In the eyes of Google Maps satellite view, it’s an enormous island of green open space surrounded by aging suburban homes, an RV sales center and the Westminster driver’s license office.
In the eyes of neighbors who gather on the edge of the corn-stubble field near West 84th Avenue and Federal Boulevard to enjoy Hollywood Hills-style sunset views of downtown Denver and the Indian Peaks, it’s “Westminster Farm,” a rare respite in an area short on parks.
In the eyes of the developer, it’s called “Uplands,” future home to 5,500 people desperately in need of affordable and mixed-price housing, who will walk trails to work and pay taxes to shore up local schools.
Whose vision best suits Westminster’s future is the challenging task this year for the community and city government. The 231-acre farm in the shadow of the historic landmark Westminster Castle is one of the largest undeveloped infill parcels in the metro area. For more than a century, it’s been owned by a church while serving as a fertile, symbolic field for arguments over growth vs. green space.
“We need to develop, and we need to provide housing, but we also need to protect important lands and important ecological values,” said Susan Daggett, executive director of the Sturm College of Law’s Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at the University of Denver. “And so, how to balance those things is really difficult, especially as land starts to be scarcer and scarcer.”
Save the Farm activists detail down to the acre how developments like Uplands subvert the spirit of Westminster’s open space and development principles, and how the proposed combination of single-family homes, town homes, multi-story apartments and retail will impact everything from storm runoff to scarce Front Range water supplies. They call city leaders pro-development, and question whether they will truly enforce Westminster’s minimum open space rules, or fulfill the intentions of the “cash-in-lieu” of land that developers have used in the past.
“This is the crown jewel of Northwest Denver,” said Karen Ray, a neighbor who helps organize the Save the Farm movement, using her IT background to calculate the charts. “I mean, when you drive up here, there’s nothing like that, and to put 65-foot apartment buildings on it? That’s criminal.”
Ray would like to see the City of Westminster buy the main property between Federal and Lowell boulevards, and West 84nd and 88th avenues, and make the farm a true park space. Save the Farm’s proposals on how to pay for that, though, are far less detailed than their open space calculation. The developer won’t say what the land might be worth. A 2019 column in the local Westminster Window by a former city manager noted an option on the property to buy at $40 million — 10 years ago.
“The city should figure out how to buy it,” including seeking federal funds, Ray said. While Westminster as a whole boasts that 15% of its land is park space, a figure national experts call healthy, only 2% is set aside in the older, southern part of the suburb that is heavily lower-income and Hispanic, Ray said. They believe social equity will be one of their strongest opposing claims during the review process.
Developer Jeff Handlin, whose Uplands group holds the option to buy the property if the master plan gets approved, said an outright city purchase is unrealistic when the farm would be many multiples of the entire city parks and open space budget, for years on end.
Save the Farm is misleading people into assuming the space is public, Handlin said. A typical neighbor is living next to “what is functionally now a prairie dog field or an unimproved, unplanted field — dirt — but was promised the park, and the funding is just not there,” Handlin said.
With the Uplands proposal, which has been presented at hundreds of hours of public meetings over the course of years, Handlin said, Westminster residents get new, real parks they can use, a new tax base for schools and other improvements, new housing, and a higher percentage of open space than the city even requires.
Total set-asides for parks and views equal 40 acres or 17% of the property, plus millions of dollars from the developer as “cash in lieu.” Westminster allows developers to offer “cash in lieu” if their open space does not equal 12 acres per 1,000 new residents.
If the city goal is 15% open space, Handlin said, “they get well over that with us.”
Daggett, by profession and by inclination an advocate of climate-change awareness and neighbor-friendly planning, said keeping the property building-free forever isn’t realistic. Or even desirable. More density is key to closing the housing gap and cutting sprawl that breeds transportation pollution, she said.
“You can’t force this developer to solve the park problem for the whole city,” Daggett said.
Economic currents mix at the farm
The base conflict of development and open space plays out across the metro area, from north Denver to Lakewood. Civic leaders struggle to balance complex issues of population growth, housing needs, growing demand for recreation space, the social equity movement, and local responsibility for global climate change Many neighbors want the 155-acre Park Hill Golf Course in Denver to become dedicated open space, rather than given over to a developer, no matter how much affordable housing is pledged.
A long-disputed federally-owned parcel near Lakewood’s Federal Center just went on sale for development again, after going on and off the market while advocates protested they should have the first shot at building innovative shelter for homeless people.
The Westminster farm currently awaits spring planting, which in the past has alternated between wheat and corn. The unfenced property has no developed trails or public access. Ray said a neighborhood group often gathers on the northwest corner at sunset, and 40 to 50 cars park around the edges on clear evenings.
But sunset gawkers don’t translate to squatter’s rights, and the owner, Pillar of Fire church, has long contemplated a greater return on the empty space. Uplands, a brand for the property created by Handlin’s Oread Capital & Development, has been working on a plan since at least 2013.
The plan under consideration by city officials and the council includes mixed housing, apartments up to five stories, affordable housing built in conjunction with nonprofits, workforce housing in “cottages,” and three large parks and seven “pocket” parks on the main property. Uplands says it will pay for all the water, sewage and road infrastructure, then form a metropolitan taxing district to reimburse itself. Bike lanes and trails would connect to more open space and to commercial/retail space on properties around the edges, also optioned from the church.
In the city’s property tax valuation system, the church properties are listed as “exempt,” a researcher for the developer said.
Uplands would build fewer dwelling units per acre than allowed under previous city master plans for the area, Handlin said.
Sunset views are specifically protected in the layout, with view planes deeded to the city, Handlin said. He claims he has sought out meetings with the Save the Farm group in addition to a long series of public meetings, and has been rebuffed.
The Uplands design meets the city’s guidelines for the property, and results from extensive “number crunching” of Westminster data to calculate everything from school needs to shuttered grocery stores to demographic segregation, Handlin said.
Newer neighborhoods in northern Westminster are dominated by single-family homes too expensive to attract a diverse mix of buyers. Local schools need more support through growing property taxes, he added. Variety in housing units, family-friendly design, and affordable set-asides will help Uplands bolster the “missing middle” for Westminster, Handlin said.
“You’re not going to build yourself out of this housing crisis. And this developer is not going to do it for you,” responds Ray. Zillow puts the “typical” Westminster home value at $456,000, up 11% in a year.
The half-empty, aging strip malls, an abandoned hospital and other properties around the edges of the farm would be far better places to start development, Ray said.
Her group is also wary of the city’s “cash-in-lieu” rules for developers who don’t set aside the ideal ratio of open space. There’s not enough transparency about how that money is charged, or where the city ends up using it, which could be far away from affected neighborhoods, she said.
Westminster spokesman Ryan Hegreness said the city does indeed collect cash in lieu and designate it for specific projects that are detailed in budget documents, though it can take time to allocate the money. Cash-in-lieu agreements put $931,000 into an open space acquisition fund for 2021, and $649,000 into a first-phase renovation of the pond and landscaping at the Promenade shopping center, he said.
No hearings are scheduled yet for the planning department or city council actions on the Uplands proposal. Anyone can continue to comment on the design and the competing principles involved, through city channels. Save the Farm stages periodic demonstrations at picturesque corners of the land, and updates a website that competes with the high-production-value Uplands site.
At the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, Daggett is fairly certain the battle over the farm will make for deep graduate student project material for years to come — after the students have weighed in on the more urgent Park Hill controversy.
“The right developer could really make this an interesting opportunity to meet a whole lot of needs,” Daggett said, “if it’s done well.”