Eloy Espinoza moved to Commerce City’s Buffalo Highlands neighborhood in 2020 envisioning a suburb with space for him and his family to throw a Frisbee or kick a soccer ball.
The 316-acre master-planned community east of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge advertised a future community park, he said — a draw for residents looking for a place to settle down. As folks moved in and developers continued to build homes, Espinoza wondered where they were going to put the park.
“We’re still kind of waiting, and as we’re waiting, the builders continue to build,” Espinoza said. “It’s upsetting to me and I think the big thing is when we forecast for the future in our area, they just want to build houses and then forget about the people that live in them. I’m nervous.”
But city officials have conceded that developers no longer have plans to build the type of central community park once envisioned for Buffalo Highlands.
A deputy city manager, Jason Rogers, brought the issue to Commerce City’s City Council in December, and the council will discuss it again Monday night. Rogers told The Denver Post the situation is an unfortunate, yearslong saga in which the developer and homebuilders met the letter of the city’s park requirements, but not the spirit.
At least one City Council member is asking who within the city government is responsible for the mess as residents wonder what comes next.
“They were promised a park in that area for Buffalo Highlands and now all the development is complete,” Councilwoman Jennifer Allen-Thomas said in an interview. “It’s a big oops. There’s no more space to put the park as the original plans for the development stated, and now residents are starting to speak out and ask why…
“Who from the city was accountable for this?” she said.
The development that became Buffalo Highlands won initial approval from Commerce City in 2004, and plans submitted to the city in 2013 showed “a smaller private park and a central larger park,” according to a presentation prepared for Monday’s City Council study session.
By 2015, plans for that section of the development no longer included the large central park. The following year, they were revised to show only “minimal open space.”
Plans submitted in 2018 and 2020 for other sections of the Buffalo Highlands development designated much smaller private park locations, at least one of which has been turned into a picnic area.
The project was initiated by Buffalo Highlands LLC, which sold to Stratus Development in 2014, according to the city. Stratus went on to sell the development to the two current homebuilders: Lennar and Meritage Homes.
Hillary Leitch said the sales office for Lennar, a Florida-based home construction and real estate company, touted a future park as a selling point that convinced her and her husband to buy in Buffalo Highlands in 2019. A video advertisement for Buffalo Highlands posted on YouTube last year by Lennar still promised a “future community park.”
A representative from Lennar did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.
“We were bamboozled by the builder, and the city knew it was happening,” Leitch said.
Rogers, the deputy city manager of external services, said how the situation got to this place is complex — rife with code requirements, legal documents and land entitlements.
Commerce City code regulations state “at least 3% of all usable land in residential developments shall be set aside as private parks or open space for the use and enjoyment of the inhabitants of such development.”
The Buffalo Highlands development meets the letter of this regulation, Rogers said — just not in the form of a traditional neighborhood park one might imagine.
“How they’re making it usable is providing benches and other amenities that comply with our land development code,” Rogers said during the December City Council meeting. “It’s not the park you may be thinking about from a larger, much more community regional sense. They’re scattering smaller pockets within the overall development that may be able to handle dogs, maybe some passive art. But nothing the size or scope that we around the table may be thinking.”
According to city documents, Buffalo Highlands has 108.7 developable acres, so the city requirement calls for 3.3 acres of open space or parkland. The builders have set aside 10.8 acres of what the city refers to as “open space/private HOA park area,” which includes trails and areas with “benches, (a) tot lot and adult fitness area.”
Leitch said the land they’re considering as open space is an undevelopable floodplain.
Mayor Benjamin Huseman asked Rogers to clarify that there was no public park in the works in Buffalo Highlands where somebody could play a game of football or play catch with their son or daughter. Rogers confirmed that was correct.
“We understand the frustration,” Rogers said in an interview. “It’s unfortunate if certain materials or a message was portrayed as a different plan for the neighborhood… What I always encourage to our residents and to our prospective homebuyers is reach out to staff so we can help provide accurate and timely information so that they can make an informed decision.”
Huseman said during the council meeting that there is no funding for a public park allocated for the neighborhood and that it would take years for any current residents to see a public park built by the city within safe walking distance.
The City Council is scheduled to further discuss the Buffalo Highlands park issue during a Monday study session.
“We are currently reviewing our existing code requirements to determine what we can possibly entertain in updating those standards to better serve the needs of residents and to avoid these similar issues for our community members in future neighborhoods,” Rogers said.
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