Park Hill Golf Course Should Be Open Space
By Alice Kelly, Maggie Price,
and Woody Garnsey
Special to the GPHN
In 1882, Denver’s elected officials had the vision to pay $57,000 (roughly equivalent to $1.27 million in 2016 dollars) to purchase 320 acres of land for City Park. This isolated land was in the prairie four miles east of the heart of the new cowtown of about 40,000 residents.
This acquisition was consistent with the “City Beautiful” movement that in the early 20th Century inspired Mayor Robert Speer to lead Denver’s purchase and development of land for the many parks and parkways that today provide Denver with the core of much of its irreplaceable open space and beauty.
In keeping with this Denver governmental drive to preserve city open space, in 1997 – some 115 years later – the Denver City Council and Mayor Wellington Webb negotiated an agreement with the Clayton Trust whereby the city paid $2 million for a perpetual conservation easement for the 155-acre Park Hill Golf Course. This conservation easement granted the city “a perpetual, non-exclusive conservation easement … to maintain the Golf Course Land’s scenic and open condition and to preserve the Golf Course Land for recreational use.”
(Note: the Park Hill Golf Course is between Colorado Boulevard and Dahlia Street, between 35th Avenue and Smith Road. It should not be confused with City Park Golf Course, which is nearby.)
In 2000, the city and the Clayton Trust modified the 1997 conservation easement agreement pursuant to an “Agency Agreement.” The city conveyed the Park Hill Golf Course land to the Trust “as agent of the city, to hold for the benefit of the citizens of the city and the general public….”
One purpose was for the Trust to avoid paying property taxes. The 2000 agreement released the recorded 1997 easement agreement. However, it also provides that if the Trust voluntarily terminates the agreement, the Trust would be obligated “to grant a conservation easement to the city … that will ensure that the (Park Hill Golf Course) land is used only for Golf Course and related activities.” Therefore, the land remains effectively encumbered by this conservation easement.
Today, the need to preserve Denver open space is increasingly critical. As Mayor Michael B. Hancock stated on Oct. 3, describing the city’s new 20-year blueprint for park and recreational spaces, “[i]n a city nearing 700,000 people it’s never been more important to protect, preserve and grow our parks and recreational opportunities.”
Nevertheless, the Trust and the city now propose a new agreement that would eliminate the Park Hill Golf Course open space conservation easement and potentially permit significant – if not full – real estate development on the entire 155-acres of land. As one of the Mayor’s senior managers recently explained, the proposed agreement could result in 100 percent development of the land. The city would pay the Trust at least $20.5 million, and potentially significantly more depending on land sale proceeds.
The proposed agreement contemplates an undefined “Visioning Plan” and “Master Plan” process for the land, to be led by the Trust “in collaboration with neighborhood stakeholders” with the city’s participation and facilitation. Thus, the Trust, as the leader of this process, has a vested financial interest in maximizing the money to be derived from selling the Park Hill Golf Course land.
The Trust has retained high-powered consulting firms – including CRL Associates, the law firm of Brownstein, Farber, Hyatt, Schreck, and RNL Design – to assist in this “visioning” process. And, real estate developers are salivating to develop this land, which marks the northwest edge of Park Hill and is close to RTD’s 40th and Colorado Boulevard A-Line station.
The Trust’s current “visioning plan” is driven toward significant economic real estate development. For example, a “board game” used at recent meetings to consider possible acceptable land uses that could produce at least $24 million, ascribes an exceptionally low dollar value for open space land. In this rapidly developing city, how can a legitimate “visioning” process allocate minimal value to preserving precious open space?
The Clayton Trust’s early childhood education programs are valuable. If the city wants to provide additional financial support to the Trust’s programs, it should do so in a fully transparent manner through the appropriate budgeting and legislative processes related to supporting comparable programs. And, the Park Hill Golf Course land should be maintained as open space consistent with the purposes of the 1997 conservation easement, for which Denver citizens have already paid $2 million.
Alice Kelly is a community activist who has lived in Park Hill for many years. Maggie Price is the co-chairperson of the Parks and Recreation Committee of Denver’s Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (Denver INC). Woody Garnsey is a retired attorney and longtime Park Hill resident.