Denver’s historic City Park Golf Course reopened September 1 after years of major work and considerable controversy that spanned petitions, protests and even a lawsuit over the now-completed changes. The new course includes both an 18-hole course and a full-size driving range, along with a new clubhouse and deck, and a dedicated four-hole course for the popular youth program, The First Tee of Denver.
Media accounts and public documents suggest that when the project began in 2016, no one seemed to argue with the proposal to update the course and add modern facilities. The proposed stormwater detention pond, however, raised concerns from many entities. City Park Friends and Neighbors (CPFAN) and Historic Denver are among the groups that voiced their opposition in letters, op-eds, community meetings, and even a lawsuit.
Current CPFAN president Georgia Garnsey says she is happy to see the project’s completion, but still feels the City was disingenuous in their reasons for its undertaking. “We understood from City documents that they initiated the stormwater detention project primarily to satisfy federal requirements of the I-70 expansion and to provide stormwater flooding protection for the Western Stock Show and the Corridor of Opportunity real estate developments. Protecting the neighborhoods surrounding the course from flooding was secondary, with minimal benefits.”
Nancy Kuhn, Director of Public Information for Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) refutes this idea, as does Sam Stevens, an engineer with DOTI’s Infrastructure Project Management. “The Montclair Basin is really the largest drainage basin within the city of Denver without a big drainage channel. The majority of our pipes were built over a hundred years ago, so we don’t have really any way to move flood waters from this basin into the South Platte River where they belong. As the community built up, they forgot about the natural channels that were in this basin and just developed on top of them, so we do have significant flooding in the space and historically the streets flood, and the pipes only have capacity for a five-year flood,” Stevens says.
“First and foremost, this was a stormwater management project. By using this golf course where the water was already naturally collecting we were able to avoid having to try to solve this problem by trying to obtain private property,” says Kuhn. Regrading the golf course, she says, allows it to capture more water and manage the flow.
Though Garnsey appreciates that the golf course looks more interesting now, she worries about the environmental impact of removing mature trees in a City that’s short of green spaces and canopy. “I feel sorrow when I go by,” she says, “a soft sorrow for the fact that I believe it wasn’t done for the right reasons.”
City Golf Director Scott Rethlake says the 256 trees removed for this project dated to the 1960s. “We take about 25-40 trees each year due to their age, or health and safety concerns. This project actually gave us a really good opportunity to do succession planning with the trees.” The City planted about 760 saplings, ensuring that as older trees age out, these saplings will be mature, healthy trees forming an even larger canopy than before. Rethlake says the City will again apply for the golf course’s certification as an Audubon International (AI) sanctuary (the status is not based on birds, as the Audubon name implies, but on environmental planning, chemical use reduction and other components). He expects AI will renew in 2021.
Scottish immigrant Thomas Bendelow designed the original course, which dated to 1913. Bendelow, “The Johnny Appleseed of American golf,” designed over 600 courses nationwide, and the Denver course is one of only two on the National Register of Historic Places according to The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Rethlake admits “it is not a Tom Bendelow design anymore,” but says “what was in the historic registry were its park-like feel and the viewsheds, a grove of trees, and things like that. We did protect those things that were in the historic registry.” National and State Register Historian Jason O’Brien with History Colorado affirms this; the Bendelow design was not germane to the golf course’s inclusion on the historic registry, and the course remains part of the Denver Park and Parkway System’s historic designation.
Though open to the public, social distancing and new grass mean limited rounds for now. Once the grass is well-established, the City will remove the perimeter fencing, offer expanded play, and permit golf carts.
Front Porch photos by Christie Gosch