Denver Voters Reject Plan To Let Developer Convert Its Private Golf Course Into Thousands of Homes
Developer Westside wanted to turn its 155-acre property into 3,200 homes and a public park.
In yesterday's municipal elections, Denver voters roundly rejected a ballot initiative that would have allowed the conversion of a private, shuttered golf course into thousands of new homes and a park.
While votes are still being counted, early returns show that just under 40 percent of voters cast 'yes' votes for Referred Question 20. If approved, the measure would have dissolved a conservation easement requiring the 155-acre Park Hill Golf Course to remain a golf course and allowed developer Westside to proceed with its plans to build 3,200 housing units alongside a park and other public amenities.
"The Park Hill Golf Course will forever be a case study in missed opportunities. With historically low turnout, Denver has rejected its single best opportunity to build new affordable housing and create new public parks," said Westside in a statement. "Thousands of Denverites who urgently need more affordable housing are now at even greater risk of displacement."
Westside first acquired the Park Hill site back in 2019 and has been trying to put a mixed-use housing project on it ever since. At the time, developing the site required only that the city and the site's owner agree to lift the conservation easement requiring the property to be maintained as a golf course.
The company's plans didn't sit with neighborhood activists, who argued the city shouldn't forfeit the open space and should instead look for ways to acquire the site and convert the entire property into a park.
In 2021, these activists—organized under the group Save Open Spaces (SOS) Denver—successfully passed a ballot initiative requiring that any proposed dissolution of conservation easements be put to the voters. A Westside-sponsored initiative that would have exempted their property from this ballot initiative requirement failed.
Nevertheless, Westside and the city continued to hash out a development agreement for the Park Hill site. The final plan would have had the company offer hundreds of its planned units at below-market rates for lower-income residents. Westside had also agreed to reserve the majority of the 155-acre property for parks and open space, among other amenities it promised to provide for the neighborhood.
This did little to mollify opponents, who objected to any loss of open space.
"In a climate crisis, in a heat island with a deficit of trees, you don't cut them down and build on top of it. Not when you have alternatives that are equal and better," Harry Doby, an activist with SOS Denver, told Reason earlier this year. He suggested industrial properties adjacent to the site should be redeveloped instead.
The Westside project also attracted fervent opposition from Denver's socialists.
Democratic Socialists of America-endorsed City Councilmember Candi CdeBaca, who is on track to lose her reelection bid, criticized the Westside proposal as insufficiently affordable and said the Park Hill site lacked the infrastructure necessary to support an influx of residents.
The city's DSA chapter, and the national DSA's Housing Justice Commission, both came out against the Park Hill redevelopment as well. They argued letting a developer turn the golf course into more housing would only benefit "capital" at the expense of "democratic control and redistribution of land."
We support Denver DSA. Affordable housing can't be provided by the market. Reforms offered up by the state and developers that don't include democratic control and redistribution of land are ultimately false promises that serve only to benefit capital. https://t.co/EWMbFZXIAs
— DSA Housing Justice Commission ???????? (@dsa_housing) March 17, 2023
Countering this eclectic opposition were the city's local Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) activists, affordable housing developer Habitat for Humanity, and business groups.
The Denver City Council approved a development agreement and rezoning of the Park Hill site in January 2023, setting the stage for last night's ballot initiative.
Throughout the process, Westside has argued that the site has to be a golf course as long as the conservation easement is in place. Opponents won't get the park they've been clamoring for.
After last night's vote, the company has said the land will be returned to a regulation 18-hole golf course and that the site is immediately closed to public use.
Doby, in a February email, predicted that Westside will not go through with the cost of restoring the golf course to active use, and instead cut its losses and sell the property. Because of the 'no' vote, he argues that "a developer wouldn't touch this parcel with a 100 foot pole." That should decrease the sale price, making it feasible for a non-profit to buy the land and work with the city to modify the easement to allow the park.
Time will tell what exactly ends up happening with the site. What is certain is that thousands of units that would have otherwise housed people won't be built.