On election night, voters handed a big win to Save Open Space Denver (SOS), a group that for years now has been fighting to halt development on the now-defunct Park Hill Golf Course, a currently unused 155-acre open space that sits at the corner of Colorado Blvd. and East 35th Ave.
The land is owned by Westside Investment Partners, a development company that would like to turn it into a mixed-use property including affordable housing, retail, and 60 acres of promised green space. However, the city owns a taxpayer-funded conservation easement on the property that limits how the land can be used. The conservation easement was at the crux of two battling ballot initiatives put forth by SOS and Westside.
SOS’s 301 initiative, which boiled down to “Green vs. Concrete” yard signs, passed with 64 percent voter approval. 301 changes Denver’s municipal code so development on city-owned conservation easements can not happen without citywide voter approval. Denverites will likely be asked if they’re in favor or opposed to development on the November 2022 ballot. Westside’s 302 countermeasure failed by a similar margin. Had 302 passed, it would have amended the definition of a conservation easement, exempting the course from being considered easement property and therefore nullifying SOS’s measure.
So, what’s next?
Much remains unclear about the future of the property. And the additional ballot question isn’t the only issue muddying the crystal ball.
Both parties still disagree on terms of the easement. Westside and attorneys for the City of Denver believe that in order for any development to happen, mixed-use or otherwise, the conservation easement must be lifted—and that can only be done by a vote of Denver City Council.
SOS argues that the conservation easement only requires that the property be used generally as open space, and therefore can be turned into a park without lifting the easement. They also argue that because of a state statute, a judge—not Denver City Council—is the only one who can lift the easement.
Both parties are also awaiting a Denver District Judge’s ruling on a lawsuit filed this past June. Former Mayor Wellington Webb, Penfield Tate, and other notable community members on the side of SOS claim in that suit that the city is in a “joint venture” with Westside and is wrongfully using taxpayer money to fund a planning process that violates a taxpayer-funded conservation easement.
Penfield Tate, a spokesperson for SOS said, “We the people still own the conservation easement and the developer still owns the land, subject to the conservation easement, that the developer knew was in place when they purchased the land. 301 was never about telling people what the open space and recreational uses of the property were supposed to be, it was—and still is—about letting the community have a say in how we activate that space into a recreational amenity for everyone, not just golfers. We want to come together to build that. The decisive victory of 301, along with the equally decisive defeat of 302 (especially as it appears now in the precincts around the PHGC property) should speak loud and clear to the fact that Denverites love their open space and they will fight for it.”
Kenneth Ho, Principal at Westside said, “It’s unclear what SOS has won. Neither initiative lifted nor modified the easement, and we aren’t going anywhere. Our next steps are the same. We’re committed to a shared vision with the community including 60 acres of park where a park doesn’t exist. We will have a shared vision backed with written agreements from the city and the community. We know people support green space, but they also support affordable housing, equitable development, and parks.”