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August 2014 • Online Edition
 

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State Of Historic Preservation In Denver: Are We Loving Neighborhoods To Death? | Print |  E-mail

By Laurie Dunklee

People in Denver love their historic buildings and neighborhoods.

 

HISTORIC GRANT AVENUE, BUILT AS GRANT AVENUE METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH in 1908, is the centerpiece of the Grant Avenue Historic District. While the building received more than $300,000 in upgrades a decade ago, more work is needed to complete the revitalization.

Witness the magnetic effect of districts such as LoDo, Highlands and South Pearl Street, drawing businesses and residents to their unique, hip character.

“What we’ve learned in the last 40 years is that preserving historic resources leads the way to economic revitalization,” said Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver. “It’s an opportunity to leverage our historic identity to become a dynamic city.”

Unfortunately, economic fervor in the short term can work against a neighborhood’s continued success. “Neighborhoods can become so popular that we love them to death,” said Levinsky. “There’s so much development pressure on them that they lose their historic character. It’s important to balance economic growth with preserving place and character, to have a mix of the old with the new.”

Denver has 51 historic districts containing 6,600 buildings, as well as 332 individual historic landmarks. The South Denver neighborhoods (6th to Hampden avenues and Quebec St. to the Platte River) have seven historic districts containing approximately 2,400 total structures.

Successful South Denver historic preservation projects include the Byers School, redesigned for use by the Denver School of Science and Technology; the Fleming House, now home to The Park People and other community groups; and Denver Public Library Ross-Broadway branch, a mid-century modern landmark in the process of designation.

Another success, in Denver’s River North district is The Source on Brighton Blvd., a rehabilitated foundry housing a collective of food artisans and driven by a young creatives group. “The influx of new people to Denver drives some great projects,” said Levinsky.

Historic Grant Avenue, 216 S. Grant St., is the cornerstone of the Grant Avenue Historic District. Built in 1908 as Grant Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, the community center now welcomes 1,600 people each week as home to more than 25 community (especially arts-related) groups and musical performances.

“The building has been used as a community center continuously for more than 100 years,” said Ken Berve, executive director of Historic Grant Avenue. “The sanctuary’s acoustics were built for music – jazz sounds great in here!”

Berve said the building’s exterior was restored in the mid-2000s with about $300,000 in State Historical Fund grants. He notes much work is needed to complete the restoration and make the building more usable: “We’re still using the boiler installed in 1919, so we need something more efficient. We also need brick restoration on the bell tower, better lighting at the main entrance, painting in the stage area and better handicap access inside.

“The hard reality is the money isn’t as much there as it was before.”

Lack of funds and development pressure are challenges faced by historic preservation projects in Denver. Other obstacles include a lack of visibility and misperceptions about the effects of landmark designation.

Levinsky said that maintaining visibility around historic preservation projects is not easy, despite more people embracing the concept. In the late 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when the movement was getting started, “groups had to oppose demolition by standing in front of buildings,” she said.

“Now historic preservation is more mainstream – more widely understood as a community value. We have a more collaborative approach and a great collection of landmarks and districts already in place. As preservation now often (not always) occurs without as much controversy, it tends to generate fewer media impressions, and this can lead to diminished visibility despite the fact that a lot is happening.

“There could be more preservation happening. We need more discussion in neighborhood planning processes to include preservation as a consideration.”

Andrea Burns, communications director at the City and County of Denver’s Community Planning and Development office, emphasized the importance of neighborhood support: “In Denver, historic preservation is a grassroots effort. Historic designation applications are brought by the public, not the city. We look to communities to tell us what should be preserved. It requires grassroots support and the support of property owners to get historic designation of a district or a landmark,” Burns said.

Burns said misperceptions about historic designation and preservation persist. Common misperceptions include the notion that designation lowers property values, and that property owners can’t make needed improvements.

 “Denver’s 2012 assessment data points to property values 12 percent higher on average in locally-designated historic districts compared to adjacent neighborhoods without historic designation,” said Burns.

Owners of designated historic structures can make significant changes and updates to their property. “Landmark designation will not freeze a property in time,” Burns said.

Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission is in the process of updating the design guidelines used to preserve key historic features of buildings. “Our main goal is to ensure the guidelines accommodate modern energy efficiency techniques and the latest advances in building construction,” said Burns. “We want to make it easier to preserve Denver’s treasures.”

Property owners, design professionals and the public are solicited for their input as the updated guidelines are finalized this June. Questions/input can be addressed to This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Diminished funds present a challenge to historic preservationists. State Historical Fund grant money, a major source of support, has been reduced substantially in recent years.

The State Historical Fund historic preservation grants program was created by popular vote in 1990 to preserve historic resources for public benefit. Program funds are provided by tax revenues from limited-stakes gaming. Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) was appointed to administer the Fund.

Availability of grant funds has dropped dramatically in recent years, from $19.1 million in 2008 to $6 million in 2013. Reasons for the drop include three legislative actions that diverted the funds away from the grants pool.

Most recently, the cost of the State Capitol dome restoration reduced available funds. Two bills – Senate Bill 10-192 and House Bill 11-1310 – diverted a total of $11.8 million from the grants pool over three years. That annual $4 million will be restored to the grants program this year, according to Shannon Haltiwanger, preservation communications manager at History Colorado.

In 2008, casino-backed Amendment 50 and accompanying House Bill 1272 capped revenue growth to the Fund. 2008-2009 gaming revenues were used as the base and a growth limit of 3 percent was set on that base. Since ‘08-‘09 revenues were down significantly from prior years, the State Historical Fund grant program doesn’t have the opportunity to grow much as the economy, and gaming along with it, recovers and grows. “The calculations connected with Amendment 50 changed the limited gaming rules,” said Haltiwanger. “Because of this calculation change, it’s impossible to determine exactly what impact Amendment 50 alone would have had.”

A third legislative action, Senate Bill 08-206, authorized construction of the new $110 million History Colorado Center building using State Historical Fund money for 37 years. According to Haltiwanger, SB 08-206 split the Fund into majority and minority shares.

“According to SB 08-206, the bill authorized the transfers of revenues from the ‘minority share’ of the History Colorado State Historical Fund for project uses/COP [Certificate of Participation] payment of the History Colorado Center,” said Haltiwanger. “SB 08-206 sets a clear delineation that the ‘majority’ of the gaming tax revenue is reserved for the State Historical Fund grants. The COP does not reduce the amount of the ‘majority share’ of the fund, which is used to award grants for preservation projects across the state.”

Despite the challenges facing historic preservation, the industry is moving forward and developing new tools.

Preservationists are currently exploring the concept of conservation districts. “Conservation districts are different than designation because they don’t prohibit demolition, but provide design guidelines so new builds fit the neighborhood,” Levinsky said. Examples include porches that match the historic buildings’ distance from the street, and building heights that are similar.

Historic Denver is launching the Discover Denver project, a collaboration with the city to survey and document historic structures of interest that could be designated. Buildings will not be designated during the process.

“It’s most important that preservation be done collaboratively. We’re working with communities to understand what they want to do, what is most important to them to preserve,” Levinsky said.

“Continued historic preservation is essential to Denver’s quality of life, our economic development and tourism,” said Burns. “Our historic structures tell the story of how we came to be. They make Denver unique and give us our sense of civic pride."

 
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