Every May, preservation and civic organizations mark the importance of preserving buildings and spaces that tell the story of a city, town or state. Denver’s extraordinary growth has challenged how to protect places that give the city character, that remember the history of how the city grew and changed, and that honor important and well-designed buildings.
This has weighed on many people’s minds, since the push from developers, and from owners of homes they want to cash in on, have stirred up concerns throughout the city. There also is the push to scrape, replacing a home with several housing units, with the sad fate of pushing people out of their homes or resulting in housing that is not affordable. Or, tacking on facades that do not complement the building, or moving entrances that make no sense at all while destroying the architectural character.
A few years ago, there was story after story about heated preservation issues that were heard by Denver’s City Council. Those issues continue to concern many of us. What I would surmise is that members of City Council don’t like conflicts any more, which seems like something new in Denver.
Some of these issues grew from what unfortunately became known as “hostile designations,” that is, someone wants to stop the sale of a building via pursuing landmark status. Then there can be a bitter divide in a neighborhood in terms of support or opposition around designating that neighborhood as a landmark district.
At the bottom of this post, I have included links to three stories that appeared in The Denver Postof a few years ago. Reading these, it became clear that some City Council members wanted updates to Denver’s landmark ordinance. (I threw in a fourth link to a 2015 editorial that sounds as if it were written by Ayn Rand.)
In one story, the future became more focused after a battle in 2016 to save a Queen Anne home in Jefferson Park: “(City Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman) is the chairman of a committee that deals with land-use issues. With support from other council members, she said it was time to look closer at the rules for owner-opposed designations. ‘Maybe see if it doesn’t need some tweaking,’ she said, ‘and maybe a higher bar for hostile designations,’ in terms of the requirements to meet.”
Then, there was a paragraph at the end of another story about the heated division in designating the Packard’s Hill neighborhood as an historic district: “Some repeated calls for city officials to evaluate potential changes to the historic preservation process that would give opponents a more prominent voice.”
Well, you don’t have to hit me over the head in terms of what was coming next.
And so it came to be: Since March 2018, an advisory group has been meeting to discuss what Denver’s landmark ordinance should be. The final meeting – the 11th— was in March 2019. I attended seven of those meetings, hearing numerous opinions and reading a lot of documents. The landmark staff had assembled information for the committee members, and took minutes on what those members had to say. It was a diverse group, from staunch preservationists to neighborhood protectors to architects to developers. It was a thoughtful (if lengthy) process. (There is a link below to all of that material on the city’s website.)
Some of the proposed changes just clean up language and add more uniform expression, but there are three major changes that emerged from these meetings:
“To highlight Denver’s diversity and distinct cultural history through its landmarks, we’re proposing expanding the criteria for historic designation to include culture and simplifying how potential landmarks can meet the criteria. (My comment: This is intended to be more inclusive of all people in the community. In the process, this also proposes a different list of overall criteria to consider designation.)
“To address conflicts between property owners and community members due to designations submitted during demolition review, we’re updating the process to encourage collaboration by adjusting key deadlines to give all parties additional time to meet and arrive at a potential compromise. (My comment: This type of “pause” has already begun in several instances, as neighbors and preservation advocates have worked to find a new owner or somehow keep a building from being scraped. Unfortunately, issuing a certificate of non-historic status automatically makes me think that a building is doomed, because it usually is.)
“To encourage proactive designation by owners, we’re exploring incentives to designation, and reducing regulatory barriers once a building is designated.” (My comment: One idea is to have someone on the landmark staff who can offer advice to people who want to landmark a building or a neighborhood, like a navigator guiding them through a process most people do not know.)
There are several opportunities to learn more about these proposed changes and how it might have an impact on your neighborhood and the city, then respond with your own opinions and ideas:
Here’s the list:
- Landmark Ordinance Community Update; 5:30 to 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 14; Ford-Warren Library, 2825 High Street
- Landmark Ordinance Community Update; 10 to 11:30 a.m., Saturday, May 18; Woodbury Library, 3265 Federal Boulevard
- Landmark Ordinance Community Update; 5:50 to 7 p.m., Monday, May 20; Virginia Village Library, 1500 S. Dahlia Street
- Landmark Preservation Commission Discussion Item; 1 p.m., Tuesday, May 21 (following the design review agenda); Webb Municipal Building, 201 W. Colfax Avenue, Room 4.F.6
- Community Drop-In Office Hours; 3 to 5 p.m., Thursday, June 6; Blair-Caldwell Library, 2401 Welton Street
(This week, the Lower Downtown Design Review Board heard changes affecting their operation and the proposed landmark ordinance update.)
This is the opportunity to learn what these changes mean to the city. Too much has been lost because growth has been too fast and too much and too greedy and too many buildings that do not belong in this city — or anywhere. It has been a tough several years.