Park Hill golf course a large opportunity & delicate balancing act

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Steve Ferris
Steve Ferris, Founder and principal, Real Estate Garage, Denver

This the fourth in the series on Denver’s “whale sites,” defined as extremely prominent and underdeveloped land parcels whose size and location will define Denver’s future growth and development. Examples include the Burnham Yard, the former Denver Post Printing Site, Elitch Gardens, the Broadway Station Area and Denver Design District. Future pieces will look at sites in Thornton and Aurora.

Introduction

As golf and the land associated with golf transitions to our fast-changing world, it’s worth considering the fate of the Park Hill golf course. It’s very visible yet indistinctive.

Located just south of Interstate 70 in North Denver, its 155 acres run on the east side of Colorado Boulevard from Smith Road to East 35th Avenue. The land has been controlled and operated by trustees of the Clayton Trust since 1899, for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the trust. The original trustee was the city of Denver. Since the mid-1980s the trustee has been a nonprofit known as Clayton Early Learning, which promotes early childhood learning in North Denver.

The land once served as a dairy farm, opened as a golf course in 1932, and is now subject to an arrangement with the city of Denver that minimizes tax obligations and grants revenue rights to Clayton Early Learning.

With net proceeds to the golf course operator in the red, Clayton has been exploring a viable long-term plan for the land and what it represents to its mission. It recently began the process of approaching its Park Hill neighbors and the city to explore options.

This initial work has revealed a range of choices and demonstrated that the land is an amazing urban redevelopment opportunity while truly a whale site. But any change must be balanced with legacy of Clayton as well as the neighborhood, and this makes the story far from a simple real estate deal. Accepting that and the legal circumstances of the land as fact, this piece muses on what could happen on the land. These musings are no way representative of Clayton.

Background & Existing Conditions

Efforts to establish the land’s tax-free status between 1997 and 2000 resulted in an “Agency Agreement” (available online) between Clayton and the city regarding use of the land. The agreement has been described in several different ways, and there is plenty of legal detail. Summarized, it’s fair to say that both the city and Clayton must align their development objectives as Clayton’s fee interest must be balanced with a city land title that currently restricts uses but is subject to change. Luckily, both parties and the larger neighborhood are working to reach agreement on the general direction.

Given the strong interests in the neighborhood, Clayton began outreach to neighbors in April. This discussion is a needed and worthy approach to a sticky challenge whereby the economic interests of Clayton accommodate the expectations of neighborhood groups. Assuming this backdrop results in a successfully facilitated agreement, we can focus on some hypothetical options for the land.

Hypothetical Big-scale Ideas & Needs

For those living near the course, there is an understandable desire to maintain open space. Any transition from golf course use to, say, a public park would be a net gain, given that golf course land is limited to that very specific form of recreation. However, asking the city of Denver or a private operator to take on a new park of this size and scale (all 155 acres), particularly at a price desirable to Clayton, is unrealistic. Thus, a likely scenario is a plan that enshrines some portion of the south as a park and facilitates development on the north.

Any development on the north, particularly the southeast corner of East 40th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, will certainly catalyze changes around the intersection and light-rail stop. Done right, most residential property values within a half-mile of the entire property could be expected to mushroom. The car wash and gas station to the northwest would face pressure to redevelop. The existing industrial zoning between the light-rail station and the East 40th Avenue-Colorado Boulevard intersection could be replaced with three- to five-story, mixed-use zoning. The suburban-style strip retail on the northeast corner might want to consider improving its pedestrian accessibility and offer more options.

The intersection of 40th and Colorado could not only better serve the nearby light-rail stop with retail amenities but also form a new neighborhood retail center similar to South Pearl Street. In fact, comparisons to the South Pearl area are apt due to both light-rail and highway proximity. Interestingly, 40th and Colorado’s economics may be more advantageous if higher densities in close proximity are allowed.

Hypothetical Smaller-scale Development Opportunities

For conversation purposes, let’s say 50 to 100 acres of developable land result on the north and 50 to 100 acres on the south remain as recreation. This scale alone provides for an infill neighborhood meeting a range of opportunities. The parkland to the south would be an ideal site to create not only passive recreation opportunities but also much-needed additional playing fields for youth soccer, baseball and other sports. It could also serve as an ideal site to relocate and expand a recreation center – always a good fit with a nearby park. Things would get more interesting with an arrangement with a significant private athletic facility such as Lifetime Fitness.

Critical features on the northern developable portion will include affordable housing, neighborhood-serving retail and connections to the 40th & Colorado light rail station. The city will not overlook the opportunity to address both affordable housing needs and displacement caused by gentrification. Because the pedestrian crossing of both 40th and Colorado is currently somewhat treacherous, perhaps a flyover pedestrian ramp would be appropriate. While bolstering the light-rail station, a unique design would serve as a statement physical feature.

On the more fanciful side, perhaps Elon Musk or Panasonic could be approached to test a “model infill community” with net-zero energy homes, solar power, and specialized batteries serving both public and private energy needs. On the basic realism side, a focus on higher-density residential on the southeast corner of 40th and Colorado is likely, giving way to townhomes and Stapleton-style, new urbanist single-family homes to the south and east. Overall, the site is a golden opportunity to address the city’s goals of creating more affordable housing and addressing displacement caused by gentrification.

Development not positioned close to the corner of 40th and Colorado would have to respect both existing residential development to the north and industrial development on the east. In this context, it may be beneficial to consider office and/or light-industrial development along Smith Road. Last but not least, it would be fun to create a water feature on the north, perhaps serving as both as an aesthetic amenity to the new “neighborhood pocket” and as a functional piece of the Platte to Park Hill drainage plan.

Conclusion

This remarkable piece of infill is an exciting prospect but represents a significant change to the Park Hill neighborhood, the larger city and Clayton. A weighty amount of outreach to citizens and residents remains to be done. Numerous ideas for redevelopment much bolder than that presented here are likely to be generated. Homebuilders and developers are circling the site, but it is likely to take two to five years, and protracted discussions, to reach a viable plan and agreement. Complexities include neighborhood support, infrastructure financing, funding for recreation, and the potential multiparty agreement between developer(s), Clayton and the city.  The pivotal act of rezoning the land will not occur without some controversy.

Ferris’ firm, the Real Estate Garage (http://realestategarage.net), focuses on maximizing the production of real estate plans, projects and approvals, including entitlement processing coordination and rezoning. Ferris previously served as an appointee of Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, running Development Services for the city of Denver. He also has engaged in $1 billion-plus of feasibility and development management work in the private sector, and served as director of planning and town manager for the town of Telluride. He holds degrees in civil engineering from Marquette University, urban planning from Cornell University and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Denver.

Featured in CREJ’s Aug. 16-Sept. 5, 2017, issue

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