Park Hill Golf Course’s future reimagined — by sixth graders (Local News and Reviews)

On a chilly December day, sixth graders from Denver Green School Northfield stepped off of buses. They broke up into groups and began wandering around the now-defunct Park Hill Golf Course.

The dry grass at the 155 acres of Northeast Park Hill crunched under their feet.

This is the third batch of students that teacher and Northeast Park Hill resident Matt Suprunowicz has brought to the former golf course as part of an literacy class unit on dystopian fiction — and utopian solutions for the world’s ills: a housing crisis, a climate crisis and food insecurity. The students are asking a big question: How to make this land benefit the surrounding communities.

Students from the Denver Green School explore the Park Hill Golf Course during a field trip to reimagine what the space could become. Dec. 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

As they looked around, some said they could imagine a skatepark, community gardens, splash pads and playgrounds. Others wanted basketball and tennis courts.

They’re thrilled to see all the possibilities on this surprisingly large plot of land in a neighborhood where long-term residents have faced displacement and lacked a grocery store for decades.

The students are eager to hear each other’s ideas. Nobody’s fighting. It’s pure creativity.

Denver Green School students Brit (left to right), Isaiah, Rylie and Vivian explore the Park Hill Golf Course during a field trip to reimagine the space. Dec. 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

In contrast, adults have been clashing over the land’s future since Westside Investment Partners bought the land in 2019 (and to a lesser extent, for decades before).

Should it be a golf course? A mixed-use development with housing, retail and a park? Or perhaps something else?

The issue comes to a head on April 4, when Denver will vote on whether a conservation easement that protects the land as a golf course and open space should be lifted and development allowed.

The Park Hill Golf Course. Dec. 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The runup to the election has been rough. Signs have been stolen. Slurs have been screamed. Lawsuits have been filed. Both sides of this fight have accused each other of deceit, corruption and moral failure.

But on that December day, those sixth graders set a more collegial example of how to discuss the empty, underused plot of land.

Vivian Barney said she wants it to “stay a park.” What sorts of features would she like? Perhaps slides… and maybe a cemetery “for the loved ones.”

Evan Wurst wants to see income-restricted housing built across the site.

Denver Green School students pore over documents about the Park Hill Golf Course during a field trip to reimagine the space. Dec. 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“Other people need affordable housing, versus some people just wanting to have a golf course or open space,” he said.

“Well, me and my group were thinking we could put like a big kind of like main plaza area as a centerpiece surrounded by small mom-and-pop restaurants and housing on the far edges,” said Will Freyman.

Denver Green School students arrive at the Park Hill Golf Course for a field trip to reimagine the space. Dec. 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Some students were allergic to the idea of dense housing. They worried about the animals that lived on the land and hated to see trees cut down. Others thought the land was an eyesore, the trees and grass looked dead, and the area could be used much better to benefit the community. Almost everybody objected to fast food restaurants and other chains opening on the site.

Other students love the idea of locally owned businesses, farmers markets, and housing every day Denverites can actually afford. And many students wanted to see public spaces where people could connect, shop, dine and build community.

The Park Hill Golf Course clubhouse. Dec. 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

After wandering the land, jotting down notes on their own ideas and reading up on the history of the Park Hill Golf Course redevelopment, the students headed to the clubhouse to hear from Kenneth Ho, a principal with Westside and a developer on the project.

Ho laid out his argument for developing the space: Golf is environmentally atrocious. Courses use 106 million gallons of water a year, 6,000 pounds of fertilizers and 1,600 pounds of pesticides, he said.

“We don’t think that that’s a good use of the land because we know that, in the West, we’re definitely experiencing a water crisis,” Ho said. Westside plans to replace Kentucky Bluegrass with “a more drought tolerant plant palette” and add a pollinator district created by the Butterfly Pavilion.

Andrew, a Denver Green School Student (left) questions Kenneth Ho, principal of Westside Investment Partners, during a field trip to the Park Hill Golf Course. Dec. 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Because the former golf course is near the 40th and Colorado A Line stop and a future Colorado Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit line, building apartments and condos on the site makes environmental sense, Ho said. And Denver’s in a housing crisis, and the 2,500 homes — at least 25% of which would be income-restricted — are much needed. And that’s way more income-restricted housing than the developer would be required to build.

“In this plan, we’re actually going to create new parks and open space,” Ho said. That will include “the fourth largest park in the city.”

Denver Green School students listen as Kenneth Ho, principal of Westside Investment Partners, gives a presentation about the Park Hill Golf Course. Dec. 6, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The students were impressed with Ho’s ideas — and many of them matched what they wanted. Though some wondered whether Westside would be able to pull it off.

A few weeks later, developers with Westside and the Holleran Group visited the Denver Green School Northfield to hear the students’ ideas.

Students — some as individuals and others as pairs — stood in front of developers and began pitching their visions for the site.

Westside Development Partners principal Kenneth Ho (from right) and Norman Harris III watch as Denver Green School students present ideas on how to transform the Park Hill Golf Course into utopia. Jan. 12, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“In the Park Hill neighborhood, there is 155 acres of pretty much untouched land in which you guys can do pretty much anything you want,” said Elliot Howell. “In the way of housing, we thought that there should be a variety townhomes, apartments, condos, family homes, but all affordable based upon how much you are earning in a year.”

That’s bigger than Westside’s current plan, which will include just 25% income-restricted housing.

Denver Green School student Rory McCune presents ideas on how to transform the Park Hill Golf Course into utopia. Jan. 12, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Vivian Howel’s preferred housing type: townhouses.

“In this neighborhood, there is a problem with gentrification, and if we want to stop that, we need affordable and quality housing,” she said. “I also think we should have different colors and shapes to represent that everyone is different in their own special way.”

May Marshall’s pitch to the developers included plenty of amenities for kids.

Denver Green School student Rory McCune presents ideas on how to transform the Park Hill Golf Course into utopia. Jan. 12, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“Some things that we thought about adding would be a fountain for kids to play on sculptures, playgrounds, a garden, a splash pad for the summer,” she said. “There will be stoplights and fake streets where kids could bring a bike, a scooter and more to the park and practice the rules of the road.”

Leah Proctor has a vision for better food security.

“Seeing as a food desert is a really big problem in this community, there’ll be three fresh produce stores,” she said. Her ideal neighborhood would include both King Soopers and Sprouts, where people could buy fresh and affordable produce and hygiene products.

Denver Green School students Mae Marshall (left) and Madilyn Lee present ideas on how to transform the Park Hill Golf Course into utopia. Jan. 12, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

That also goes beyond what Westside has planned. The firm promises space for one grocery store — though there’s no guarantee that one will actually exist.

As they speak, Ho and his colleagues are excited about the possibilities the students see.

“I love how you guys think about this through the eyes of potential and what can happen,” he said.

Voters have until April 4 to decide whether Westside’s vision is the one that should prevail. And the kids will be watching eagerly to see what the adults in the city decide — and whether their ideas turn into a reality.

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