Denver Direct: City-School Property Trade Questionable

Saturday, November 3, 2012

City-School Property Trade Questionable

News and Opinion

By Dave Felice

At first view, a proposed exchange of land between Denver and the school district promises laudable benefits – victims’ assistance and better schools — to which few people would be opposed.  But there are several questionable factors in the transaction.

In putting forth the deal just prior to an election for tax increases, both the city and the school district are making campaign promises, essentially saying to voters, “if you approve the tax increases, we’ll give you a new school in far southeast Denver and a new victims assistance center near the courthouse downtown.”

Denver Public Schools (DPS) is asking Denver Parks and Recreation to “de-designate” nine acres of Hentzell Park‘s designated Wildlife Open Space, on land at East Girard and South Havana, so DPS can build an elementary school.  In exchange for park land, DPS will give the city an office building at 1330 Fox Street.  The building would house the city’s Domestic Violence Center, which Mayor Michael B. Hancock has considered a high priority since taking office in 2011.

The property at Hentzell Park is not a “dedicated” park which would require a vote (Denver City Charter, Section 2.4.5).  However, DPS needs to have the Parks and Recreation Board (PRAB) offer a recommendation to the Parks manager, according to DPR rules adopted in 2001.  DPR would be following the letter, but not the spirit, of the law, intended to keep as much open space as possible in a city which is already severely deficient in the amount of available park land.
If it were not for DPR’s own rules, the deal would be done and only a few people inside city government and the school district would know about the trade.
Then there’s J.T. (James) Allen ([email protected]).  He’s an administrator for the property swap, but he’s also a member of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.  At a recent Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation committee meeting, Allen showed not even the slightest hint that he saw any conflict of interest, or that he should step out of his PRAB role, or at the very least, recuse himself from voting.
The PRAB will conduct a “public hearing” on the matter November 8.

The deal is being presented as if it is already concluded.  DPS and the city administration claim everyone would benefit if both government entities gets what they want.  The mayor has four appointees on the PRAB, including Marcus Pachner, an agent for development companies.  Although it is impossible to count votes, many other PRAB appointees represent City Council members sympathetic to Mayor Hancock.

The school district also promises to do community “outreach” in the area around the proposed new school, but fails to acknowledge that this is a matter of importance to all the citizens of Denver.  Everyone votes on a school bond, but DPS limits the distribution of information to a handful of organizations in the “affected neighborhoods.”

Actual details of this one matter are buried deep within the details of the massive bond proposal, and voters are unlikely to pay close attention.  According to its minutes, the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation Parks Committee (INC PARC) “requested all Denver residents be informed that this would be part of the bond issue vote, as it affects us all, and that should this trade go through, it must be clearly designated for this particular case only.”

Details of the proposal are posted in links in the column at the right of the PRAB web page:

Under the Rules, this land was designated as a Natural Area because it has important geologic or biologic characteristics that should be preserved for Denver’s present and future citizens.  (See the “Criteria” section of the Rules and Regulations document.) 

There is nothing in these criteria, or anywhere in the Rules, that suggests it is appropriate to use Designated Natural Areas for municipal structures or school buildings.  Building on the land is directly contrary to preserving an important natural area.  Indeed, the City’s overview of this proposed de-designation candidly states that the purpose of the original designation was to “ensure the protection of critical habitats and landscapes found on City property.”

While the Domestic Violence Center is a worthy project, it should not be accomplished by destroying a Designated Natural Area.  Instead, the City should buy 1330 Fox Street from DPS, and DPS should use that money to acquire an appropriate site for the new public school that is not in a Designated Natural Area.  If DPR were being asked to swap a parcel of Designated Natural Area for a critical parcel needed by DPR to fulfill its parks and recreation mission, it might be worthy of consideration.  Instead, DPR is being asked to give away this precious, scarce natural habitat for uses that have nothing to do with parks and recreation.

The INC PARC meeting minutes also state:  “PARC does not condone giving up Park space unless similar park or open space is established elsewhere, and pointed out that a growing population also needs more open space, not less, and that this ‘trade’ would set a very bad precedent.  PARC recommended that if a school is built adjoining the remainder of the open space, learning and using this natural area become an integral part of the curriculum, fostering preservation of natural open space and wildlife territory.”

The school district claims a new elementary school and Early Childhood Education (ECE) facility is badly needed to serve a booming population in Council District 4, represented by Peggy Lehmann.  According to DPS, no other location has been found for a new school.  If a bond issue passes on Nov. 6, there will be funds for this construction.

The “No on 3B” campaign ( complains the Hentzell Park site is part of an inequitable distribution of bond funds.  For example, according to the campaign, 32 percent of new capacity funds are going to the Stapleton area in northeast Denver and another large portion is marked for the southeast area.  The campaign also points out that the 74-member advisory board appointed by DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, consists primarily of land developers, private land foundations, and law firms, which will reap a development windfall with passage of the bond issue. 

There is some ambiguity on the approval process.  Parks and Recreation seems to be unclear, perhaps intentionally, on what to actually call the land in question.

Denver Revised Municipal Code sections 39-191 and 39-192 ( address “Natural Areas.”

Apparently, the Manager of Parks and Recreation has all of the power to adopt rules relating to designation, preservation, and other activities relating to natural areas on “city park land” or “city property.”  If “city property” means Hentzell Park natural area, the Manager’s power is “subject to any executive order or interdepartmental agreements directing or allowing the designation and preservation of city property as natural areas.”   

So, assuming this means the Manager has the final say on designating and de-designating the Hentzell Park natural area – after receiving, but not necessarily following, the PRAB recommendation – the Manager who serves at the pleasure of the Mayor has to decide to tell the Mayor he can sell or swap this natural area and allow it to be turned into a school building site. 

If City Council were to exercise authority over the sale of public land, by way of an ordinance (, it could mean the Mayor would be unable to accomplish his plan unilaterally.
Some park and animal rights advocates also complain that the city’s campaign to eradicate prairie dogs at Stapleton leaves the Hentzell Park natural area as the only refuge for the animals.  Eliminating the prairie dogs has a much larger impact on the natural ecosystem, according to the complaint.

The Denver Parks and Recreation Advisory Board will conduct its Public Hearing on November 8 at at the Wellington Webb Municipal Building, 201 West Colfax Avenue.  Those attending should use the Court Street entrance and be prepared to go through security screening.