the space is ludicrous. I think a 60-acre park is very generous. But this idea, “Hooray for me and screw you, we want 155 acres,” that’s not going to work. It’s not working. We will fight them forever on that, because it’s just illogical.”

Andy Sense, a Park Hill resident who served on the BluePrint Denver Task Force and the East Area Planning Steering Committee—“Literally nobody opposes protecting greenspace, so SOS is being predictably disingenuous when they try to frame it that way. Greenspace needs to be protected and incorporated into neighborhoods containing people who might make use of it. It should not be an isolated swath of land that most people will only ever drive their cars to. Welcoming and diverse communities should be fighting FOR mixed-use, transit-adjacent, affordable housing with the caveat that any planning decisions must start and end with equity as the primary concern—and that neighbors who have traditionally been left out of the discussion are the prioritized voices at the table. Instead of saying no to all development, let’s talk about the role greenspace plays in the creation of complete neighborhoods. Public greenspace matters. Denver needs housing. We should fight for both.”

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