Saturday, March 4, 2023

Denver is not for sale

By Wellington Webb

Many people have asked about my stance on the Park Hill Golf Course issue that appears on Denver’s April 4 ballot, known as Referred Question 2-O.

My stance may seem like a long answer but walk with me.

These are my thoughts after months of deliberation and conversations with developer Andy Klein, Kenneth Ho, Wayne Vaden, Norman Harris, Woody Garnsey, Penfield Tate, Josh Hafling, state Senator James Coleman, representatives for Habitat for Humanity, my brother in life Jim Sullivan, and without question my wife Wilma Webb, daughter, Stephanie O’Malley, son, Anthony Webb, grandson, Allen Webb, and a senior citizen whom I respect greatly, Margaret McCaskill.

These discussions all centered on the proposed development of the 155 acres of precious open space at the Park Hill Golf Course property. This is the last large parcel of open space in the city.

Andy Klein and Westside developers purchased a piece of property to develop knowing that the property is encumbered by a conservation easement. The easement was placed on this property by me as Mayor! The easement to protect the property was signed in 1997.

Today, in concert with the City Administration, Andy Klein and Westside developers present a tragically flawed plan that is being railroaded down our throats. They want Denverites to vote to take away the protection of the open space so that the proposed development that includes no less than 3,200 units of housing and other spaces can be built for profit.  While the plan includes a couple of reasonable visions currently, there is nothing in the plan that has moved me to change my value to uphold parks and open space.

Westside was smart enough to add the Holleran Group as a co-developer, and I applaud this effort.   

The Holleran Group’s plan calls for athletic fields, however, the allocation of property to accommodate them is too small. The athletic fields fit under the conservation easement and need their own space and should not to be counted as open space like the developers’ desire. The plan includes suggestion for an athletic complex but fails to include considerations for its own parking. The complex could include a gymnasium for basketball and volleyball, an indoor gym for girls track, a football field, a soccer field, and pickle ball courts. This alone would amount to at least 50 acres of the 155-acre parcel.

Again, I support the athletic fields but they must be built on its own space, and not be considered open space.

The nearby stormwater detention pond, which already has been built on 25 acres, can’t be moved and with a downpour, the Titanic could float at the end of the pond. So, it’s not appropriate to use the detention pond for anything other than stormwater drainage. Where else in the city is a detention pond being used for a basketball court?  Nowhere to my knowledge. If it is, it shouldn’t be.

Now, a little history of the area and the need for a grocery store. For a few years I lived at 3625 Eudora Street and shopped at the Dahlia Shopping Center for groceries and the Duck Walls dime store; relaxed at a bowling alley; and was a customer at a clothing store, all located at this site. A golf course was nearby.

While a grocery store is wanted, there is other nearby property where a grocery store could be developed. By the way, grocery stores situate where they want, not necessarily where residents desire to have them.  

As far as revisionist Black history, one thing I know for sure is history does not lie when presented with facts. As much as we dislike Mayor Ben Stapleton, who was supported by the Ku Klux Klan, history also tells us that he purchased Red Rocks Amphitheater through his parks manager George Cranmer. Does the city want to give it back? I don’t think so.  By comparison, this current administration and some council members may not agree with the conservation agreement, but my administration and council members at the time had the foresight to protect this land from runaway development. The taxpayers paid $2 million to the former owners for the conservation easement, and had no intentions of developing that land in the future.

The conservation easement should remain respected just as the purchase of Red Rocks.

Now allow me set straight a false narrative that is being offered by proponents of Referred Question 2-0, specifically that Blacks did not have access to Park Hill Golf Course. Park Hill Golf Course has a long, important role in Black history. Black male and female golfers often were at the course including, former Denver District Court Judge James Flanigan, former Councilman Bill Roberts, Denver Public’s School board member Ed Garner, accomplished architect Bert Bruton, well-known attorney Tyrone Holt, and accountant Lucius Ashby, just to name only a few. The clubhouse was a meeting place for DPS board President Omar Blair, the Sertoma Club, Leonard Sowell and the Park Hill Lions Club. Even Ray Charles could see that this false narrative and other falsehoods are being offered as smoke screens to divert from the fact that the current plan for development is bad.  

I’m a pragmatic man and I believe that this characteristic was appreciated by voters while I was in office. While my strong support of parks and open space has not changed, I remain pragmatic and that’s how I’ve approached this issue of the Park Hill Golf Course.

With my pragmatism, I told developer Andy Klein that the development, at minimum, needs 100 acres for athletics and open space. He countered by suggesting that 60 acres plus the 25-acre detention pond equates to 100.   Commons sense tells us that his calculation is not 100 acres of true open space.

I understand that if someone buys a piece of land they likely want to make a profit. I’m a capitalist and am not opposed to Westside making a profit. Because of this, I have struggled to find a good compromise. Searching for one, I looked at the entire process and I quickly became sick to my stomach.

I reflected on the fact that the City Attorney’s Office declares that the easement only applies to a golf course. This is wrong. It also is false campaigning that the developers are telling voters that if Referred Question 2-O fails, the 155 acres will be blighted land.

The City Attorney’s Office also advised Mayor Hancock not to extend concession contracts at Denver International Airport stating that doing so is either illegal or bad public policy. This advice was given at the same time every city in the country was extending airport concession contracts to keep businesses at the airports from going broke. I know it’s not illegal because I extended concession contracts by seven years as I was leaving office to assure the many women and minority vendors would not be eliminated by the next administration.

Staying true to its shenanigans, in January the City Attorney’s Office 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. The City Attorney’s Office rejected the petition after the petition was submitted and after it changed rules for petition completion that it and city planners initially provided to residents.

I am sure that at least one of our former city planners is turning over in her grave about the game playing going on by the planning office on this issue. Changing the rules in the middle of the game is one reason why there is a lack of trust in government by voters.

I have studied the housing plan to be built on the conservation land. It includes 3,200 housing units between 36th and 40th on Colorado Boulevard. Many of the units would house more than one individual. This is an area that is already dealing with high traffic problems. I understand that neither Westside nor the city has obtained a new traffic study to evaluate this proposed density and impact on the traffic in the community.  How can one realistically plan for 3,200 new housing units with multiple residents without a new traffic study?

Some of the buildings that are a part of the 3,200 new units would be eight to 12 stories.  This is likely to result in accelerated and increased gentrification of the Park Hill area.  It could be a “New Jack City” – without Wesley Snipes.

I have spent much time reviewing and thinking about this issue. However, a recent chance encounter made my struggles on this issue really clear to me.

As Wilma and I were recently leaving the I-Hop restaurant near Central Park, a dignified church-going senior citizen, Margaret McCaskill, who is a resident of Park Hill, approached us to talk.

She said, “Mayor Webb, I live on the 3500 block of Monaco and you’re not going to let them block the views from my home and build that monstrosity on Colorado Boulevard, are you? My elected officials never ask my opinion about things like this. Help us!”

This chance encounter made me realize that this dispute isn’t truly about housing or open space; but rather this is about a bad business deal made by Westside and supported by the current city administration and its partners. There is a lot of wheelers and dealers but no leaders.

So here is my stance.

Vote No on Referred Question 2-O on the April 4 ballot. Once defeated, the new City Council and new Mayor should go back to the drawing board and honor the conservation agreement. This would include 60 acres of open space, 25 acres for the detention pond, and 55 acres for the athletic fields and complex, which can be administered similarly to the nonprofit Gold Crown that has athletic complexes throughout the metro area.

With this approach, the biggest winner will be the Mile High City. Once you lose open space you never get it back. That’s a fact that we in Denver should never take for granted.

I heard you Mrs. McCaskill and I will continue to fight for you and all those Coloradans who value nature over parking lots.

Being a parks and open space guy is part of my DNA. People can talk until they are blue in the face, but I cannot and will not deny my DNA.

So here is my belief: We are at a crossroads. The message is clear in my mind. We lost Five Points now we’re going to lose precious open space in Park Hill.

Denver is not for sale. Walk with me again on this one.