The former Park Hill Golf Course will remain as is for now, due to the results of the 2023 Denver election. Voter turnout was low for this election with only 38% of registered Denverites weighing in. Roughly 60% of those who did cast a ballot, rejected measure 2O which was meant to lift a conservation easement on the property, allowing for redevelopment of the site. In the wake of this decision, the owners of the sprawling property are bound by the conservation easement to continue to utilize the land as an 18-hole course and driving range.
What’s curious is, as the “yes” campaign said, “Denver has rejected the single best opportunity to build new affordable housing and create new public parks” at the same time that its residents and business owners agree that housing is our biggest issue. If the goal is more affordable housing, how does voting against more units of affordable housing help towards this goal? “Repurposing a defunct golf course into an actual community asset where people can afford to live should be everyone’s priority,” said Habitat for Humanity Metro Denver CEO Heather Lafferty.
Ordinance 2O was a central piece in this election for candidates as well. Both Mayoral frontrunners were in support of developing the 155 acres because of the engagement in creating the vision and the end result of that engagement: legal requirements to include 25% affordable housing, discounted commercial opportunities for local entrepreneurs, and what would be the 4th largest park in the city. However, they have recently retracted their support for development, citing they will do what they voters want, including buying the park and turning it into a public pa
This issue was framed as the false dichotomy of either
- redeveloping the property to provide more affordable housing and walkable services, or
- keeping it as open space
This framing fails on two levels. The first is that the redevelopment was the clearest and most cost effective way for Denver residents to use part of this site for open space. Not only did city plans, a legally binding development agreement, and a legally binding community benefits agreement envision this use, it was also mandated that the developer pay for improvements that would be required for a new regional park on the site.
The second failure is that after this vote, we are not left with open space. We are left with privately owned land that is legally bound to have an 18-hole golf as the land use.
Previously, the City Council voted to rezone the property and adopted a regulatory framework to repurpose the land designation to serve the broadest benefit of a diverse community. The framework is based on an agreement negotiated with the developer – the summation of a two-year process engaging thousands of resident stakeholders. But during this election we came down on the side of preservation, as the voters effectively blocked this effort by voting against lifting the conservation easement in place.
Some perceived this potential development to be rooted in political corruption, citing a “sweetheart deal” based on the purchase price and concern about the use of metro districts, among other complaints. However, this development had one of the most extensive commitments to community needs seen outside of California, including a commitment to anti-displacement efforts by paying increases in property taxes for low-income residents within a ¼ mile of the property.
The future of the former Park Hill Golf Course is still unclear. The city owns the conservation easement on the land, but is not the land owner – Westside investment Partners is. Westside is exploring its options after a resounding defeat at the municipal ballot, and while they haven’t indicated what they will do exactly, there are various paths forward:
- Developer could renegotiate the deal with the community and City Council, and bring the issue back on the ballot in November
- Developer may (re)install a golf course and driving range (which they have suggested includes Top Golf as a possibility)
- Developer could sell land at a loss to the city, with the city then needing to find the funds to develop the park and operate it
- Developer sell land to the city, city rezones it for housing; voters must still vote to remove the easement
Many folks argue the city has become overdeveloped and that we need to keep all the existing green space and tree canopies that we can. They want the easement to remain until the City can present a better deal for taxpayers and doesn’t feel like they’re giving up that highly valued green space to line developers’ pockets.
It should be known that the easement allows for other uses of the property that could be considered “accessory and incidental” to a golf course, like a restaurant, clubhouse, and other sporting activities, as long as they do not interfere with the golf course and driving range. The city’s zoning code would provide further detail about how the land could be used beyond the golf course operations, and that could be a leverage point if necessary.
Per the terms of a development agreement that the owners struck with the city before voters had their say on 2O, Westside and its partners will have 90 days after the election results are certified on April 20 to file to have the property rezoned back to private park space.
Removing conservation easements is no small deal, and we should think long and hard about the impacts of lifting one before we do so, but preserving the environment must not also harm residents by making housing unaffordable. To truly address the affordable housing crisis, we must accelerate infill and increase the housing supply, but there’s a golf course in our way.