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Denver City Council considers change to historic landmark designation process

Posted at 10:27 PM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-25 00:32:21-05

DENVER — Denver City Council is considering whether it wants to make changes to the landowner-opposed landmark designation process.

During a meeting on Nov. 29, 2021, Councilmembers Kendra Black, Amanda Sawyer and Kevin Flynn hosted a presentation to discuss Denver’s current ordinance and some possible recommendations for how to update it.

Denver is one of only four cities that allows anyone to file an application to designate a property as historic. Most commonly, it’s the property owners themselves who file for the designation.

However, the community planning and development executive director, city council members, or a group of Denver residents can also file for the designation.

“In Denver, we’re fairly unique in that just three random people who live in Denver can try to designate someone else’s property,” Black said. “It does cause me a little bit of heartburn — when we allow people who try to designate someone else’s property.”

The goal of these historic designations is to protect and preserve Denver’s history and some of the buildings that contribute to that character.

There weren’t always such rigorous protections in place.

In the 1950s and 60s, hundreds of buildings and even entire neighborhoods were demolished to make way for new developments, including some iconic structures.

Then, in 1967, the city council enacted its first landmark ordinance. Since then, more than 300 individual properties have been landmarked, as have 65 historic districts, 14 parkways and six conservation overlay districts.

“I’m a huge fan of the program. It’s very successful to preserve our architectural treasures as well as our history and our culture,” Black said.

Since 2010, Denver City Council has received 18 owner-opposed applications. While they are rare, there have been several high-profile examples of these landmark debates.

In 2019, a group of five neighbors tried to save Tom’s Diner when the owner decided to sell the restaurant by filing for historic designation. That application was eventually withdrawn when a compromise was reached.

In 2020, the Carmen Court Condos faced another owner-opposed landmark debate. The application was eventually withdrawn and the property is set for redevelopment.

Most recently, the building owned by Denver7’s parent company E.W. Scripps has faced an owner-opposed landmark designation attempt. City council did not approve of the move.

In fact, only one of these owner-opposed applications has been approved in the past 11 years: the Beth Eden Church was designated as historic in 2014.

Black said some of these owner-opposed designations in recent years are not meant to protect the building but to prevent new growth.

“I’ve seen people interested in designating something just to stop the development of a new apartment building. As you know, a lot of people are unhappy with all the new apartment buildings in Denver, but the fact is we need housing,” she said.

University of Denver Law Professor Sarah Schindler said using landmark designations to block development is not something that’s necessarily unique to Denver.

“You could frame it in different ways. They would say they’re using it as a tool to prevent gentrification of our communities and prevent the loss of place, the reason that we love our communities,” Schindler said.

However, other cities like San Francisco have more recently begun to take a closer look at their processes.

Black has some serious concerns with the current process and the onus it puts on property owners to defend themselves.

“It has put them at financial risk. Their home might be their only financial asset and they’re trying to sell it and unbeknownst to them, three random people who may not even live in their neighborhood could apply and derail the sale of their one financial asset,” she said.

She said she would like to see the bar for these owner-opposed designations raised.

Some of the ideas to do that include:

  • Eliminate owner-opposed applications altogether but allow the community planning and development executive director and city council members to apply
  • Require a supermajority of council to approve of the applications
  • Require a historic preservation organization to be part of the application
  • Require compensation for the owner if they suffer financial losses

Mary O’Hara and Gary Laura know firsthand what it’s like to have a group of strangers try to designate their property as historic. They are part of the group that owned the Carmen Court Condos.

They had lived at the site for more than 23 years but said they decided to sell when the maintenance simply because too much to handle.

The group found a developer that planned to raze the building and construct a five-story retirement home on the plot.

However, when the group went to sell it, they found out three people they had never met had filed an application to protect the building.

“Living there 23 years, not once had anyone ever come to us as owners saying, 'We think your property is historic,'” O’Hara said.

The fight became ugly; people started coming to their door to try to talk to them and the group of homeowners had to spend quite a bit of money on lawyers to help them navigate through the landmark designation fight.

“It’s almost like somebody coming through your front door without your permission. That’s what it’s like,” Laura said. “You do feel like you’re put in a position where you have to defend yourself when you haven’t done anything wrong.”

The application was ultimately unsuccessful, but both O’Hara and Laura said the time it took to go through the designation fight was unnecessarily stressful.

The two said they understand and support historic preservation, however other than their own memories, there was nothing particularly special about that building and they believe this was an attempt to block growth.

They said they support the idea of changing the process to raise the bar.

“There needs to be a new process. The applicants can be somebody else, but they need to talk to the people who own it are going to be affected by it,” Laura said.

Others, like Annie Levinski, said Denver already has a high bar for these designations.

Levinsky is the executive director of Historic Denver, which took part in the attempt to preserve Tom’s Diner.

“These are robust applications that take a lot of research and labor,” she said.

The applications first need to be approved by the landmark commission and then by Denver City Council.

The buildings themselves also need to meet a specific list of criteria to be considered historic.

Levinsky also points out that the city already changed some of its processes a couple years ago to encourage more dialogue when one of these owner-opposed applications is filed.

“The dialogue has led to resolution and that resolution is not always saving the building. There’s certainly been many instances where that does not come about, but people have a chance to work through it,” she said.

She would like to see more discussions around adaptive reuse programs so that instead of tearing buildings down, the city is helping property owners find a way to reinvent them while preserving their character.

Levinsky said she doesn’t believe the conversation should be either preservation or growth.

“I think preservation and the growth of our city can go hand-in-hand, and that for us to be a vibrant city, that’s important,” she said.

Others on city council pointed out during the November meeting that only one of these owner-opposed applications has been successful in recent years, which could be proof the process is working.

The challenge for city council is finding a balance between the two and not leaning too far in one direction or the other, Schindler said.

“How much do we preserve and what do we prioritize?” Schindler said. “You do want to retain what makes our cities special, but we have to find a way to do that and balance the really important need for housing."

Another possible solution city council discussed was allowing the homeowners more time to present their case. Currently, they are only given three minutes in public comment in these owner-opposed applications.

Councilmembers like Flynn would like to give them enough time to talk the city council through their concerns with a presentation. Several city council members expressed support during the meeting for that idea.

While several of the councilmembers spoke publicly at the meeting supporting some sort of change, they disagreed about what that change should look like.

So for now, Denver City Council is continuing its outreach and discussions about whether to change the ordinance and what the change should be.