Denver church involved in battle over redevelopment of golf course for affordable housing

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 21, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] Voters in Denver, Colorado, when they head to the polls next month, will help settle a heated and at times volatile debate over a proposed redevelopment of a former golf course that closed in 2018. Opponents have sparred openly with supporters in the adjacent Northeast Park Hill neighborhood, who see the development as a potential boon for housing, services and economic improvements in the underserved area.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, located in South Park Hill, is part of a coalition of community organizations that has been active in supporting Northeast Park Hill residents in negotiating an agreement with the developer. Their support for a mixed-use redevelopment of the 155-acre Park Hill Golf Course also has subjected the Episcopal congregation to verbal attacks from opponents, who prefer to turn the entire property into parkland.

“This project is unique because it’s a privately owned piece of land, but the city of Denver has an easement on it that says it’s supposed to be a golf course in perpetuity,” the Rev. Terri Hobart, rector at St. Thomas, told Episcopal News Service. The ballot initiative in the April 4 election asks voters if the city should lift the easement to enable the proposed redevelopment.

St. Thomas is an unequivocal “yes” on that question. Hobart, on behalf of her congregation, was among the community coalition leaders who signed what is known as the Park Hill Community Benefits Agreement. The agreement with the developer reflects priorities identified by the local residents themselves, including affordable housing units, preferences for minority-owned businesses, protections against gentrification and space for a grocery store in a part of the city that is known as a food desert.

Terri Hobart

The Rev. Terri Hobart is rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Denver, Colorado. Photo: St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Hobart said it is natural for faith communities like St. Thomas Episcopal Church to stand in support of such a project, which offers an opportunity to rejuvenate the racially diverse, lower- and middle-income neighborhoods near the golf course. The coalition of supportive community organizations includes the Greater Denver Interfaith Alliance, as well as the Northeast Denver Islamic Center, where Muslim leaders also have faced some attacks for signing the development agreement.

St. Thomas and other coalition partners aren’t looking to speak for the residents, Hobart said, but rather to bolster residents’ capacity to advocate their own interests in the debate over the golf course’s future. In signing the agreement, the coalition partners committed to enforcing its terms if the project moves forward.

Since Jan. 23, when the Denver City Council accepted the terms of the redevelopment and agreed to send the easement question to voters, St. Thomas has encouraged Denver residents to vote “yes,” a stance displayed proudly on the signs posted in the grass outside the church. The congregation has had to replace several signs that were stolen by opponents, Hobart said. She also described a scene one Sunday after a service, when she was confronted outside the church by a woman who spent several minutes shouting at her for the church’s support of the redevelopment.

Opponents of the redevelopment include former Mayor Wellington Webb and state Rep. Leslie Herod, who is now running for mayor, according to the Denverite. “Conservation easements have significant value,” Herod told the news website. “We have so little undeveloped land left in the city and Denver is ready to move past the era where developers dictate the future of our city. I’m committed to ensuring there is visionary community engagement and participation from day one as we shape our city’s future.”

At an event held in the neighborhood early this month, Webb rallied other redevelopment opponents behind the campaign to defeat the ballot initiative. “Denver is not for sale,” he said, according to the Denverite. “We can’t allow developers to try to buy our votes and buy who we are. So we’re going to have to work twice as hard, those of us that believe that land and open space and park space is important. Vote no.”

A conservation group also has filed a lawsuit seeking to ensure the restrictions on developing the golf course remain in place, regardless of the outcome of the April 4 election.

The St. Thomas congregation, meanwhile, is “so united” behind the redevelopment and isn’t backing down in what it sees as a social justice cause, Hobart said. “The more [opponents] push back, the stronger the congregation gets in doing this.”

St. Thomas

St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Denver, Colorado, has proudly shown its support for a ballot initiative that would pave the way for redevelopment of the nearby Park Hill Golf Course. Photo: Terri Hobart

The proposed redevelopment has exposed a rift in progressive Denver politics, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than four to one. In the golf course debate, both sides claim the high road. Some opponents stress the dwindling property available for green space in the city at a time when climate change is an increasing concern. They want the city to use its leverage to preserve all 155 acres of the former golf course as open space.

The development would include up to 3,200 new housing units, and proponents have cited the lack of affordable housing in Denver, part of a nationwide crisis in which home prices are rising and demand exceeds supply.

“Every American city has a housing supply problem, but each city’s housing supply problem is unique,” Jeffery Hayward, chief administrative officer of mortgage financing agency Fannie Mae, wrote in an October 2022 introduction to a report on the problem. The report noted that new housing construction in the United States nosedived after the Great Recession of 2008 and has yet to rebound, leaving a nationwide shortage of nearly 4 million units for sale or rent as of 2019. Since then, pandemic shortages in construction supplies only worsened the problem.

A July 2022 article by the Economic Policy Institute also placed some of the blame on “land availability and exclusionary zoning laws, which restrict the kinds of homes that can be put in certain neighborhoods — maintaining segregation.”

Colorado has been described as dealing with one of the nation’s most severe housing shortages, with 127,000 more units needed to meet demand, according to an analysis by the housing policy organization UpForGrowth. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce has identified affordable housing as one of its top three policy priorities, warning the shortage hit “crisis” levels in Colorado’s capital city.

Denver is the state’s largest city at more than 700,000 residents, up from 600,000 a decade ago. In 2022, the median sale price of an existing home in the metro area was about $670,000, compared to a national median of $393,000, according to the National Association of Realtors. Census data show Denver’s median household income of $78,000 is only modestly higher than the national average of $69,000.

“Due to elevated prices and rising interest rates, the affordability of purchasing a home is at its lowest point in more than 33 years,” the Denver chamber says in its 2023 policy platform. “The reality is that Colorado has failed to build enough housing to keep up with demand. In the Metro Denver area, the deficit ranges between 64,000 and 129,000 units.”

Housing also was one of the first issued underscored by Gov. Jared Polis in January during his State of the State speech.

“Many Coloradans are struggling to find a place where they can afford to live. Many more are being forced out of their neighborhoods with no hope of ever living close to where they work,” Polis said. “We need an approach that creates more housing now, protects Colorado’s resources and reduces sprawl.” Flexible zoning and streamlined regulations were among the policy approaches he recommended for addressing the problem.

Residents of Northeast Park Hill also have suffered from years of social and economic disinvestment in their neighborhood. “They’ve been sort of victims of policies that are really rooted in systemic racism over decades,” Hobart said. The easement on the golf course “gave them leverage that they never had before” to negotiate a beneficial deal with the developer.

The Park Hill Community Benefit Agreement notes that gentrification and “divestment from government and financial institutions” has driven economic decline in the surrounding neighborhoods, while a shortage of housing coincides with the lack of a full-service grocery store in the neighborhood.

The agreement states that the developer, the Delaware-based ACM Park Hill, would establish at least 25% of housing units for lower-income residents, based on income restrictions that would be in place for at least a century. The full scope of the project “will serve a variety of price points and residents,” according to a summary of the agreement.  ACM also committed $150,000 to seek minority-owned and women-owned businesses to provide some of the project’s design and construction work. Upon completion, at least 12,000 square feet of commercial space would be offered to similarly led businesses at below-market rates.

Under the agreement, ACM also would establish a Property Tax Anti-Displacement Fund, “to support residents facing increasing property taxes within a half mile of the Park Hill Golf Course.” The development would feature more than 100 acres of parkland and recreational facilities, including a bike and pedestrian trail and sports fields through a partnership with the city’s parks department.

The developer also said it would work with community leaders to solicit a credit union or other financial institution to serve local residents, and a portion of the property will be reserved for a grocery store and donated when a grocery business is selected for the parcel.

ACM expects to take at least 15 years to complete its development of the property. The agreement says it would alleviate economic disparities by “expanding economic development opportunities and commercial space … create a hub for community relationship-building and combat displacement and the legacy of redlining by committing substantial resources to the surrounding community.”

Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali of Northeast Denver Islamic Center told Denverite that he rejects the portrayal of the issue as “green vs. concrete.”

“The whole community is supposed to suffer and not have a dignified place to live with a supermarket and bank and businesses because the people we’re talking about want open space? Come on,” he said, adding that most of the space would remain open under the development agreement, creating the fourth-largest park in the city.

The attacks on religious leaders who back the project show that interfaith voices still matter in public policy debates, Hobart said. “I’m really proud of my congregation for being willing to take this stand and to weather all of this.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at