Park Hill Golf Course land at stake with Initiated Ordinances 301 and 302

Two measures on Denver’s Nov. 2 ballot — Initiated Ordinances 301 and 302 — will shape the fate of one specific property: the former Park Hill Golf Club. 

The competing measures also stand to shape the future of the city’s Northeast Park Hill neighborhood, one of the few areas of east Denver where people of color outnumber white people and where city statistics show residents are especially vulnerable to be pushed out of their homes by economic pressure.

Development firm Westside Investment Partners bought the 155-acre green space along Colorado Boulevard between east 35th and 40th avenues for $24 million in 2019. With it came a city-owned conservation easement that since 1997 has banned any development that doesn’t support golf or other recreational activities. 

Westside has been upfront about its aims to change that easement and redevelop at least a chunk of property, with company principal Andrew Klein mentioning two years ago “affordable and diverse housing” and the need for more community-serving businesses. 

A grassroots movement to keep commercial development off the land was already well underway before Westside was in the picture, and the two sides are vying for support from the Mile High electorate with two measures that are nearly identical save for one thing.

Ordinance 301 would mandate that a citywide vote be held before any new residential or commercial construction is allowed in a park or on a piece of land covered by a city-owned conservation easement. Any full or partial removal of an easement would also have to go to voters.

Ordinance 302, which was filed months after 301, would do the same thing but would create a carveout that excludes the Park Hill golf course land and its city-owned easement. 

For members of the Save Open Space Denver group and others backing 301, the choice comes down to more grass versus concrete. 

“We believe that open space is a precious and very finite resource,” said Tony Pigford, who worked to get 301 on the ballot. “With the climate crisis on everybody’s doorstep, I think forward-thinking cities develop open space as a last resort not the first.”

Pigford and his fellow conservation proponents take a broad view of the intent of the conservation easement. He envisions the property becoming a community gathering place with athletic fields, space to host arts festivals and gardening classes, and maybe even building an outdoor amphitheater. 

Keeping the property free of dense development is a matter of environmental justice for Pigford. Communities of color, like Northeast Park Hill, are disproportionately affected by the urban heat island effect, he said. Urban neighborhoods can be up to 7 degrees warmer during the day than surrounding areas with more trees and vegetation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

Westside and supporters of 302 see more strict language in the 1997 easement agreement, specifically sections that outline the property must remain a “regulation-length, 18-hole daily fee public golf course” with any additional uses only allowed if they don’t interfere. 

The easement is not up for voters to decide on Nov. 2. It will remain in place. 

Westside executive Kenneth Ho sees the difference between 301 and 302 as 301 undermining the ability of the people who live within a mile of the golf course to make decisions that impact their future. His company is also redeveloping the former Loretto Heights college campus in southwest Denver, relying on plans developed after a series of meetings with neighbors. 

“Should local land use issues be voted on by the entire city?” Ho said. “We think that answer is no, that is not how we typically do things in Denver, which is why if you want to protect local choice and local voices you should vote yes on 302.”

Ho emphasized the Westside is already committed to preserving at least 60 acres of the land as a park.

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The 301 side has a prominent voice on its side: Wellington Webb, whose mayoral administration crafted and paid $2 million for the conservation easement in 1997. Webb said Westside is trying to turn the land into “a concrete jungle.” 

Webb is skeptical that Westside will bring mixed-income housing to the land, saying that they’ll either build cheap “ghetto housing” or market-rate housing that will speed up gentrification in Northeast Park Hill. 

“This really comes down to really one issue,” Webb said. “Do you want parks and open space? If so, you vote yes on 301. If you want a commercial developer coming in, then vote yes on 302.”  

LaMone Noles lives just south of the golf course in Park Hill North. She was a member of Save Open Space Denver before the group came out in opposition to the redevelopment of the property. Now, she is supporting 302. 

For her, it’s about bringing more opportunities in a part of the city that has seen grocery stores pull up and move and good-paying jobs leave with when Stapleton Airport closed.

“That neighborhood has been depressed for 40 years,” Noles said. “So no, I don’t think a park is the answer. Maybe on some of it but not all of it. That same land can generate opportunities for small businesses. That same piece of land can generate opportunities for entry-level housing. 

“We need more than a park.”

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