Denver’s Ongoing Homeless Emergency, The Park Hill Golf Course Land, Future Of Johnson & Wales, Pit Bulls And Climate Change Dominate The Debate In This Long, Hot Summer
By Cara DeGette
The Denver City Council in late August rejected referring a question to voters in November over the future of the conservation easement protecting the Park Hill Golf Course land.
The proposed ballot measure, promoted by Save Open Space Denver, would have required that any measure to remove city-owned conservation easements must be submitted to the voters. It was clearly designed to protect the easement on the 155-acre golf course property.
The council’s 9-3 vote, effectively keeping the question off the ballot, is the latest in a growing, heated debate over the future of the golf course, which has been closed for two years, in the northwest corner of Park Hill at 35th and Colorado Boulevard. In 1997, Denver taxpayers paid $2 million for a conservation easement to protect the land from being developed. Last year, Westside Investment Partners paid $24 million for the property with the protective easement – a fraction of the per-acre cost of recent comparable commercial transactions in the area.
Earlier in August, the board of the Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. adopted a resolution, by a 12-4 vote, to support putting the question to a citywide vote. The board’s vote, conducted via Zoom, came after three and a half hours of at times emotional virtual presentations and discussion by people who support preserving the conservation easement, and those who support development.
Kenneth Ho, the project lead for Westside, said the developer is committed to setting aside “at least” 60 acres for parkland on the property. The developer also envisions incorporating affordable housing, services and amenities “… we’re working hard to see if we can get a grocery store in this area,” Ho said. “Meeting the community needs are the driving force for what we at Westside want to do.”
It is not clear how Westside would move ahead with development. Previously, a simple majority vote of the city council was all that was required to remove the conservation easement. However, a new state law requires a judge to make the final determination.
In recent months, Westside’s advocacy of development has gained several supporters, including Imam Abdur Rahim Ali, of the Northeast Denver Islamic Center and the recently-formed organization Smart Growth Initiative.
Other groups and individuals, however, have pushed to preserve the property. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who brokered the conservation easement, has been a vocal supporter of preservation. The Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation Association of dozens of Registered Neighborhood Organizations in Denver has endorsed the push to keep the easement in place. In June, Denver’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB) voted unanimously to support the city buying the 155 acres for a regional park.
“Our intention is to purchase and preserve [the golf course land] as open space, said Leslie Twarogowski, the District 8 PRAB appointee. “[Denver] absolutely [has] the money to do this.”
Last fall, Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. contracted with the research firm NRC to conduct a statistical survey to gauge opinions about several top issues in Park Hill. Fully 77 percent of the respondents indicated they want the golf course land to remain entirely green space/park or golf course. Here is a link to the survey:
Save Open Space Denver hoped to collect enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot directly, but was stymied because of the pandemic. As of press time it is unclear how the group plans to move forward.
Homeless, Climate Change, Pit Bulls On the Ballot
Denver voters will be asked to repeal the city’s ban on pit bulls and to approve sales tax measures for programs for the homeless and to fight climate change. In August the city council referred the measures to voters for decision in the Nov. 3 election.
The 0.25% tax for homeless programs – called the Homelessness Resolution Fund – would amount to 2.5 cents on every $10 worth of purchases. City officials estimate the fund would eventually raise $40 million a year for housing, shelters, programs and services for people experiencing homelessness.
During the Aug. 24 city council meeting, Terese Howard, with Denver Homeless Out Loud, said she hoped that any money raised would be used primarily for housing – and that people who are actually experiencing homelessness would have a say in how the money would be used.
A Metro Denver Point In Time Survey taken on Jan. 27-28 determined that 6,104 people were experiencing homelessness. That number was up six percent from last year, and has likely increased in the past several months due to the economy and the pandemic.
In July, advocates for the homeless estimated that 1,350 people were living in tent communities in Denver. Earlier in the summer, Mayor Michael B. Hancock announced that temporary city-sanctioned camping sites would be established to address the situation. Though the city has continued to sweep homeless camps downtown, at the end of August no official campsites have been established.
The sales tax proposal for climate change programs is also 0.25%. If both pass, the sales tax in Denver will increase to 8.81 percent. In August, several council members expressed concern that the mechanism proposed for both funds is a sales tax, which is considered regressive and one that hits low-income people hardest.
Earlier this year City, Councilman Chris Herndon sponsored a measure to repeal the city’s pit bull ban. It passed, but was rejected in a rare veto by Mayor Hancock. The voters will now decide whether to reverse Hancock’s veto.
Johnson & Wales Campus On The Market
The commercial real estate giant CBRE has been hired to handle the sale of the Johnson and Wales University campus, which is scheduled to hit the market in September. The 25-acre campus is in the southeast section of Park Hill, at Montview and Quebec. In June, administrators announced that the Providence, R.I.-based university system plans to close the Denver campus at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
According to a CBRE news release issued in August, Nina Farrell, the company’s higher education specialist, and Karlen Beitman, Mountain States regional manager of Public Institutions and Education Solutions, will head up the marketing efforts. CBRE stands for Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis. It is the largest commercial real estate services company in the world.
The campus is the former home to Colorado Women’s College and the University of Denver law school. It includes 13 buildings, including Treat Hall, which is on the National Historic Registry. The buildings have undergone extensive renovations in recent years. Since the closure of the school was announced, several community leaders have expressed hope that if it’s not used for academic purposes, the property would be used in a way that reflects the values of the community, including affordable and senior housing, and other compatible uses. (Click here for a related op/ed.)
The press release noted that, “CBRE will be soliciting buyers who will optimize the disposition strategies and realize the greatest value.”
“[Johnson and Wales] has been committed to positively contributing to the community. Keeping that commitment in mind, JWU is looking to find a buyer who will implement the highest and best use of the property so both the University and the surrounding community will benefit,” said Beitman.