Endorsement: Park Hill golf course development is a sweetheart deal that lacks financial accountability

Editor’s note: This represents the opinion of The Denver Post editorial board, which is separate from the paper’s news operation. 

Everyone knows conservation easements have value.

Everyone, it seems, except for the 11 Denver City Council members and Mayor Michael Hancock, who have green-lighted a sweetheart deal to lift the conservation easement on the Park Hill golf course without accounting for the financial value of the easement.

We exclude from this criticism City Councilmembers Candi CdeBaca and Paul Kashmann, who opposed the deal. They were the only watchdogs guarding the farm and, outnumbered, couldn’t prevent a bad deal from getting rubber-stamped.

Fortunately, Denver voters will have the final say on the issue next month when asked whether to lift the conservation easement on 155 acres of land in north Denver on the corner of Colorado Boulevard and East 55th Avenue. A “yes” vote on Referred Measure 2O will lift the easement and allow development on 55 acres of the land owned by Westside Investment Partners and The Holleran Group. The remaining 100 acres will be donated to the city for a regional park.

A private developer is asking to lift a publicly owned conservation easement. This project will set an important precedent for the entire state, and it is crucial that we build a roadmap to serve the public good.

We find it inexcusable that the city never appraised the value of the easement — owned by the taxpayers of Denver.

Absent an official appraisal done by licensed professionals, we used nearby property sales of vacant land zoned for single-family and light industrial uses to come up with our own estimate. Using our method, we estimate the market value to be $3.5 million per acre for land the city has rezoned to mixed-use as part of the development agreement. Westside paid $154,838 per acre in 2019. The difference between the two puts the value of the easement on the 55 acres Westside intends to keep and develop somewhere around $184 million.

Do all of the wonderful things in the community benefits agreement and the city’s development agreement come close enough to compensate for that value?

We were shocked to learn the city also did not account for the value of the donations and concessions in the agreements. Westside did not give an accounting other than a broad range estimate of $250 million. We were told that included the value of the easement being lifted on the 100 acres for a park, but we consider that to be a wash because the city already owns the easement.

Our accounting falls well short of that. Here is what we found:

— Value of 100 acres donated for a park: $15.5 million (what Westside paid in 2018)

— Value of park improvements Westside will pay: $20 million

— Value of land for a grocery store offered rent-free for 10 years: unknown

— Value of Pathways Initiative to help local companies owned by people who are Black, Indigenous, people of color, local, or women that could contract for work on the development: $150,000

— Value of 12,000 square feet of commercial square footage offered below market value for companies owned by BIPOC, women, or local business owners: unknown

— Value of a Property Tax Anti-Displacement Fund that will pay for the increased property taxes of low-income homes in a half-mile radius of the development for a period of 8 years: unknown

— Value of 7.8 acres Westside will donate to Habitat for Humanity, where the nonprofit will finance and build 300 for-sale permanently income-restricted units: $27.3 million.

— Value of the .7 acres to be donated to Brothers Redevelopment, where the non-profit will build 60 units for permanent supportive housing: $2.5 million.

— Value of land being sold or donated to Volunteers of America for the nonprofit to build 60 income-restricted units for seniors: unknown

— Value of 1.4 acres being sold to Brothers Redevelopment below market value for the non-profit to build 200 rental units that will be permanently affordable based on income: unknown.

The city has also demanded several improvements to interchanges impacted by the increase in traffic for the development, but those projects will be paid for by future property taxpayers in the development through a metropolitan district managed by the developer. The estimated value of the metro district is $84 million, and it can pay for other infrastructure needs than those demanded by the city.

The value of all the known and estimated donations and concessions listed above is about $65.5 million.

We are skeptical that the value of all the unknown or unquantifiable concessions brings the total close enough to $184 million just to call it good.

We cannot support a deal that treated a city-owned asset of substantial value so haphazardly. We cannot support a deal where elected officials failed to ask basic questions guarding the interests of taxpayers.

The Park Hill golf course development could become a regional jewel, a beautiful park, and a vibrant retail and business heart of the community. There is a risk of rejecting this plan. The land could sit vacant and languish for years.

But there is still time for the city to put the question on the ballot again in November. We hope our skepticism is proven wrong. There is no need to start over. A simple appraisal and financial accounting will clarify what must be contributed to the public good to make this a deal worth our support.

We urge a “no” vote on 2O. Send the city back to the negotiating table.

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