How green is Denver if you’re Black? These residents are about to find out
For decades, the clubhouse of the Park Hill golf course in north-east Denver, Colorado, hosted weddings and graduation parties for residents of nearby neighborhoods. “It’s been a very valuable resource to this community, when you need event space and can’t afford swankier venues,” said Shanta Harrison, who lives eight blocks away.
The 155-acre golf course stands out as an island of green space in the middle of the only remaining neighborhoods in Denver where over 40% of residents identify as African American. And according to state law, it’s supposed to stay that way forever: since 1997, the property has been under a conservation easement – a deed restriction stating that it can never be developed.
But in the last year, the golf course has become a lightning rod in ongoing debates about gentrification, open spaces and racial equity in Denver. In 2019, the developer Westside Investment Partners bought the private golf course, and has since gestured at big plans: a mixed-use vision that includes both market-rate and affordable housing, businesses, as well as a grocery store and a park.
“We bought it because we knew we could do so much better than a golf course,” said Westside principal Kenneth Ho.
Opponents argue the golf course should stay as is or be turned into another kind of green space. But despite this pushback, since February the city has been moving forward with a planning process that is often the first step in developing a site. The city hopes to have a development agreement with Westside in place by next summer, according to documents revealed through public records requests and reported here for the first time.
The fight to block development is led by environmental groups and city council members who say Black residents – who, along with Latinos in Denver, live in historically underserved neighborhoods – should have proper access to nature and green space. In a city famous for open spaces, natural beauty and outdoor recreation, environmental justice activists are now asking whether local officials are committed to preserving Black residents’ access to these environmental amenities.
“I’m not a golfer. I’m interested in open space,” said Sandy Robnett, a Black resident. “And what I see here is environmental racism.”
Community activists are now butting heads with the city over whether the easement can legally be lifted. But even if the easement must be upheld, it remains unclear whether the deed restriction supports other uses, beyond a golf course.
Environmentalists are doing their best to bring these questions to light – in part because they see their fight as not only about 155 acres in Park Hill but about which contracts the city will uphold.
Opponents of Westside’s plans worry that the city is abdicating its responsibility to protect green space.
Following the sale of the Park Hill golf course, a group of residents formed an organization called Save Open Space (SOS) Denver to challenge development on environmental and legal grounds. The group – which counts the former Denver mayor Wellington Webb and former state legislator Penfield Tate, both of whom are Black, among its membership – wants the space to become a park instead.
This month, SOS requested and obtained public records that outline the city’s step-by-step plan for getting the golf course developed, and to have an agreement in place by August 2022.
A spokesperson for the city told the Guardian that timeline would be followed “only if a community vision supports the idea”. Westside’s Ho argued it is “pretty normal for a big project to have a proposed overall roadmap”.
This year, the city moved forward with a “visioning process” aimed at “hear[ing] from the longtime residents who live near the golf course” to better “understand their hopes and goals for this land”. The city argues this information gathering should take place “before entertaining any discussion on modifying the conservation easement”, but neighbors to the golf course say it signals the city is taking steps to develop the land.
The golf course has been under the conservation easement since 1997. In the 1980s, easements became the primary tool for land conservation in the US, as federal funding for conservation dried up. And Colorado has 3.2m acres under easement, more than any other state.
For the Park Hill golf course, the city of Denver oversees the easement, to ensure the land remains conserved. But local activists worry the city is neglecting its responsibility.
“It felt clear that the city told Westside, ‘We’ll take care of the easement,'” says Maria Flora, a Park Hill resident and SOS member.
In 2019, two weeks before Westside bought the golf course, the governor of Colorado signed a law to make it much harder to nix easements, and requiring district court approval. The chief architect of the revisions says they were designed specifically to stop cities – like Denver and Boulder – from walking away from their role in upholding easements.
“We decided, an easement is an easement, and everyone should have to follow the same rules,” says Erik Glenn, head of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust. “If you’re going to try to extinguish, you have to get the court’s blessing.”
Even if the district court decided the easement must be upheld and the site cannot be developed, it’s unclear if the easement supports other, more communal uses, such as a park.
SOS members have argued that the easement does allow for other forms of open space, while the city and Westside insist that the wording dictates that it can only serve as a golf course. Melissa Daruna, who heads the state’s alliance of land trusts, says that the question will have to be answered by “case law, which nobody likes to hear, [and] looking at the precedent of other cases”. She added: “Everyone wishes they had an answer by reading [the easement], but every time there’s a conflict, it takes third parties.”
The neighborhoods that surround the Park Hill golf course – particularly North Park Hill and Northeast Park Hill – have been splintered by the debate. Proponents of development have gained sway among community members, emphasizing the need for more affordable housing.
“It’s been sad,” says fourth-generation Black Denverite Tony Pigford. “It’s causing a rift in the African American community in Denver.”
But residents who want to maintain the golf course as green space say Westside is dangling false promises of affordable housing to garner support.
“They’re saying they’ll listen and give the community what it wants and needs, and we’re trying to look at the track record and expect what will actually come,” says Pigford. At Loretto Heights, a development under way in south-west Denver, Westside is building between 1,000 and 1,200 housing units, 12% of which will be affordable.
SOS member Robnett worries that developing the golf course will gentrify the neighborhood.
“Just like everywhere else in this city, this project is designed to remove the homeless, the Black, whatever [developers] think is ugly,” she says.
Responding to the allegations of environmental racism, Westside’s Ho said “We understand the fear of gentrification,” but offered that the company is “[focused] on the community” and job growth.
Asked to respond to the possibility that the city’s planning process for developing the site reveals that community members prefer to keep the golf course as is, Ho said, “I think it’s pretty clear that no one wants a golf course.”
But some do.
“So many of us have family down south – aunts and uncles who are 90, 100 years old and still live in their houses,” says Robnett. “Why is that? It’s because they are surrounded by open space [and] the benefit of air. For that reason, if it can’t be a park, I would strongly prefer it to remain a golf course.”