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Developer, historians clash over Larimer Square's future

Posted at 5:42 PM, Mar 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-06 01:35:10-05

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DENVER — Larimer Square is Denver's oldest and most historic block, but a new vision for the square is clashing with historians who've fought to save it.
"I think that we have an opportunity because of the significance of this block to do a transformative project," said Jeff Hermanson, the managing partner of Larimer Square.
"Pitying the old against the new, instead of the old complimenting the new," explained Annie Levinsky with Historic Denver. 
The plan proposes two taller buildings behind the square with green rooftops, which the developer, Urban Villages, envisions would serve as functional urban farms for the restaurants below.
"[It's] introducing a totally revolutionary way of doing urban farming in a downtown setting," said John Burege, Urban Villages chief development officer. "Growing sustainable organic foods that can be served on the patios at the restaurants here on Larimer Square."
Hermanson believes building higher in the alley's behind the block will help revitalize the square while also preserving its decades-long history. Another focus of the proposal is addressing the city's affordable housing crisis.
"The cities that are successful in addressing affordability with housing will be the cities that will succeed," said Hermanson.
Levinsky with Historic Denver and other membership groups in the area have serious concerns about the proposal.
"We understand we are a growing city and a changing city, but there are places that are really important to our city and our cultural history," she said. "Right now, you have a sense of what Denver looked like when you came here over a hundred years ago, and this would fundamentally alter that. Where will we go to tell our story? Where will we visit that authentic part of our past?"
Larimer Square was the city's first historic district and she worries building higher will forever change the character of the iconic block and jeopardize parts of its history.
"[It] requires some partial demolition of existing historic buildings and that is always a dicey proposition," she said.
Lower District, Inc., a membership organization that supports Lower Downtown, is also against the proposal.
The group's chair of the board wrote a letter to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. It reads in part, "We urge you to take the time to seriously consider any proposed changes to the ordinance so as to fully understand the ramifications of those changes. History has taught, all too well, that changes that are rushed are often changes that are regretted in hindsight."

The proposal still has to clear a lot of red tape because of the block's historical designation. 
In order to change the protections that are currently in place and the ordinance associated with it, Denver Landmark Commission, the city planning board and Denver city council would all need to sign off on the plan.
"We're excited to announce a new plan, a new vision for Larimer Square," said Hermanson. "Keeping it authentic, keeping it vibrant, and keeping it relevant." 
"This would permanently marry Larimer Square to significantly tall buildings in a way that no one in the future would experience it the same way," said Levinsky.