(This post has been edited to include corrections and clarifications provided by the SOS Denver community, specifically the very helpful Harry Doby. Thanks, Harry!)

This was one of those ideas that I wish had arrived on the wind Ruth Stone style much, much earlier.

The Park Hill “Golf Course” (which I will refer to only as the Easement) has sat abandoned since 2018. I could have had years of paintings completed while the land lay unfenced, unguarded, and still open to the public.

Park Hill Golf Course Easement Closed

Park Hill Easement. Now Closed.

Instead, my always-late-to-the-game brain didn’t think of this project until July 2023, just after the most recent vote to maintain the Easement. And now the space is completely closed to the public. After just a few months of plain air painting in the space, my project must be paused or greatly reassessed. The crux of the project relies on my physical presence in the space to best advocate for its accessibility. While I can paint from small sketches and photos, painting in the studio negates my message.

So crap. What now? My intent was to keep the space open by using it. I must now find out how to reopen the space. So, I decided to do a deep dive to help push the city to open the property, purchase it, or just take it by eminent domain like they so often do with poor people.

But first, a little history about this space and how we got here.

George W. Clayton was one of those rich white dudes who moved from Philadelphia to Denver, started a business in them early days, and bought up a bunch of land as he got richer. His endeavors included a segregated school near my home and a dairy farm where the Easement now stands. When he died, a Trust was created to manage his millions, run by the Colorado Governor and other State officials (he had no progeny). A school for male orphans, was created as required by his will, and his dairy farm became, of all things, a golf course? For the life of me, I cannot find out why golf was chosen as the best use for the land in 1930. But, alas, a course was built. Specifically, a segregated private golf club built on land entrusted to the City. A club that denied black folks, who happened to be (and still are) the predominant residents of the surrounding working-class neighborhoods. Keep this in your brain’s back pocket for later.

After a slew of corruption accusations and lawsuits from Clayton’s family, the State removed itself as the main trustee, and the Trust was rekajiggered into a Foundation. The newly born Clayton Foundation tried to sell the course to private interests who quietly backed into a hedge due to the economic crap storm that was Denver in the 80s (thanks oil and gas industries!). Plus, even back then, the largely Black working-class neighbors were resistant to development.

Homer backing into hedge.

Economic sinkhole? No Thanks!

Then, like a white-pantsed savior riding atop a golden golf cart, City Councilperson Cathy Reynolds, an avid golfer, snuck a 2 Million purchase of the land into the 1989 Budget. Five years later Mayor Wellington Webb, in cooperation with the Foundation, created a perpetual Conservation Easement that conveniently required Golf as the primary purpose of the land. Basically, the 2 Million was well below the value of the land, so the Easement was created to put the land on ice until the city could afford to purchase the land outright. And in 2021, the voters were given the power to determine the fate of the Easement if someone sought to change it.

The Foundation leased the land to a Golf company (who then leased it to another, and they, to yet another), necessitating a new agreement because, as a non-profit, the Foundation was tax-exempt, but the lessee was not, and so the lessee was responsible for taxes but wasn’t willing to incur the tax for leasing, and so because of tax reasons. Under the new agreement, the city became the title owner to maintain tax-exempt status, but the Conservation Easement was put on pause because the City couldn’t be both the Easement holder and title holder. The Easement as written in 1997 was to automatically be reinstated if the land was ever sold.

why would an investment firm purchase land that has such strict usage restrictions?

In 2017 the city tried to purchase the land through a Lease to Buy offer but the lease-holding Golf Company objected as they had first right of refusal. Then, the city had to take some of the land to create drainage for an I-70 expansion which paused golf operations. In 2018, the Golf Company abruptly shut down.

The land was purchased for some reason by the famously passionate environmentalists, Westside Investment Partners. JK, they are developers who fully admit that their purpose is to irrevocably change land for lotso money. The Clayton Foundation was in financial trouble and had no choice, their continued programming needed the infusion of piles of money a developer was more than willing to cough up. This particular developer saw the $24 Million purchase as a worthwhile expenditure considering they assumed future development was guaranteed, Easement be damned.

Whoops.

At the time of purchase, all that was required was more or less a handshake between the city and Westside. Enter Save Open Space SOS which found out that changing the open space requirement had to be approved by a court. They reminded Westide of its legal responsibility to ensure the space remained undeveloped.

Why would an investment firm purchase land that has such strict usage restrictions? The answer is that Mayor Hancock said he’d be the one to provide the handshake to allow for development. But SOS and voters disagreed and ensured the Easement remained through the ballot process, as the open space requirement superseded any major change in land use, and a court decision was needed to approve any such changes. But Westside’s hubris was not enough to face the challenge in court where they would surely lose. So, instead, Westside assumed their wealth and power would sway elected officials and voters to get rid of the conservation easement (they outspent their opponents 9 to 1!). Whoops again.

Map of needed parks, showing NE Park Hill with greatest need, next to Central Park (Stapleton) with least need. Easement marked in Red

Map of needed parks, showing NE Park Hill with greatest need, next to Central Park (Stapleton) with least need. Easement marked in Red

Referred Question 20, a question required by Initiative 301, made it clear that, once again, the predominately minority working-class neighborhoods surrounding the space (and a majority of the city) do not want more development but rather more needed green space, space that so many wealthier neighborhoods get built into their communities (see Central Park).

So the Investment Partners are throwing a hissy fit and completely closing the space from the public and blaming the public who explicitly wanted the land to remain open and accessible. The Language of the Easement “limits the use of the property to open space in general and a golf course in particular” (emphasis mine). But the butt-hurt owners are handing out flyers expressing regret that they have to violate the spirit of the election results because they didn’t get what they wanted (read $$$).

While a limited interpretation of the Easement means they “must” build another golf course, I believe the voters intended to keep the space open and accessible; the language clearly expressed by the campaign against development was for open space. And, some newly elected city council candidates chosen in the same election as Question 20 also campaigned to keep it open to the public. The same elected officials have said the city should simply purchase the land outright. And frankly, Westside should sell, considering the millions they’ve already incurred from fighting the Easement, an 18-hole golf course would be a giant money pit that they never wanted in the first place.

Funny golf fail

I was going to paint under that tree!

As unlikely as this outcome is, Westide has still threatened to create a golf course, as if that’s the only other option other than a grocery store. But as it’s embedded in the language of the Easement (thanks, Cathy), and just in case, I’d like to make the argument against Golf (also because it was fun to find golf-fail-GIFs)

First,  there’s already a public course less than two miles away, another five miles away, and two less than seven miles away. Plus, many, many, many more in the region. However, large expanses of green spaces are limited, especially in working-class neighborhoods. As seen in the above map, the neighborhood that contains the Easement has some of the greatest need for a park. And a golf course violates the open space language of the Easement. Golf is not an open sport. Forget it’s racist history for a sec. The cost of golfing is prohibitive. It can cost between $455 and $2867 to play, not including the continual membership fees.

Some of golf’s negative environmental impacts include:

  • Pollution of groundwater and surface water caused by the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Withdrawal of large quantities of water for irrigation.
  • Degradation or loss of natural areas.
  • Negative impacts of chemical use on “non-target” wildlife.
  • Unsound turf management driven by increasing and unrealistic golfer expectations and demands.
  • Loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitats.
  • Replacement of natural plant communities with intensively managed landscapes and non-native plants.
  • Increased conflicts with wildlife.

Plus I’d like to see you try to take a nice walk with your family through a golf course. You will either be run over by a golf cart or receive TBIs from errant golf balls. These spaces are not open and are hardly green as pesky trees and other flora are mowed down to accommodate shanked hits.

Park Hill Easement mowed

Mowing down pesky plants so white folk can hit tiny balls!

I’m sure some economically conservative folks might balk at the city spending tax-payer dollars on the course. So I would argue the city should just take the land. The city had no problem taking property from poor folks to add to I-70 (74 homes to be exact), a project that was supposed to benefit everyone, not counting the increased pollution that now wafts over the Easement and surrounding areas. I understand it would be harder as there will be inevitable lawsuits, but like I said, Westide has dumped a lot of money into a losing battle, a legal battle would only cost them more. The fight for open space has already been won, twice. This bolsters the argument for ceding the space to the community.

And now for my expert legal opinion: according to the Easement agreement, the owners cannot violate Denver’s anti-discrimination code, which broadly requires “equal opportunity to participate in all aspects of life” and specifically prohibits economic discrimination. Golf is not open nor equal, and poor people need green space more than ever. And once again, those who live closest will likely be unable to access the green space they need.

Either way, Westside should cut its losses and move on to other developments. Take the tax write-off, or claim it’s a donation to the people of Denver, you know, bullshit PR that lets you walk away without (much) egg on your face.

So I’m left to work (for now) in the studio because I just need to work, and this project won’t leave me alone. But to advocate for the open space, I will call my city and State reps and the newly elected mayor to pressure the Investors to open the gates. Or to simply ask them to take the land as a benefit to the city.

If you’ve read this far, and are interested in more info or in helping advocate for a park, contact Mike Johnston, your city council rep, and visit sosdenver.net.