By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver
(Denver, Colo.) Park Hill Golf Course moved several steps closer Monday to becoming one of Denver’s newest neighborhoods. But it only happened after a meeting that stretched beyond midnight and included more than 120 public speakers.
The City Council decided Monday to ask the voters whether to remove a covenant on the property that requires it to be a golf course. The council also voted for zoning changes that will allow the property to be developed with retail and homes, including affordable housing. The council voted to create five special assessment districts for the development. Finally, the council signed off on a development agreement for the property.
Westside Investment Partners of Glendale bought the site in 2019. "Since the 1980s, the nonprofit Clayton Early Learning had been responsible for the 18-hole private golf course it owned (operated by a third party), in a neighborhood that has often lacked basic amenities like grocery stores, transit options and publicly accessible open space," Councilmember Chris Herndon wrote in a preface to the project’s small area plan. "Clayton’s sale of the golf course site in 2019 spurred numerous ideas, conversations, debates, meetings and news stories about the future of the Park Hill Golf Course."
Much needed housing units
According to a memo from city staff to the council, the 155-acre site would be transformed into a tree-filled community. Building heights would range from four to 12 stories. The neighborhood also would boast a large park comprising more than half of the site. The development would include retail stores and about 2,000 housing units.
During six hours of public hearings Monday, several people lamented the housing crisis Denver faces. They viewed the Park Hill project as a much needed opportunity to increase housing stock, including affordable units.
But councilmember Candi CdeBaca said the taxpayers are getting a raw deal. “This was never part of our city’s plans for good reason.”
Dozens of residents who attended public hearings Monday said they would like to see the entire golf course remain open space and be transformed into a regional park.
CdeBaca, Kashmann, others oppose project
CdeBaca voted against the project’s small area plan last month. She said it would displace residents of color, noting Park Hill is “one of the last neighborhoods of people of color left” in Denver. She said similar developments in the Five Points neighborhood left residents “sold out, displaced and erased.”
CdeBaca joined Council President Jamie Torres and councilmembers Amanda Sandoval, Paul Kashmann and Stacie Gilmore in voting Monday against the tax assessment districts. The districts impose taxes on residents to fund infrastructure improvements with municipal bonds. In this project, the districts would be allowed up to $110 million in bonds for $90 million in improvements.
During the first of three public hearings, speakers said assessment districts unfairly allow a developer to pass along the costs of infrastructure improvements to property owners. But Kenneth Ho, a representative of the developer, said such taxing mechanisms are necessary in projects that include affordable housing.
The assessments operate like a mortgage, Ho said, giving residents 30 to 40 years to pay off their share of the assessment. But taxpayer Brad Cameron called it a “scheme” for developers to make “lucrative profits.” Other speakers said property taxes are about double in special assessment districts, hardly making housing “affordable.”
Grocery store not guaranteed
During a second public hearing on the rezoning of the property, more than 95 people signed up to speak. People spoke for and against the project. Several people alleged the mayor and City Council are beholden to developers who gave them campaign contributions. One man suggested the park located in the proposed development be named after Mayor Michael Hancock.
But Mary Cottingham urged approval of the rezoning, ticking off a list of benefits that come with a Community Benefit Agreement negotiated with the developer. One quarter of the redevelopment must contain affordable housing. A parcel of land will be reserved for a grocery store.
But Alex Walsh, who lives across the street from the golf course and opposes the project, said there is no guarantee of a grocery store beyond, “Trust me, bro.” Cottingham admitted the market will determine whether a grocery store comes to the site but added the dedicated lot will be a carrot.
The perks of the Community Benefit Agreement would remain requirements even if Westside were to sell the land to a new developer, said Councilmember Debbie Ortega. Council members CdeBaca, Kashmann, Sandoval and Amanda Sawyer voted against the rezoning.
‘Paved paradise, put up a parking lot’
One resident who urged the denial of the rezoning quoted song lyrics by Joni Mitchell:
“Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone
They paved paradise, put up a parking lot”
Several residents said asking voters for permission to remove the conservation easement on the property is not legal. They claimed the easement can only be removed by a court after proof the property no longer can function as open space.
But councilmember Kevin Flynn said that’s not true. If the voters decide to remove the conservation easement, the developer must restore the property’s use as a golf course.
Even if the voters deny removal of the conservation agreement, the small area plan and rezoning remain.
Residents worry about displacement
Residents of the area worry about displacement that new development on the site could bring. The plan calls for giving priority affordable housing to families facing displacement by the project. ”For those concerned about longtime residents being involuntarily displaced, there are affordable housing provisions with priority for existing residents,” wrote Herndon, who represents district 8, where the golf course is located.
Jeff Martinez, president of Brothers Redevelopment, Inc. and a resident of Park Hill, said plans are in the works to bring permanent supportive housing to the project for people with disabilities. The units would be for those making 30 percent average median income or less, or a maximum of $22,000 annually.
Ballot language ‘misleading’
In extensive community engagement about the property’s future, only 7 percent of the area’s residents wanted the greenspace to remain a golf course exclusively, according to a small area plan approved in December.
During the final public hearing of the evening, residents accused the city of using “misleading” language for the proposed ballot measure that benefits the developer.
The ballot will read, “Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver authorize the release of the City-owned conservation easement on privately owned property known as the Park Hill Golf Course, which requires the land to be used primarily for golf-related purposes, and allow for publicly accessible parks and open space, commercial and residential uses, including affordable housing, community-serving retail, and other purposes.”
CdeBaca asked Assistant City Attorney Nathan Lucero why a group’s protest petition was not accepted. Lucero said the clalms made in the petition were not properly vetted. The names listed for documentation were not backed up with documents that showed proof of ownership.
CdeBaca said it appeared to her that the group followed the directions correctly. “It sounds like you don’t know our process,” CdeBaca told Lucero.
If the petition had been accepted, a supermajority of council would have been needed to pass the zoning.
CdeBaca and Kashmann voted against referring the matter to voters.