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Park Hill Golf Course: A timeline of its complex history as the Denver community decides its future

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Posted at 3:36 PM, Jan 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-06 14:37:25-04

DENVER — The Park Hill Golf Course holds a lot of history, memories and opportunities for residents in Denver and beyond.

It consists of 155 acres near Colorado Boulevard and E. 35th Avenue in Northeast Denver and served golfers for nearly a century, having opened in the 1930s. Since the 1990s, the land has been under an easement that limits its use to a daily fee, 18-hole golf course.

When it closed in 2018, it was one of the oldest golf courses in Denver.

For years, the community has tossed ideas back and forth about what will happen to the land now. Will it become affordable housing? Will it turn into open space, or stay as a golf course? Or a mix of multiple ideas?

Below is a timeline detailing the history of the defunct Park Hill Golf Course as Denver decides what will come of the area.

1997 | The City of Denver agreed to pay the George W. Clayton Trust — the family trust of the nonprofit Clayton Early Learning — $2 million to limit the use of land at the Park Hill Golf Course to a regulation-length 18-hole public golf course with a daily fee.

August 2017 | As of this time, the Park Hill Golf Course was owned by the George W. Clayton Trust. Clayton Early Learning said it wanted to reinvent the 155 acres of land once its lease with Arcis Golf, which operated the golf course, was up in 2018.

Clayton Early Learning provides early childhood education for low-income families. It used money from the lease to fund its programs, said Charlotte Brantley, CEO and president of Clayton Early Learning. But in recent years, revenue from the golf course had declined and the school and trust began discussions about the future of the area.

The school began working with the community to come up with an idea of how to best reinvent the land. Affordable housing came up as an option as the price to live in Denver continued increasing. There was also the idea of turning part of the course into a public park with retail or entertainment options.

Building affordable housing or retail space on the golf course would require a zoning change — it's currently zoned for open space — which can only be done by Denver City Council.

September 2017 | The City of Denver announced it would present an agreement to Denver City Council in August 2017 about its plan to purchase Park Hill Golf Course and work with Clayton Early Learning to develop a master plan for the area.

According to the terms in the agreement, Denver said it would spend $10 million on the property as a down payment and an additional $350,000 each year for the next three decades in a lease-to-own agreement.

That agreement came with an early buyout provision. If all the payments are made, Denver would end up paying the trust $10.5 million on top of the initial $10 million payment, which would result in $20.5 million being spent on the land.

Between 20 and 25 acres were expected to be set aside for golfing, open space or park space as part of the Platte to Park Hill stormwater program tentatively approved by the city council in mid-August 2021 in the northeast corner. It was not yet clear what would happen with the rest of the land.

The land was under a city-held easement restriction that prevented development on the area, thanks to a $2 million deal reached between former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and Clayton Early Learning in 1997. Due to this, as of January 2023, the only allowable use for the area is a regulation-length, 18-hole daily-fee golf course and driving range. This means that the only way to transition this into a new public park or new housing is to lift the easement.

City council still needed to approve the city's agreement.

October 2017 | Denver City Council reviewed the city's agreement to buy Park Hill Golf Course from the Clayton Early Learning Trust, but questions were abound and councilmembers said the contract was complicated and confusing.

Many of their questions centered around what would happen to the valuable land. Affordable housing? Open space? It remained unclear.

The only part set in stone was a roughly 60-acre section that would serve as stormwater drainage, as part of the Platte to Park Hill drainage project.

The Colorado Department of Transportation would front the money for the downpayment of $10 million, the city said.

November 2017 | The City of Denver suspended its proposed plan to purchase the Park Hill Golf Course.

Brantley, CEO and president of Clayton Early Learning, said a leasing issue with the current tenant — golf course operator Arcis Golf — forced them to hit the pause button. The Dallas-based company and Clayton Early Learning had an informal understanding that Arcis would not renew its lease in 2018, but the company had recently said they needed more time to make a formal decision.

Arcis would have until the end of June 2018 to decide, though the lease wouldn't expire until the end of the year.

"It's never fun to sit and wait, right? But at the same time, it's a process and it needs to play itself out," Brantley told Denver7.

During this time, Nancy Kuhn, Denver Public Works spokesperson, said the City of Denver would move forward with an alternate approach in order to obtain the acres needed for the stormwater detention project.

March 2018 | In the wake of the agreement suspension, several neighborhood organizations held a community forum to discuss the future of the Park Hill Golf Course.

Many of the nearby residents said they did not want to see the 155-acre green space disappear. Others said the space should help provide housing for low-income individuals and families. And some say it could be both.

Should the golf course lease end, Clayton Early Learning was expected to ask the City of Denver to relinquish the open space protections and allow rezoning and development of all or portion of the land. It said the course is not earning enough money to fund the trust.

April 2018 | Arcis Golf, which operated Park Hill Golf Course at the time, filed a lawsuit against Clayton Early Learning, saying it was seeking to activate its contractual right of first refusal to match the City of Denver's earlier purchase offer, according to Denver7 news partners at The Denver Post.

(As a reminder, Clayton Early Learning manages the George W. Clayton Trust, which owns the land.)

According to the lawsuit, Arcis Golf wanted to purchase the land on the same terms the city had proposed — $20.5 million total. Clayton officials contended that the city’s offer didn’t trigger that provision because Denver City Council hadn’t yet signed off, according to The Denver Post.

June 2018 | Arcis Golf gave notice that it planned to renew its lease for five years.

December 2018 | At the end of the month, the Park Hill Golf Course closed its golf course operations and was no longer open to the public.

June 2019 | The George W. Clayton Trust announced it was planning on moving forward with selling the land to Westside Investment Partners, a local developer. The deal was expected to close on July 11, 2019.

June 2019 | Denver7 went 360 to explore the multiple and growing strong opinions about the future of the Park Hill Golf Course under Westside Investment Partners.

Neighbors, a former mayor and a developer grapple over the future of the Park Hill Golf Course

Brantley, CEO and president of Clayton Early Learning, said she hoped the sale would sustain the nonprofit's early education mission for children with limited opportunities.

"As such, we are especially pleased that, as part of the purchase agreement, Westside has insisted on not only accessing our community visioning work, but is committed to robust community dialogue going forward," she said.

Some of the residents in the neighborhood right behind the golf course were not happy with the idea of development so close to home. They expressed concerns about negative impacts to property value and congestion on the roads if the area is developed.

Many residents said they would prefer for it to remain a golf course or turn into open space. Some added that they wouldn't be opposed to a new restaurant or grocery store, as long as much of the space is a park. Others said they felt open to the idea of development and housing.

Westside Investment Partners President Andrew R. Klein, a Colorado native, called the purchase a rare opportunity.

“Denver is my home," he said. "I was born here and raised here, and I care deeply about what happens. This is the project upon which my career will be judged. So, we take a lot of pride in what we are going to do there, and we want to make a community that will help build on the Denver that we love.”

He stressed the importance of affordable housing, while adding that the area could double as open space, retail, or a grocery store. But he stood firm in saying the golf course should go, as it was only open to golfers and not the general public. He added that golf courses are also a big drain on water.

“As we have said on every development, we are not going to make everyone happy, but we are going to do our best to make almost everyone happy,” he said.

Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who lives near the golf course, was one of the vocal opponents of development on the golf course. He told Denver7 that he was concerned that he was going to lose open space in the heart of the city. He was mayor when the 1997 land easement deal was reached with Clayton Early Learning to prevent development on the area.

Webb said he wasn't opposed to turning it into a park, but believed maintaining the open space in some way is essential. As for affordable housing, he said there are other options that are already somewhat developed for that cause — and they wouldn't cost the city its green space.

July 2019 | The defunct Park Hill Golf Course was officially sold for $24 million to Westside Investment Partners.

The buyer said the future of the golf course could hold several different fates, including new open space, retail, affordable housing or a grocery store.

But before any planning would begin, Klein, the president of Westside Investment Partners, said they would launch an extensive community listening tour to have conversations with the public about their opinions and ideas.

"We are looking forward to engaging in specific, thoughtful conversations with the community to hear their opinions about the need for open space and recreation, affordable and diverse housing options for existing and new residents, and neighborhood services to enhance the existing community,” Klein said.

The land was still under a city-held easement restriction, which prevented development on the area without a change in zoning.

By this point, the City of Denver had filed a permanent 25-acre stormwater detention easement, plus a temporary construction easement, for the stormwater project. This would affect about 60 acres of land.

October 2019 | Denver city officials announced they were negotiating an agreement to end the several legal battles surrounding the former Park Hill Golf Course, while also ensuring the city and community could retain the right to approve any changes to how it would be used in the future.

The settlement reached between the city and Westside Investment Partners will keep a city-held easement restriction that prevents development on the area. The Denver City Council will decide to lift the restrictions or not — a process that could take months and will involve multiple community discussions. The settlement allowed up to three years for a public process to determine if the community wants to continue to keep the property a golf course.

If there's no approved plan by then, the city could require Westside Investment Partners to return the property to an 18-hole golf course, according to the terms of the settlement agreement.

Community discussions about next steps were on pause for the time, as the city continued its work on a flood-control and stormwater project on the golf course. According to the settlement, once this was complete, the property was to be restored to a golf course.

Later in October 2019, the group Save Open Space Denver — which Denver former mayor Webb recently joined — asked the city to protect the conservation easement for the property to protect the space and preserve it from any future developments. The group wrote a letter to the mayor and city council, which included a legal opinion from a conservation attorney who believed only a court can terminate the easement.

Fight over future of Park Hill Golf Course land continues

In a responding statement, a spokesperson for the Denver City Attorney's Office released the following statement.

"We are very aware of the laws and legal issues associated with the Conservation Easement, including the state statute, and we are prepared to evaluate any specific proposal in light of applicable law. As we have said throughout the process, any changes to the Conservation Easement would first require City approval and compliance with required procedural steps. For more than 20 years, the plain language of the Conservation Easement has required the land to be used as a golf course."

November 2019 | The City of Denver reached a $6 million settlement with Westside Investment Partners, the owner of the Park Hill Golf Course.

The money paid to the development company ended all litigation involving the plot of land and made way for a conversation about its future. It also maintains the requirement for Westside to get Denver City Council approval to make changes to the land.

Denver agrees to $6 million settlement with Park Hill Golf Course owner

Then-Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson said she believes this deal gave the city more leverage because without an approved plan, the city can require Westside Investment Partners to restore the land for use as a golf course.

She added that the settlement opened up an opportunity for the impacted and interested community members through a city process to decide what they want to happen to the area.

October 2020 | The Holleran Group — a collaborative partnership of African American real estate developers, brokers, and community outreach specialists — joined Westside Investment Partners as a co-developer for the Park Hill Golf Course project in 2020, according to the Denver Business Journal.

The group was founded as a social equity enterprise, the founder said.

January 2021 | The Park Hill Golf Course Area Visioning Process began. City staff began to meet with neighborhood groups and mail postcards in English and Spanish.

May 2021 | The City of Denver worked with a market research firm to survey neighbors around the Park Hill Golf Course and the results were released in mid-May.

It found that four out of five respondents want mixed-use land, 85% were in favor of a grocery store, 73% for a park and 67% for affordable housing.

But some residents said the survey seemed to try to influence their responses.

“There are obviously many, many legitimate polls and surveys out there and for those, usually, you don’t see loaded questions,” Ali Besharat, a University of Denver marketing and consumer insight expert, explained to Denver7. “The way I describe them is they are sleazy, sneaky political activities. Usually, they present an incorrect fact about the topic or candidate. It is deceptive, indeed.”

City of Denver reveals results of Park Hill Golf Course survey, some call survey a 'push poll'

Besharat said these are "push polls" and pretend to want to learn about what people think when they’re actually trying to shape how they think.

And some community members who were park of the Park Hill Golf Course survey say it was nothing more than one of these push polls, with no interest in gauging public opinion, but instead shaping public thought.

RRC Associates out of Boulder, which put the survey together, defended the survey, saying it has done market research like this since 1983.

September 2021 | Competing ballot measures — Ordinances 301 and 302 — which both aimed to decide what would happen with the Park Hill Golf Course, would fall into voters' hands in November 2021.

Ordinance 301 would require a citywide vote before the conservation easement could be lifted. Ordinance 302 — which was put forth by Westside Investment Partners to get around the city-wide vote bar set by 301, according to The Denver Post — was essentially the same as Ordinance 301, but would exclude the golf course from the vote requirement.

November 2021 | Voters on Election Day 2021 decided to support Ordinance 301, with about 63% of the vote, and reject Ordinance 302, with 62.5% of the vote.

December 2021 | In mid-December, the City of Denver released its priorities for the Park Hill Golf Course.

Laura Swartz, then-spokesperson for Community Planning and Development for the City of Denver, explained that throughout 2021, the department had met with residents to collect their feedback on next steps for the green space. That feedback was compacted into a summary document titled "Park Hill Golf Course Prevailing Vision," and was published on Dec. 13.

It found that residents expressed the most support for the following priorities:

  • Create a new, significantly-sized park and community gathering places
  • Stand up an oversight committee to guide future planning and development
  • Preserve and expand the tree canopy to combat urban heat island effects in this area
  • Add youth and recreational sports opportunities
  • Include a variety of affordable (income-restricted) housing options, including for-sale units
  • Address food insecurity by including space for grocery and fresh food choices
  • Create space for local businesses and businesses owned by people of color
  • Employ strategies to mitigate involuntary displacement

February 2022 | A lawsuit filed in June 2021 by Save Open Space Denver against the mayor and city planners over the Park Hill Golf Course was dismissed. The suit argued that any planned development was illegal because the conservation easement had not been lifted.

A Denver District judge dismissed the suit, ruling that the group’s claims were factual but they lacked any legally protected interest in the easement at issue.

July 2022 | The City of Denver launched a Park Hill Golf Course Online Open House to gain more citizen feedback as a draft plan for the former golf course was finalized. It also asked for feedback.

Swartz, then-spokesperson for Community Planning and Development for the City of Denver, said the city identified key components that nearby residents wanted incorporated into the space.

City of Denver asking for feedback to finalize draft plan for former Park Hill Golf Course

"At least a hundred acres of public parks open space, priority housing programs for existing residents, a grocery store at 35th and Colorado, and that there will be ample support — legal, financial, and technical support — for local businesses, particularly businesses owned by people of color," she said.

About two weeks later, Westside Investment Partners released preliminary plans for the former golf course.

This plan included designated spaces for a community center, grocery store and affordable housing. There were also 100 acres allocated for open green space. Kenneth Ho, a developer with Westside, told Denver7 the firm's preliminary plans are in alignment with the desires of nearby residents.

Denver developer releases preliminary plans for redevelopment of former Park Hill golf course

"We think our plan reflects the recommendations," Ho said. "We're planning to donate more than 100 acres of the 155 acres. That will be enough to create the city's fourth-largest park, and its eleventh and newest regional park. In the city, we heard loud and clear that the community really prioritized parks and open space here. And so nearly two-thirds of the land will be parks and open space in our plan."

The same day this plan was released, a grassroots coalition, Yes for Parks and Open Space, launched a website calling for the entire 155 acres to be preserved as a public park.

As of this point, the city had spent 18 months gathering feedback from the community, according to the City of Denver.

For any development to move forward, Denver City Council would have to approve a small area plan for developers to follow. Additionally, a majority of Denver voters would have to be in favor of the development plans.

October 2022 | A guiding plan for potential redevelopment of the former Park Hill Golf Course and new zoning for that property inched closer to reality when the Denver Planning Board voted to pass them onto the City Council for consideration, according to The Denver Post.

The Post reported that the 40-page small area plan recommended a variety of housing types on the property including for-sale housing affordable to people making between 70 and 120% of the area median income, subsidized low-income housing for people making between 30 and 80% of the area average and rental housing for seniors with incomes below average.

Developer Ho with Westside Investment Partners told the planning board that the property could eventually add 2,500 to 3,200 housing units to the neighborhood, about a quarter of which would be permanently income-restricted affordable housing, well beyond the city’s baseline requirements, according to The Denver Post.

December 2022 | After a two-hour public hearing on Dec. 5, the Denver City Council voted 10-3 to adopt the Park Hill Golf Course Area Plan.

This plan — which you can read in full here — was approved on Oct. 19 by the Denver Planning Board and adopted by Denver City Council on Dec. 5.

In a potential future citywide election, Denver voters would have reliable city guidance for what would happen with the land if they vote in favor of removing the conservation easement.

Based on public outreach collected in 2021, only 7% of residents wanted the property to remain a golf course, according to the city. This is all that the easement currently allowed.

As outlined on the city's website, this small area plan includes:

  • 100 acres of new public parks, open spaces and trails:
    • Increasing the tree canopy coverage from about 7% today to at least 20%
    • Recommendations for new sports fields, recreation features, and parks amenities, water-wise landscaping, and the integration of stormwater detention into a cohesive landscape
  • For the remaining 55 acres:
    • Affordable housing recommendations that serve a wider range of incomes than typically required, with priority for Denver households at risk of displacement
    • Space for fresh-food access, particularly at 35th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard
    • Support for small, local businesses

The plan's affordable housing requirements would double the city's minimum to ensure at least a quarter of new housing built on the property would be affordable to a range of income levels and remain affordable for at least 99 years.

Also in December, Denver City Council's Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to advance a package that includes a rezoning to update the Park Hill Golf Course property’s zoning to align with the land uses described in the adopted area plan, according to the city's website.

January 2023 | The City of Denver rejected a petition from residents of the Park Hill neighborhood that would have required a supermajority vote of 10 councilmembers to rezone the vacant Park Hill Golf Course, as developers and city leaders eye the space for housing and commercial development.

The Denver City Council was set to vote on Jan. 23 on several items related to the project, including the removal of a conservation easement that currently limits how the land can be used.

Denver City Council holding decisive vote in what may be last step regarding Park Hill development

Early on the morning of Jan. 24, city council voted 11-2 in favor of putting an ordinance about what to do with the land up to voters, who will have the final say on lifting the conservation easement to allow for development of the 155 acres during a special election on April 4.

Neighbors mobilized when they learned of the redevelopment prospects for the golf course and created the protest petition for the rezoning. They argued that a false choice is being offered between green space and affordable housing, and they want to see more construction surrounding the open space, just not within it. They submitted a protest petition on Jan. 17 which would force rezoning to be subject to a city council supermajority if they collected enough signatures from people who live nearby.

This was sent back with many of the signatures rejected. In the reasonings given, the city acknowledged that the statements of authority were completed, but said notarization and additional governing documents were also required.

This meant that the Denver City Council was set to vote with only a simplemajority vote required. The neighbors said they now plan to take their case directly to the people of Denver, who could decide the ultimate fate of the Park Hill neighborhood by vote on April 4.

The question would read: Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver authorize the release of the City-owned conservation easement on privately owned property known as the Park Hill Golf Course, which requires the land to be used primarily for golf related purposes, and allow for commercial and residential development, including affordable housing, and public regional park, trail and open space.

In that municipal elections, voters can decide whether or not to move forward with rezoning the land. You can read the referred measure here and submit public comments. Comments are welcome until Feb. 3.

READ MORE: Denver voters to decide future of Park Hill Golf Course during special election in April

February 2023 | A local group filed a new lawsuit to try to stop Denver from redeveloping the old Park Hill Golf Course. The decision on whether to remove the easement or not will ultimately be left up to Denver voters in April.

March 2023 | Westside Investment Partners, the current owners of the Park Hill Golf Course, will look into including a “Topgolf-like facility” if voters reject proposed development plans, a spokesperson confirmed to Denver7.

Westside has said it wants to develop the 155-acre area in east Denver into housing, commercial space, and a park, which would require Denver voters to lift a conservation easement currently in place maintaining it for exclusively open space and a golf course.

“Denver has a housing crisis, not a golf crisis,” a Westside Investment Partners spokesperson told Denver7 in a statement. “Keeping this land restricted to a golf course is not what Westside wants for this community, and it is definitely not what Denver needs... If Denver votes to reject the parks and housing that a yes vote provides, Westside would have to consider every use allowable under the easement, including a Topgolf-like facility that supports an 18-hole golf course and driving range as explicitly referenced in the conservation easement.”

Save Open Space Denver, a key group opposing Westside’s development plan, has been knocking on doors and placing signs throughout Denver urging voters to vote “No on 2O,” referring to the ballot question over the easement.

April 2023 | Denver voters rejected the proposed development at the former Park Hill Golf Course, with about 60% voting no on Question 2O to lift the conservation easement on the land.

With this vote, the easement stays in place and blocks the proposed housing and commercial construction.

In a statement, Westside Investment Partners — which owns the land, and had planned its potential development — said it was disappointed in the election outcome and will “announce more details on the future of the golf course in the coming weeks.”

Denver7 asked what this would mean for the space, and a spokesperson confirmed that the golf course will once again be fenced off to the general public “as is common with every privately owned site and golf course in Denver.” The spokesperson also confirmed that a TopGolf driving range remains “on the table.”

This story will be updated as the Park Hill Golf Course plan continues to develop.

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