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GPHC Opposes Land Swap

Artist rendering of a proposed park in the middle of Park Hill Commons, on the east side of Fairfax between 28th and 29th avenues. In this and other images showing the park and development, few people of color are included – which has helped to fuel claims the developer is attempting to gentrify the neighborhood.

Board Wants City To Stick To Original Promise Of A Pocket Park At The Old Xcel Substation On Fairfax

 

By Cara DeGette

Editor, GPHC

The board of Greater Park Hill Community has voted to oppose a proposed land swap that would hand a developer a parcel of land that was slated to become a small neighborhood park.

The developer of the east side of Fairfax Street between 28th and 29th avenues proposed last year the city give him the former Xcel substation property on the west side of the street. In exchange, the developer, Ben Maxwell of HM Capital, would incorporate a park space in the middle of his residential and commercial development project on the east side of the street. Maxwell wants to use the former Xcel substation property as surface parking for now and eventually build on it later.

Many residents living nearby – along with representatives of the Greater Park Hill Community neighborhood association – have been critical. Among their concerns:

• The proposed park, situated in the middle of the upscale development project, would not feel welcoming to residents living nearby.

• The city operated in secret to craft the deal with the developer without notifying residents or the neighborhood association – even after several people asked they be informed of developments.

• The city would be all but giving away a valuable piece of property for the primary benefit of the developer, rather than keeping its original promise of building a neighborhood park on the former Xcel property.

In fact, the developer indicated a desire to “gentrify” the area when he initially reached out to the city seeking support for the project.  The threat of being pushed out of the neighborhood has mobilized many in this diverse area of Park Hill.

GPHC’s Nov. 2 vote to oppose the land swap was 14 in favor, one against, and one abstaining.

Two weeks later, the Parks and Rec committee of Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC), a consortium of dozens of Denver registered neighborhood organizations, also weighed in to oppose.

“INC Parks and Rec Committee … questions the lack of public process and transparency with the community in this planned swap,” noted the INC, in part. “The INC Park committee sees this proposal as another example of lip service to public process and to transparency during the early negotiations.”

The GPHC resolution follows several months of meetings marked by growing opposition on the part of neighbors who were just learning of the plans. It also follows a public meeting in October sponsored by city Councilman Chris Herndon at Stedman Elementary School. During that meeting, the developer, Maxwell, along with Scott Gilmore, who is deputy executive director of Denver’s parks and recreation department, were on hand to promote the swap. Gilmore helped broker the deal after the developer approached him a year ago.

People asked for pubic process

The former Xcel substation was originally identified as what would be a modest neighborhood park. The city purchased the land in 2016 for $50,000. Gilmore described the plan for what he called a dog park at a GPHC community meeting in April, 2015.

According to documents obtained through an open records request, several Park Hill residents subsequently asked Gilmore for updates and expressed the desire for public input.

On Sept. 8, 2015, and again on Oct. 15, 2015, Erin Reynolds, who lives nearby, emailed Gilmore, saying she was interested in helping to get the ball rolling for the dog park. Among her questions: What is the public input process? (Reynolds, a former editor of the Greater Park Hill News, was inquiring as a private citizen.)

Mark Tabor, a planner with the parks and rec department, responded with an outline of several recommendations for the park at the former Xcel substation, including new fencing, surfacing, seating and minimal amenities. The anticipated design fees for the park, Tabor noted, would be $10,000 to $15,000. “Improvements could be in the $80,000 to $120,000 range.”

The following April, former GPHC director and at-large representative Dave Felice emailed Gilmore, asking the status on the Xcel property. Felice indicated he had heard that developers were interested in the land. “It would be important … to convey the accurate and appropriate information to the community,” Felice noted.

In his emailed response, Gilmore agreed, and he noted that developers had approached the city. He did not identify them but said they were potentially interested in incorporating parkland into their project. The discussions, Gilmore said, were “very preliminary,” but the city was open to the possibility as it didn’t have funding to build the dog park “at this time.”

Felice followed up with this: “Let’s keep the communication open because the neighborhood is watching what happens and it’s important to give people information before they start rumors.”

Later that month, Chris Cunningham, who plans to open a brewery in the building he was purchasing next to the former substation, also sent an e-mail to Gilmore.

“I was very happy to hear that the [Xcel] property had been purchased by the city,” Cunningham wrote. “I am confident you will have plenty of input from the community as to the preferred disposition of the property. If we are successful in the purchase [of the building next door], we want to be a big part of that input as well.”

Getting on the same page

In November, 2016, The Greater Park Hill News reported Maxwell’s plans to redevelop Fairfax, including the developer’s hopes to take ownership of the Xcel property in exchange for creating a park within his development.

The block-long project – called Park Hill Commons – will include approximately 21 townhomes, 26 “micro-units” (which are tiny apartments), restaurants and retail businesses. All of the existing properties along the east side of Fairfax were demolished this year; it is unclear when construction will begin.

Maxwell provided additional information in a presentation at the neighborhood organization’s monthly meeting in February, 2017. In August – some six months later – Herndon discussed the proposed land swap during the monthly meeting of GPHC. At the meeting, the city councilman said he supported the deal, and the city council would have a final say on the swap.

During a heated exchange during the GPHC meeting the following month, Herndon, who was in attendance, was criticized, in part over his support for the developer and the perception that he is promoting neighborhood gentrification.

Also at the September meeting, Gilmore said that the city has no money to build the Xcel substation into a neighborhood park anytime soon. Design costs alone for such a park, he said, could run $150,000 – an amount far more than the $10,000-$15,000 that the department’s planner estimated two years ago.

In response, GPHC board member Kevin Wiegand, who is also an architect, developed several designs for a modest park at the location of the former Xcel substation (one of the renderings appears above). Wiegand said he is willing to help raise the funds to build the park, if necessary. “If the park [department] can’t afford to build a park on the substation property, the community will join together and build the park,” he said.

Wiegand, along with GPHC board member Blair Taylor, have distributed flyers to the surrounding neighborhood to gauge interest. Similar pocket parks have been built elsewhere, including Detroit, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Tacoma, Wash.

“They didn’t ask us if we wanted to give up our park. So we decided we need to get together and get on the same page,” said Taylor.

Wiegand said he hoped to present the plan for the park in its original location during Herndon’s Oct. 18 meeting at Stedman. But the councilman, he said, refused to allow that.

“I hardly think that is a true community meeting when the developer is allowed to pitch what is clearly for his benefit, yet the neighbors who actually live in the neighborhood are not allowed to present a counter argument,” Wiegand said.

Gentrifying Fairfax

At the October meeting at Stedman, Ben Maxwell told the crowd, “We are not trying to change the neighborhood.”

However, that was not the message that his representative, Alex Lovera, originally sent to Councilman Herndon on May 16, 2016. In the email, Lovera sought the councilman’s help to “gentrify” the block of Fairfax.

“I wanted to request a meeting with you to see how you could help us gentrify the area and turn it into a main street for the neighborhood with new restaurants, stores, and residential apartments,” Lovera wrote in the email, which was obtained in an open records request.

At the Stedman meeting, Herndon defended his decision not to inform constituents of the plans as they were secretly taking shape in 2016. He explained that the developers had told him they were in negotiations for the properties. He said he asked the developer to inform neighbors after the properties were purchased – which they did eight months later.

Feeling not welcome

The business block of Fairfax has been viewed as run down for several years, with complaints of public drunkenness and drug use. Many residents have spoken in support of the development and the proposed land swap.

However, many other longtime area residents have expressed concern over the development’s impact on the surrounding neighborhood, and the lack of public input.

They are also concerned that gentrification will force out several African American-owned businesses.

“This isn’t just about a park, but we’re getting ready to be gentrified out of here,” said longtime resident Emmett Hobley. “What we need to do is stand up and make sure we have a diverse community. That takes everyone.”

Shanta Harrison, a 40-year resident, said she opposes the land swap and is concerned that she and others will not feel welcome in the new development. “This seems more like a plaza than a park – I certainly don’t see this as a functioning park. I see this as being for the residents of the development.”

Plaza, not a park

The description – a “plaza” rather than a park – is how opponents often term the difference between a neighborhood park and the designs that the developer has promoted.

The park within the development would be situated in the middle of the development project, flanked on two sides by restaurants. Concrete walkways would surround a grassy area in the middle. Water features and a climbing wall are included. The property would be maintained by the developer.

Critics say though the residents of the new townhomes and customers of the surrounding restaurants and shops would likely enjoy the amenities, the park would not likely feel welcoming to others.

“What the developer is doing is not wrong for his development, but it is not a neighborhood park,” Wiegand said. “Restaurant patrons would not be happy if people decide to come in and throw footballs around, or have family reunions with music turned up and barbecues in the park, or kids being loud and boisterous.”

Wiegand is also the architect for the brewery that is planned next door to the former Xcel substation. At the Oct. 18 meeting at Stedman, Gilmore, the parks manager, suggested that Wiegand’s opposition to the land swap was self-serving. And, some nearby neighbors have also voiced opposition to a brewery opening on that block. However, Wiegand, who lives two blocks away, maintains he has no economic or financial interest. “I just want a real park in the neighborhood,” he said.

Others wonder why – with the high-density development – that block of Fairfax can’t have both a park and open space.

“Given there will be anywhere from 80 or more new residents living on this block, along with dozens more eating at the new restaurants and shopping at the new retail stores, it makes sense to me to have that open space within the development, as well as a park for longtime neighbors across the street,” said GPHC Chair Tracey MacDermott.

Editor’s note: Two upcoming meetings are scheduled for community feedback and additional details of the proposed Fairfax St. park at the site of the former Xcel substation. The first meeting is Sunday, Dec. 3, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. (after the Broncos game). The second is Sunday, Dec. 17, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. (there is no Broncos game that day). Both are at the GPHC office, at 2823 Fairfax St. They are free and everyone is welcome to attend.


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