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.”
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
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
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
“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.”
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,”
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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."