City Shelves Fairfax Land Swap, Cites Lack Of Public Process
By Cara DeGette
Denver Parks and Recreation Director Happy Haynes has announced her department has backed away from supporting a controversial land swap between the city and a private developer for a pocket park on Fairfax Street.
The proposed deal, which was crafted without public input, would have given developer Ben Maxwell of HM Capital the former Xcel Energy substation property on the west side of Fairfax between 28th and 29th avenues for future development. In exchange, Maxwell agreed to build a park on the east side of the street inside his block-long residential and commercial project, called Park Hill Commons.
During a Feb. 22 meeting at Stedman Elementary School, Haynes confirmed that the city did not follow correct procedure.
“I want to apologize to the community for not following the same process we often do … to determine what the community needs and desires with regard to developing a park site,” said Haynes. “We put the cart before the horse.”
The city obtained the former substation, which is about one-third of an acre, for $50,000 in 2016. Parks and Recreation deputy director Scott Gilmore announced plans for a modest park, possibly a dog park. Later that year, the developer met privately with Councilman Chris Herndon, whose district includes Park Hill.
HM Capital offered to pay for and build the park as long as it was on the east side of the street, inside the development project. Gilmore has since maintained that it could be seven years or more before the city could afford to build the park in its original location. For more than a year, both Gilmore and Herndon have appeared with the developer in public forums, expressing enthusiastic support for the deal.
Asked during the Feb. 22 meeting whether the city’s support for the land swap was being rescinded, Haynes noted that she could not speak for Councilman Herndon. But, she underscored, “There is no deal.”
Herndon, who was in attendance, did not address the group. He left shortly after Haynes finished speaking.
Haynes’s comments came several weeks after the board of Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. wrote to her and to Herndon, asking them to clarify the city’s plans. The letter also noted that the Park Hill Neighborhood Plan, which was adopted in 2000, specifies that, “Changes to parks and open space should be decided in a neighborhood forum.”
“Our purpose is to ensure that the adjacent neighbors’ priorities and wishes for the features of a pocket park in their neighborhood are heard, documented, and published.” The letter, which was approved unanimously at the Feb. 1 GPHC community meeting was signed by 26 board members of the Registered Neighborhood Organization. (The full letter can be read here.)
GPHC has also hosted several community meetings to discuss developing the pocket park at its original proposed site on the west side of the street. Many longtime residents living nearby are African American and working class. Many have expressed concerns that they would not feel welcome in a park on the east side that would be surrounded by the developer’s upscale restaurants, retail shops and townhomes.
“A park is a place that, in my view, brings people together and helps define the neighborhood,” Haynes said. Her hope, she said, is for a park that will honor the diverse community that has been in the neighborhood for generations, as well as be welcoming to newcomers.
Several people in attendance wondered whether HM Capital would support both a park on the west side of the street and also open space inside its development. The developer’s park – with water features, a climbing wall, a grassy area and flanked on two sides by restaurants with patios – has been part of the original design since Maxwell first unveiled the plans nearly a year and a half ago.
“Ben [Maxwell] could come out a big hero on this,” said Denise Washington, who has been working with neighbors to design the park on the west side of Fairfax, at the site of the former Xcel station.
After the meeting, Maxwell said if the land swap does not go through, he will not build a park or open space in his development. Instead, he will build out the entire block. “I am more than frustrated and sad it has gone this way,” he said.
The next day, HM Capital published a social media survey on a neighborhood Facebook page, urging people to fill out a survey expressing support for the entire development project. The first phase, to include 21 townhomes, broke ground in late February. Expected completion for the first phase, Maxwell said, is next year.
The city parks and recreation department has scheduled three additional meetings seeking public input for the park. Dates will be Tuesday, March 13, Tuesday, April 3 and Tuesday, April 17. All begin at 5:30 p.m. and all will be at Stedman Elementary School, at 2930 Dexter St.