Denver City Council approves planning document for Park Hill golf course, but bigger votes loom

The city now has a vision for the future of the former Park Hill golf course property baked into its comprehensive plan after the City Council voted 10-3 to adopt the document.

“We all have the same common needs. I believe our city needs more open space yet I also believe that our city needs more affordable housing,” Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval said before casting her vote in favor of a plan that calls for both on the dormant land.

But the small area plan, as the 40-page document the council approved on Monday is known, is just one step on the path to turning the defunct golf links at the northeast corner of East 35th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard into a mixed-used neighborhood with hundreds of units of affordable housing, a grocery store, business space and a 75- to 80-acre regional park as the plan itself envisions. The council and Denver voters will have more opportunities to say no.

On Jan. 23, the council is expected to vote on more actions that will dictate the future of the 155-acre property.

That meeting is scheduled to include a public hearing on the request to rezone the land from privately owned park space to a mix of zonings that will allow for the development of commercial space and housing in buildings as tall as 12 stories. A legally binding development agreement mandating that the property’s owners, development firms Westside Investment Partners and the Holleran Group, commit to at least  25% of all housing built there will be income-restricted affordable housing will also be part of the package.

Westside executive Kenneth Ho didn’t speak at Monday’s council meeting but in an interview with The Denver Post last week he said the development agreement will dictate that at least 650 units of affordable housing are built on the property including hundreds of for-sale units. The developer is also negotiating a community benefits agreement with neighbors who live near the golf course but the specifics of that, including who might sign it, are being kept under wraps at this point.

At that Jan. 23 hearing, the council is also expected to consider referring a question to the ballot in the upcoming April 4 municipal election that would give voters the opportunity to lift a conservation easement covering the property. The legal document that bans any commercial or housing development on the land was bolstered by voters in 2021. In the November election that year, 63.6% of Denverites supported Initiated Ordinance 301, which mandates that the easement cannot be lifted without approval in a citywide election.

With so many steps to go, Monday’s lengthy hearing — in which 81 people signed up to speak — felt both preliminary and also like a dam breaking. Many arguments that have been lobbed back and forth by opponents and proponents of the property’s redevelopment for more than a year finally got an airing in front of the City Council.

Preserving the land entirely as parks and open space — an alternative the grassroots group Save Open Space Denver has been pushing since well before the 2021 election — is a matter of advancing public health and advancing environmental justice in the Northeast Park Hill neighborhood, argued Michael Kosnett, a doctor who urged the council to vote against the plan. The neighborhood, like many lower-income sections of the city, is known for its lack of tree canopy and a heat island effect.

“If we pave over 50 acres of this land for commercial and residential development we’re going to compound the problem,” Kosnett said.

But bringing new development, including a possible grocery store and affordable commercial space for small businesses, would be a critical boost to a neighborhood that has languished from disinvestment for decades, supporters of the plan said. It would also help the city achieve environmental goals by creating energy-saving density near public transit, those supporters argued.

“I can only imagine moving into this future how many lives are going to be affected by this plan, how many lives are going to be uplifted,” community organizer Michael Reed said.

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City planner Courtney Levingston painted Monday’s vote as a choice between an 18-hole private golf course or something more reflective of the surrounding neighborhood’s needs and desires. But opponents, including City Council at-large candidate Penfield Tate III, argued that just because the conservation easement is built around operating an 18-hole golf course doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed.

“Our point is the purpose of the conservation easement is the preservation of (the property) as open space and for recreational uses,” Tate said.

The city attorneys on hand at Monday’s meeting refuted that and argued that it would take an amendment to the easement and possibly a citywide vote to build anything there that gets in the way of golf.

Arguments about the nature of the easement and whether or not the planning process that produced the small area plan was fair and inclusive dominated much of the public hearing. Councilman Chris Herndon, whose District 8 includes the course, said the 20-month planning effort was as robust as any he had seen the city undertake in his time on the council.

“This is community-led. This is community input,” Herndon said. “I understand you don’t like the outcome. That doesn’t mean the process didn’t work.”

Herdon’s viewpoint stood in stark contrast to that of Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca from neighboring District 9. CdeBaca joined Councilman Paul Kashmann and Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer in voting no on the plan.

“Park Hill residents are being preyed upon,” CdeBaca said. “We are being sold lies on what private development will do for the public.”

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