On Tuesday, 60% of Denver’s voters voted against redeveloping the Park Hill Golf Course, a 155-acre property that has been vacant for five years, into affordable housing. The measure, known as Referred Question 20, would have lifted a conservation easement that keeps the property a golf course. If approved, the redevelopment plan would have included housing, 25% at least dedicated as affordable or income-restricted; a grocery store; and a park. The site is near a train station too. In the long war between NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard residents) and YIMBYs (yes-in-my-backyard residents) and what should be developed in certain people’s neighborhoods, critics are saying this marks a new low.
“The Park Hill Golf Course will forever be a case study in missed opportunities,” Bill Rigler, a spokesperson for the Yes on 20 campaign, told the Denver Post. “With historically low turnout, Denver has rejected its single best opportunity to build new affordable housing and create new public parks. Thousands of Denverites who urgently need more affordable housing are now at even greater risk of displacement.”
The reason tempers are running so high about what is still ultimately a small-scale housing proposal is that the tendency of the last several decades by local NIMBYs to block development is running headfirst into an increasingly dire national housing shortage. Denver is no exception, as was found in a recent study by the Common Sense Institute, a right-leaning think tank, which put housing affordability in the city at an all-time low, projecting a shortage of between 13,000 to 30,000 units. The loss of around 3,000 units from this golf-course conversion is a drop in the bucket, but local YIMBYs are asking: If we can’t start with an empty golf course, where can we begin to make up the housing shortage?
Of the 106,588 total votes, 39.82% voted for and 60.18% voted against. The owners of the golf course, Westside Investment Partners, had claimed it would ease housing affordability, and pro-development advocates largely echoed their claim. YIMBY Denver advocate Tobin Stone told libertarian magazine Reason that with an abandoned golf course like this, the best thing to do to address housing affordability is to “approve every big development that comes before us.”
Meanwhile, those who opposed the measure argued that redevelopment of the golf course would negatively impact the city’s environment, a common NIMBY tactic. Harry Doby, a member of the Save Open Spaces group, told Reason that the “environmental impact of developing on green space instead of walking across the street and developing those hundreds of acres made no sense whatsoever.” But some also argued that the redevelopment could further the risk of gentrification, voicing concerns of the redevelopment inadvertently raising property taxes, according to the Denver Post, which also opposed the development, as expressed in an editorial.
A measure of the unusual nature of the debate around this development was the opposition of councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, Denver’s only elected member of the Democratic Socialists of America, who insisted it didn’t have enough affordable housing and also invoked environmental concerns. DSA members in other cities have been at odds with YIMBYs before, as in the case of San Francisco, where tempers boiled over into a shouting match at a 2017 panel called “Political Dynamics of Housing.”
YIMBY Denver, a local pro-development group, sarcastically tweeted about the vote results on Wednesday: “Look [at] it this way Denver, at least we’ll have a transit-oriented golf course. Think of the emission savings from golfers being able to ride the A line to play 18.”
To be sure, this is likely far from the last episode of the NIMBY/YIMBY wars that have come to define local debates over housing policy over the last few years. The ground zero of NIMBYism is farther west, in Northern California, where billionaire investor Marc Andreessen, famously the author of a blog post called “It’s Time to Build” that advocated America embracing large-scale projects again, led intense opposition to multifamily zoning in his backyard of Atherton, which is regularly ranked among the wealthiest communities in the U.S. In nearby Berkeley, the first city to pass the archetypal NIMBY zoning requiring that only single-family homes be built in the city, YIMBYs struck a huge victory in early 2021 with the repeal of the century-old law.
But leaving an empty golf course untouched, rather than build a few thousand units? That just might be a new low.