A cemetery for nuns. A city golf course where a generation of Black civic leaders met to network. A century-old farm. An abandoned college football stadium. An unloved wedge of an ancient stockyard.
Developers and neighbors are fighting over some of the most precious unpaved spots left up and down Colorado’s Front Range, all the while being judged by the ghosts of owners past. They debate with an eye toward an urbanized future, when the last beloved grounds are gated and the public feels shut out. The combatants launch lawsuits, assemble ballot fights, rush the speaking lists at public hearings and deploy picket lines.
The public wants open space. Struggling residents want affordable housing or a grocery store. Developers want a profit. Cities need revenue.
Thirty years after a flurry of new development filled in hallowed spaces at Stapleton International Airport, Lowry Air Force Base, and the Central Platte Valley, have city dwellers learned any new ways to resolve these bitter land use conflicts?
“This one could have gone better. Absolutely,” said Denver attorney Penfield Tate, who is helping to lead citywide resident opposition to a developer’s plan to build on parts of the revered Park Hill Golf Course. The fierce fight over the golf course is raging through every branch of city government and across all demographic lines, from race to income to age.
“We didn’t have to end up here,” Tate said.
Colorado cities and suburbs are fighting over the future of neighborhoods as growth eats up coveted green spaces, from Westminster to Park Hill to Fort Collins. A Colorado Sun project with CU News Corps.
But here is where we are, in battles over open ground coveted by communities at Park Hill, Loretto Heights, the National Western Stock Show grounds, the former Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins, “The Farm” in Westminster, and a stretch of empty riverfront in Littleton. Balancing public “wants” with developer “needs” in an era of amplified — and often contradictory — community input makes redevelopment harder than ever, according to people involved in the disputes and experts observing from the sidelines.
“Every development site now is going to have more expectations, more issues, potentially more friction,” said Tom Gougeon, president of the Gates Family Foundation. As a developer and mayoral advisor, he helped oversee rebuilding at Stapleton, Union Station, Lakewood’s Belmar, and planning for the creation of Denver International Airport.
Breaking up with golf in Park Hill
Penfield Tate doesn’t own any part of Park Hill Golf Course. But his claim of moral squatters’ rights lives rent-free at the now-abandoned 155-acre neighborhood landmark.
Park Hill Golf Course is where Tate taught his daughter the game, however badly; introduced her to Tiger Woods at an exhibition; hit endless buckets of driving range balls when his “bad golfer” status got him down; and, hosted countless breakfast glad-hand events with the core of Denver’s Black middle class and political leadership. Tate has lived in Park Hill for 37 years, and represented it for more than six in the state legislature.
“Many of the Black men who mentored me and Black women who mentored me in this community, Park Hill Golf Course was often where we met for breakfast or lunch to talk about stuff,” Tate said. When downtown hotels didn’t care to rent ballroom space to the Black community, they held their cotillions at the golf club.
Tate and his cohort in Save Our Open Spaces, dedicated to keeping the golf course unpaved forever, know the course itself is not coming back. Peoples’ habits have changed. Golf is the past, they admit. What’s always in the present, they argue in the next breath, is urban residents’ need and desire for open space. What they don’t want, they say, is an 18th fairway covered in million-dollar townhomes with granite countertops and out-of-state license plates in garages.
“It’s rare that you find 155 acres of undeveloped land in the middle of an urban hub, but that’s what we have here,” Tate said. “We’ve seen what has happened around the entire city and county of Denver, where every square foot of land has been developed.” A Denver study of its downtown areas this year found about 5 acres of open space per 1,000 residents, compared to the 10 acres recommended in national planning standards. That was down from 5.7 acres in 2016.
Besides, open space proponents say, Park Hill’s former golf course staying green is not just a wish. It’s a law.
In 1997, under the city’s first Black mayor, Wellington Webb, Denver paid $2 million for a conservation easement requiring Park Hill Golf to stay a golf course forever. As bargaining positions go, it’s a good start.
The current owner of the land believes it starts from an equally strong bargaining position. Westside Investment Partners bought the golf course two years ago for $24 million. Does the neighborhood, considered a fresh food desert, want a grocery store? Affordable housing amid Park Hill price insanity? Real park space the community can use, instead of manicured golf greens they could only look at?
Then let Westside build. Make a deal. Give up the conservation easement, and sign ironclad, city-enforced agreements for 60-plus acres of public park land and mixed-income homes.
Because Westside’s surveys and meetings have shown “people want something other than a golf course, then we should all be open to the possibility of change,” said Kenneth Ho, the Westside partner leading its Park Hill investment. “And that’s not us trying to use the system unfairly. That actually is how cities grow and morph and address needs.”
City officials, holding the easement and all the keys to the planning vehicles that Westside would need, would seem to be a powerful referee at Park Hill. Westside concedes that, saying it welcomes signing a series of enforceable development promises for the space after more community-wide input.
The opponents, meanwhile, are working the refs in court. They say it’s actually illegal for Denver to be spending money on planning anything but a golf course for the site, and they want the process to stop. Any cooperation with Westside, they argue, is a surrender, not a compromise.
The city’s official position for now is that legally, the area northeast of 35th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard must be a golf course. To change that, city officials say, would require public votes and money to compensate the owners. They add that leaving it all open space is not realistic or desirable for Denver’s future, so it’s time for the combatants to talk.
“I feel like the city’s job is to define the box to operate in, not to drive anything,” said Josh Laipply, chief projects officer in the office of Mayor Michael Hancock. “The way that everything is kind of legally set up now, it almost forces both sides to work with each other.”
Arriving at something a majority of neighbors want in Park Hill is going to take an enormous amount of sincere, open-minded and wide-ranging outreach, Gougeon said.
“It’s got a long, complicated history, and I think it’s another one of those cases where it’s really hard to understand who is the community, and what does the community want to have happen,” he said.
From flinging mud to moving dirt at Loretto Heights
Kevin Flynn reported on the battles over Stapleton, Lowry, the Central Platte Valley and more as a dogged City Hall reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. The Irish-on-his-sleeve and nun-revering Flynn now is moderating those fights as a Denver city council member whose district includes the former Loretto Heights Catholic high school and university.
Westside is the developer at Loretto Heights, too, having bought the shut-down, views-for-miles campus in southwest Denver three years ago. As Flynn dodges earth movers cutting new roads across campus, and peers into historic buildings with picture windows framing Pikes Peak, he lists the reasons most of the neighborhood is at peace with the open space becoming part of a planned community.
The developer appeared to sincerely carry out an extensive “listen first” campaign with neighbors, Flynn said. Westside has worked with neighbors and the city on preserving beloved buildings, including a performance theater, and drawing roads that won’t become high-speed thoroughfares linking Federal and Sheridan boulevards.
The dedicated public park space at Loretto, meanwhile, will codify community access that neighbors have always felt in their gut but never formally possessed, Flynn said.
“This really represents our heart and soul, you know,” said Flynn, first elected to council in 2015. “So there’s a feeling of community ownership, but for the first time ever, communities are able to use it.”
Even a beer garden Westside is considering in the mixed residential and commercial area would be a welcome first, said Flynn, who notes the community-friendly beer culture lauded across Colorado has largely skipped the older neighborhoods southwest of Evans Avenue and Santa Fe Boulevard.
That’s not to say neighbors hung a sign welcoming bulldozers. What they really wanted was for the campus to remain home to educational institutions, a century-old tradition under the main hall bell tower. Regis University at one time planned its southern campus there, then abandoned the idea. Japan’s Teikyo University took over the buildings, then shopped them to Metro State for a satellite campus, until Metro found out site improvements would take $60 million.
“It all came back to that it doesn’t matter if the land is even free, it’s just too expensive to update the buildings,” said Mark Witkiewicz, the Westside partner for the Loretto Heights project. Flynn sought bond money to put city office buildings on the hill and leave the rest as park space, but it never came through.
Another developer took control for a brief period, but more plans fell through. Westside bought the 72 acres in 2018 for about $16 million.
“And the very first thing that we did when we closed on the property is, we met with the city and said hey, what do you want this property to be?” Witkiewicz said. “And the city said, ‘Well, good question. What we really need to understand is what does the community want this property to be?’”
Sure, the answers can be exasperating, developers say. Many neighbors wanted Loretto Heights to be filled with 100% affordable housing. Many others wanted 100% of it to be open space, Witkiewicz said. People also mentioned a new grocery store, gathering space, park land, and respect for the original nuns, 62 of whom rest in a cemetery in the northwest corner.
The result, now under construction, is a plan with far less commercial building than zoned for, and far more park space, the developers say, and Flynn confirms. Is everyone happy?
“No, absolutely not,” Witkiewicz said. “But everybody got something.”
Flynn concurs. “I think the neighborhood saw this as a place that they could always look at but not touch. And they’re gonna be able to touch it.”
Dreams and reality of Westminster neighborhood life
An experienced development company believes it can achieve that begrudging consensus for the older, southern portions of Westminster, currently roiled by complex political infighting. Neighbors aren’t so sure the developer, or public planning officials, have a good sense of how a city truly gets used, block by block.
The southern neighborhoods of Westminster sit next to big open space that provides amazing views, but which residents can’t actually use — the 231-acre working farm that Uplands developers want to cover with homes for more than 5,000 people. The developers promise dozens of acres of dedicated parkland within the “The Farm” footprint, but neighbors are wary.
Jason and Lana Cangialosi, who live in an adjacent neighborhood, note that other small area parks Westminster touts as green space seem to accommodate only “the handful of families right in that proximity.” Residents of the area to the west and south of The Farm crowd a tiny city park, or use a Hyland Hills spot intended more as urban drainage than play space.
The Cangialosis and their kids are savvy searchers for livable spaces. They moved to Shaw Heights in Westminster from Denver’s fast-redeveloping Highlands and Tennyson Street neighborhoods in search of an affordable yard and better parks.
In northwest Denver now, Lana Cangialosi said, “you can’t go to those parks without them being super crowded. You can’t even park down on Tennyson Street now. So, it’s like we moved away from that, and they are just going to do that here.”
Developers at Oread Capital say they agree with the assessment of neighbors like the Cangialosis and dozens more interviewed by the Sun. But they say Uplands represents the solution, not a repeat of Denver’s gentrification problems.
“If Uplands is built, both residents within and in neighboring communities will be within a 5 or 10 minute walk of the 47 acres of parks, public open spaces, or protected view corridors that are planned,” said Sara O’Keefe, who is handling publicity for Uplands and Oread Capital. “Some neighborhoods, like Shaw Heights, were built with hardly any parks or green spaces for their residents. One of Uplands’ largest parks will be adjacent to this neighborhood to fix that developer’s oversight from several decades ago.”
Neighborhood demands a shot where city plans have failed
There’s another solution to these development dilemmas, and a handful of north Denver neighborhoods believe the time is right for their audacity to match their grievances.
Denver owns a 42-acre, high-traffic wedge called the Triangle on its partially rebuilt National Western Stock Show complex, bounded by the resilient but long-suffering neighbors in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. The city, already in partnership on the property with the Stock Show and Colorado State University to build livestock areas and classrooms, sought a private developer in a “public-private-partnership” agreement to complete the resurgence of the Triangle.
But the pandemic eroded tax revenues that would have paid back bonds for building out the Triangle, so Denver scuttled the arrangement and is back to planning mode. That means the most publicly visible areas of the stock show — the rodeo arena, Hall of Education, and Coliseum — have no set plan. Those also happen to be the places that rub up against Globeville and Elyria-Swansea and its newly successful community activists.
“The community benefits will come to bear, we’re just going to have to do it in a little bit more piecemeal fashion because that’s how we’re developing the site,” said Denver’s projects manager, Josh Laipply.
On July 26, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s state of the city speech revived the idea of using a bond vote this fall to raise money for replacing the Denver Coliseum in the Triangle, with a new 10,000-seat concert and show venue. Hancock said construction jobs are the best kind of economic development, and that a new venue would activate the neighborhood year-round.
That kind of vague reassurance no longer holds sway with neighborhood activists. They’ve made gains at the legislature seeking air pollution accountability at the Suncor refinery a few blocks to the northeast of the Triangle, and in creating a new community land trust to build affordable housing.
“I’ve lived here my whole life but the stock show has never actually been a part of the neighborhood,” said community organizer Alfonso Spino, who goes door to door for the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea Coalition. “It’s not welcoming obviously, and the purpose has always been just a tourist attraction. It’s a money-making facility for the city.”
At the edges of the Triangle, Denver and the Colorado Department of Transportation wiped out homes and stores as part of the I-70 rebuild, but are not yet reviving those spaces, GES leaders note. That’s more insult to a neighborhood historically subject to heavy pollution, and lacking grocery stores, park space, new housing stock or even a convenience store.
The city’s plan to turn the 1909 Stadium Arena building into a fresh food hall sounds like gentrification, not “listening to the neighborhood,” activists say.
“There was a 7-Eleven that was useful to the community,” said GES Coalition executive director Nola Miguel. It was demolished for I-70. “It was expensive gas, but it was also snacks!”
So now comes the audacity. The coalition has proposed the city turn over development control of the Triangle to its land trust. What neighbors need instead of crumbling stock show parking lots is a real grocery store, affordable, mixed housing styles, and park space that isn’t just glorified flood control, they said.
“Black, Indigenous and brown folk overall in the city, these are the populations that have been getting pushed around,” Spino said. “And so when we talk about this 42 acres as a potential place to really start addressing the harms of the past and the present in our cities, specifically, that’s an attractive idea, an attractive model.”
Laipply said the city is committing to affordable housing and useful, food-related space in a redeveloped Triangle. But given its two partners, it’s not in the city’s power to simply turn the land over to a neighborhood trust, he added.
“If we don’t deliver on the campus, our partners — the rights kind of (revert) to them,” Laipply said.
Fort Collins tests city limits on a state university’s possession
How much of a hallowed football ground’s future does a community own, after millions of visits over decades for competition, graduation, entertainment and education?
Quite a bit, according to the voters of Fort Collins, who have tried to lock in permanent open space on the 161 acres formerly anchored by Colorado State University’s Hughes Stadium. CSU tore down the outlying 51-year-old stadium in 2018, after building a new field at the heart of its campus.
CSU has planned all along to sell the grounds to developers, planning a mix of hundreds of homes, some for lower-income university workers. The university maintains it isn’t bound by Fort Collins zoning.
Voters, led by a group called Planning Action to Transform Hughes Sustainably (PATHS), said “try us.” In a two-part ballot measure, voters told Fort Collins City Council to first rezone the property as open space only, and then to negotiate with CSU to buy it.
The council complied with the voters’ rezoning order in a May vote, but CSU swatted away the designation and also rejected initial purchase offers as undervalued. The city had a July 31 deadline to make another offer on the land.
The Fort Collins debate offers another example of activist groups motivated by perceived inequalities in open space, economic justice and historic impacts of pollution, using social media and political maneuvers to force negotiation. Earlier in the summer, the Fort Collins planning commission rejected a pipeline proposal from Northern Water, which supplies drinking water to more than a dozen growing Front Range communities. Conservation groups hope that blocking a neighborhood-disrupting dig will help scuttle a bigger plan for a billion-dollar reservoir complex.
PATHS sought volunteer help and political donations on a website, gathered petition signatures amid the pandemic, and used social media extensively, building to a win on the Hughes open space rezoning with 69% support.
Fort Collins City Council member Kelly Ohlson, whose district includes the Hughes site, said he’s now confident the overwhelming demonstration of public support for open space will push CSU toward a sale to the city that preserves the land.
“It was a citizen-driven thing, most of them had never been in local politics or politics at all before. They did an incredible job,” said Ohlson, who supports the open space demands but was not a leader of the ballot effort.
The push for no growth, or at least smart growth, is reaching a crescendo, Ohlson said, as the northern Front Range has grown by hundreds of thousands of people, and the space left to preserve for public uses appears to shrink.
People have also grown wary of cities or developers who promise they’ve already laid out a smart growth design for an area the public feels possessive of, Ohlson added. Amenities are extended and then dropped, financing falls through, newly elected officials change plans.
“I think there is a lot less trust now. And I think it’s legitimate,” Ohlson said. “People should pay attention very closely, and the angels are in the details. People should get in early. And pay attention throughout the process until the very end, when things are finally adopted. And then they need to make sure that they’re built as promised.”
Watch these spaces: More development, more argument
The reality is that a dynamic, sought-after state like Colorado will not run out of “open space” arguments any time soon. People keep moving in, seeking housing and an outdoors lifestyle. Businesses and city planners see aging blocks and think about upgrades. The “last best places” simply move from the edges of the map back into interior spaces that need to be redeveloped or cleaned up.
In central Denver alone, for example, there are important land use discussions up and down the South Platte River front, Gougeon noted. Developers want to make the area around Elitch Gardens amusement park into an entire “River Mile” neighborhood. Sun Valley, until recently neglected or deemed a good place to fit public housing, will be transformed with larger neighborhood control. The Burnham Yards rail maintenance site could become the next RiNo.
Those inevitable renovations of core neighborhoods may go relatively smoothly, or they may blow up over an unforeseen issue and become another last stand for an energized community, Gougeon said. But bargaining with the public is now essential.
Gone are the days, Gougeon said, when a city or a developer hands neighborhoods a nice drawing and says, “We’re done with the plan, you’ll love it.”
University of Colorado journalism students Evaristo Gomez and Emily Nelson contributed to this report.