It won’t get harder to label a building historic when its owner disagrees, but new rules aim to curb quarrels

Denver politicians approved new rules Monday.
4 min. read
Tom’s Diner on East Colfax Avenue, July 25, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

UPDATE: On Sept. 30, the Denver City Council voted 12 to 0 to install new landmark preservation rules.

City Council members debated several issues, including a lack of neighborhood representation on the task force that formed the rules and concern over private property rights. In the end, elected officials said the tweaks were necessary despite lacking consensus.

Councilwoman Debbie Ortega called the policy a "compromise document with lots of give and take on both sides."

UPDATE: On Sept. 10, the Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee voted 4 to 2 to reject Councilwoman Kendra Black's supermajority amendment to the proposed landmark ordinance.

The change would have required extra Council members to approve landmark designations if building owners opposed them.

The proposed new ordinance now moves to the full Council for further consideration. Councilman Chris Herndon, the committee chair, joined Black in her vote. Council members Candi CdeBaca, Paul Kashmann, Jamie Torres and Amanda Sandoval voted against adding Black's proposal.

City Councilwoman Kendra Black says her conscience and Tom's Diner led her to circulate ideas on how to make it harder for preservationists to have a site designated historic against an owner's wishes.

The District 4 councilwoman is considering a bid to amend landmark preservation regulations even as the Denver City Council prepares to take up proposed changes to the rules that emerged from a yearlong discussion that preceded the battle over Tom's Diner's history and future.

"My conscience is just demanding that I try to create some sort of higher bar for owner-opposed designations," Black told Denverite, adding that the Tom's Diner episode "really hit home for me."

Five Denverites had tried to have Tom's Diner at East Colfax Avenue and Pearl Street declared a landmark, describing its low-slung, mountain-range-roofed building as having "architectural, historical and cultural value." Owner Tom Messina was opposed, saying such a designation would derail a $4.8 million deal to sell his plot to a developer to provide for his retirement.

The preservationists eventually withdrew their application to the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, saying they hoped instead to work toward some solution with Messina and the developer, who is expected to demolish the diner and build apartments.

Black thinks 10 of 13 City Council votes (a supermajority) should be required to approve an owner-opposed designation. She also is considering an amendment that would require 51 percent of property owners to agree before their neighborhood got a landmark designation.

Black said she has not yet decided whether to propose the amendments. It will depend on whether she decides she has enough support in the community and on the Council to proceed.

A task force began meeting last March to discuss updating the city's landmark preservation process. Its proposals have been presented for public review and comment at meetings and online. The City Council Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will take up the proposals Sept. 10 and consider whether they should advance to the full Council for a vote.

The proposal looks at several aspects of the landmark process, including the potential for clashes between property owners and preservationists.

One change would require three Denver residents (it currently takes only one) to act if they want to stall a project's demolition after the city has issued a permit. The change would extend the period before a demolition permit could be issued by 39 days, for a total of 60, in an effort to allow time for city-facilitated talks to try to resolve differences.

City Councilwoman Robin Kniech sat on the preservation task force and said the recommendations it generated should get a chance before changes are made.

"You just can't say that they're broken when they haven't even been tried yet," she said.

Kniech pointed to another proposal from the task force that seeks to ensure homeowners are adequately informed when a neighborhood landmark is proposed. Requiring 51 percent of property owners to agree to such a designation might have derailed a proposal such as the LoDo historic district, Kniech said.

The recommended changes aim to emphasize discussion and problem-solving, reforming a process that has seemed rushed in the past, said Annie Robb Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver, a nonprofit that works to preserve historic sites. Levinsky also sat on the landmark task force.

"We did talk a lot about how to make sure all voices are being heard and there's balance in the system," Levinsky said. "The process is this pressure cooker, and that's what we're trying to fix."

After months of work, she said, she hoped that "if there are new ideas they would be discussed and vetted by the task force."

Reporter Esteban L. Hernandez contributed to this article. 

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