A view of the Park Hill Golf Course in northeast Denver, which closed in 2018. (City and County of Denver)
This spring, the Park Hill Golf Course appeared on Denverites’ ballots — again. Nearly 60% of voters opposed measure 2O, which would have lifted a conservation easement mandating that the 155-acre parcel of land remain an 18-hole golf course. Had the measure passed, an investment firm, Westside Investment Partners, would have developed 55 acres of the course, leaving 100 acres as open space and parks.
Overturning the conservation easement proved to be an insurmountable challenge for the investment firm due to a strong opposition movement led by northeast Denver residents. The movement leaders are proponents of turning the golf course, which has been closed since 2018, into open space and parkland, and are affiliated with the group Save Open Space Denver. In the midst of this contentious golf course issue, development proponents have called the open space advocates a NIMBY group.
The Park Hill Golf Course last appeared on Denver’s ballots in 2021, several years after Westside Investments Partners purchased the course. In response to the prospect of the golf course’s redevelopment, open space advocates and northeast Denver residents supported a ballot measure, which required a city-wide vote to alter or remove any city conservation easement, unless the land is made into a park. This measure essentially blocked Westside Investment Partners from developing the land without the approval of Denver voters, and since then, the investment group has engaged extensively with the city and local community members to create a development plan with stakeholder input. A representative from Open Space Denver, however, was removed from the conversation in 2022.
The ultimate plan preserved 100 acres of the golf course as open space, and would develop 55 acres into commercial space and apartments, 25% of which would be affordable housing to address the neighborhood’s rising home prices. Because the area is considered a food desert, a parcel of land would be set aside for a rent-free grocery store. This plan wasn’t satisfactory, however, for open space advocates who wanted to see the entire 155 acres preserved.
The parties should redraw or adjust the development plan, perhaps agreeing to develop an even smaller portion of the course.
That 59% of Denver voters opposed measure 2O suggests that the majority of the city’s residents don’t want to see more land paved over — a reasonable preference considering that Denver already sprawls for 156 square miles. Open space advocates have called for the rezoning of a nearby industrial area to fulfill community housing needs.
The open space advocates are buoyed by the recent ballot measure results. They hope to see the course purchased by the city and turned into a municipal park. One representative of Save Open Space suggested the city could purchase the land for $5 million to do so. Considering that the land is valued at $6.9 million with the conservation easement intact, and that Westside Investment Partners purchased the land for $24 million, $5 million seems unlikely. Even the city’s bid of $20.5 million was turned down in 2017. However, the city’s Parks and Recreation budget from 2022 appropriated $30.5 million towards land acquisitions. Despite the dramatic decrease in recommended funds for land acquisitions in 2023 ($2.5 million), it seems possible that the city could purchase the land with sufficient political will.
For now, Westside Investment Partners’ options for development – and for recouping its investment – is limited to reopening the golf course. And, unfortunately, reopening the golf course is the worst possible scenario. Space that could benefit so many would instead be reserved for a small minority of residents who golf. The manicured lawns would require consistent inputs of pesticides, fertilizers and water — in 2021, municipal golf courses guzzled 444 million gallons of water. And the history of this specific golf course is riddled with racism — until the mid-1960s, the Park Hill Golf Course was segregated, despite its location in a historically Black neighborhood.
There are three options for the abandoned Park Hill Golf Course. Westside Investment Partners could reopen the golf course, potentially adding a Topgolf, which is a tall, loud entertainment center. Alternatively, the city could shell out tens of millions of dollars to create a large municipal park.
The third and best option is compromise between the investment firm and open space advocates, whose position has demonstrable support from Denver’s voters. The parties should redraw or adjust the development plan, perhaps agreeing to develop an even smaller portion of the course (a true compromise results in everyone satisfied, not happy). Either way, the Park Hill Golf Course drama is overdue for a resolution — it’s time to create something useful.
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