WESTMINSTER — Eric Wycoff remembers well the struggle to find a suitable park experience when his family was younger. The all-day adventure meant loading everyone into the car to drive clear across town — just so his stepdaughter could enjoy playgrounds and wide-open fields.
On the days his wife needed their only car for work, he recalls walking more than a mile with the young girl to reach the nearest park in Shaw Heights, their south Westminster neighborhood.
“You know, when it’s a hundred degrees, you don’t want to go far,” he said recently.
Yet not much has changed. His stepdaughter is older now, but he notices other young families struggling with the lack of good parks nearby. Sometimes, kids’ only alternative is playing in the streets or on playground equipment at local schools.
And when school’s in session, he says, younger kids are just stuck.
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.
Wycoff’s observations are shared by many of the residents in southern Westminster and have been amplified by the dispute over a 235-acre plot of agricultural land adjacent to Shaw Heights where a new residential development is planned. Known as “The Farm,” the property is likely to be transformed into the Uplands, a development marketed as an urban oasis with new parks and trails winding through commercial and residential buildings, including some affordable housing.
With a mix of low-income and workforce housing and 40 acres of new parks, the neighborhood was designed to combat the lack of outdoor spaces in the southern part of the city, developer Jeff Handlin said. He promises the Uplands will connect a divided Westminster, but some residents aren’t buying those promises.
55 parks, 150 miles of trails, and yet …
Westminster markets itself as having a robust outdoor and recreation system. The city has 55 identified parks and more than 150 miles of trails. Yet, neighborhoods in the older, southern part of the city, like Shaw Heights, do not have the same easy access to outdoor resources as those in the more affluent neighborhoods of the north.
The Urban Land Institute rates parks on five basic characteristics. To achieve a high quality rating, parks must be in great physical condition, accessible, provide positive experiences, remain relevant to the community and flexible to changing conditions.
It takes a lot of work for the residents of Shaw Heights to get to parks that meet all five ULI standards.
According to the Trust for Public Lands, only 33% of Shaw Heights residents have a park within a 10-minute walk of their homes. The “10-minute Walk” movement was coined by Trust for Public Land but has ultimately been adopted as a uniform standard by many organizations, including the city of Denver.
Oakwood Park is the only city park within walking distance of Shaw Heights. It is a strip of grass with one picnic table on the side of a sound barrier to U.S. 36. Most people go farther down the street to Rotary Park, owned by Hyland Hills Parks and Recreation District and serving a dual purpose of recreation and flood control. Neither park meets the five ULI standards.
Thunderstorms create inches of standing water at Rotary Park, making the park unusable until the water drains away. Even then, grass that appears to be dry stinks of stagnant water. Wood chips from the playground become hard and compact.
Families using Rotary Park on July 4 packed their belongings at the first sign of rain.
But just a seven-minute car ride northwest, those celebrating the holiday in Westminster City Park showed no weather anxiety, seeming to disregard the storm clouds forming above.
People from across the Denver metro area flocked to City Park in hope of catching the fireworks display. There were residents from Broomfield, Northglenn, Thornton and the newer part of Westminster. The space is large — 205 acres — with nice baseball and softball diamonds, an 18-hole disc golf course and a skatepark. Green fields used for soccer and free concerts sprawl in every direction. Trails lead from the park to other nearby open spaces.
After interviews with dozens of people, two things became clear: Westminster City Park is beloved, and the people who live in the neighborhoods of south Westminster weren’t among the people waiting for the fireworks to start. Those setting up their tents were coming from areas with grand parks of their own.
Make your own fun on the street, in the parking lot
A 12-minute car ride to the southeast from City Park, south Westminster families were making their own Independence Day celebration near The Farm. A local food truck, Chikihanas, offered spicy, hibachi-inspired plates to its hungry customers. An elotero and a paletero rang their bells to signal favorite street foods for sale: street corn and popsicles.
From the top of the hill, the metro’s bright displays burst through the thick layer of smoke across the horizon. To the west, Shaw Heights lit up as families lined the streets to shoot off their own shells. In the middle of Federal Boulevard and West 84th Avenue, individuals lit their own fireworks, the pop of bottle rockets and the whistle of fountains filling the spaces between cars parked in front of a rundown shopping plaza.
Lana and Jason Cangialosi and their two children chose to watch the fireworks on top of the hill right next to The Farm. The family moved four years ago to Shaw Heights from the hip Highland neighborhood in Denver.
“A lot of people congregate on the top of the hill along the side of the road and it kind of becomes this nice communal gathering,” Jason said. “We don’t have to go anywhere.”
The family has found a sense of community in Shaw Heights, but there are also logistical issues with traveling across the city to a park that is better for their 4-year-old twins.
“It is a big haul to park somewhere and trek into a park,” Jason said.
The Cangialosi family, like many other families in the neighborhood, still uses outdoor spaces in the neighborhood, though Lana said the parks have too little shade and are already overcrowded.
Though plans for the Uplands development promise new parks, many people in the neighborhood see it as taking away an irreplaceable open space.
Residents worry the Uplands development is going to make the area more congested, and many worry the newly built outdoor spaces, described by the city as 40 acres of public parks, open space and view corridors, will not welcome families who already live in the neighborhood.
Shaw Heights exists as a single community, but the neighborhood straddles the Adams County line. Westminster makes note of this, offering a map and the note that Shaw Heights is served by the Hyland Hills Recreation District.
Even without seeing the map, Wycoff has felt this dynamic for years. He expresses real concern for children of color who might want to use the proposed park areas in Uplands.
“I think that’s exactly how the park is going to turn out, not a park for everyone,” Wycoff said.
The Colorado Sun works regularly with the University of Colorado’s News Corps, led by Chuck Plunkett, to showcase the work of student journalists. Evaristo Gomez Jr. and Emily Nelson pursued this story as part of a larger look at the implications of rapidly disappearing open spaces in cities along the Front Range.