Hentzell Park flap: Should Denver trade open space for offices?

Peggy Lehmann.jpg
Five years ago, Denver park officials thought highly enough of a little-known parcel of open space along the Cherry Creek corridor, containing some of the last traces of native prairie vegetation to be found in the city, to officially designate it as a natural area. But now, Mayor Michael Hancock's administration is keen on swapping nine acres of the site for an office building downtown -- and some neighbors and park activists are fuming over the proposed deal.

City officials say it's kismet. Denver Public Schools wants the land, located west of Havana and Yale, for a new elementary school. In exchange, the city gets a DPS office building at 13th and Fox, 40,000 square feet that Mayor Hancock wants to transform into a "family justice center," a one-stop shop housing various agencies that provide services to victims of domestic violence.

"All in all, I think it's a win-win," says city councilwoman Peggy Lehmann, whose district surrounding Paul A. Hentzell Park is squeezed for classroom space for a growing population of schoolkids. "There's going to be lots of natural area left after we build this school. We're only taking 11.5 acres, and part of that is going to be a playground and a ball field. Those are things the community needs."

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Polly Reetz.
But critics of the swap, which includes a city-owned parking area as well as the nine acres of open space, say it sets a bad precedent -- and exposes how vulnerable some of the more recently acquired Denver parks and open space lands can be to conversion to other uses without a popular vote. "Natural areas are pretty precious," says Polly Reetz, conservation chairman for the Audubon Society of Greater Denver. "This was designated as a natural area for specific reasons, and those reasons have not gone away. The city was supposed to do restoration work and hasn't, but that doesn't mean it should be given away."

Park officials have described the tract as damaged goods, largely because of the presence of a prairie dog colony that makes it difficult to manage. (The Parks and Recreation department's sole wildlife ecologist was laid off last year.) But defenders say the naturalness of the area is the point; a position paper by an ad hoc group calling itself Advocates for Denver Parks says the department's failure to proceed with its management plan for the area and subsequent effort to turn the land over to DPS has "unearthed serious problems with the way in which Denver parkland is classified and protected."

Continue for more about the Hentzell Park meeting tonight.

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