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Changing the Demolition vs. Designation Paradigm

This summer, the designation application for the White Spot Diner, currently Tom’s, garnered significant media attention and underscored the tension that can exist when significant buildings face demolition. In instances like these, whether initiated by our organization or by a community group, Historic Denver’s role is to wade into the fray – to have the hard, face-to-face conversations, and to try to seek solutions that work for property owners as well as community members who are seeking to save a piece of the city they love.

Among the most significant challenges in this role is the current demolition review/designation process and timeline in the rare cases in which the designation comes from the community and the property owner is opposed. As currently structured, the only way for the community to engage in an effort to seek alternatives to demolition is to file a designation application, which is then required to move forward at a rapid clip, fostering a “pressure-cooker” environment for everyone involved, rather than fostering an environment in which the parties can listen to each other, and evaluate whether a win-win option exists before grappling with the question of designation.  While most designations of this nature do not make it all the way to City Council consideration, City Council has the final authority to either approve or deny the designation based on the merit of the property, the economics of the situation, or the wishes of the owner.  However, the decision is never an easy one.

As a result, last year the City of Denver convened a stakeholder working group comprised of preservationists, property owners, developers, real estate professionals and neighborhood residents to develop recommendations to improve this process and make updates to related provisions of the landmark ordinance. The group’s goal was to reduce the amount of tension that arises in some designation proceedings, to improve the quality of decision-making, and to remove barriers to more proactive designation, as well as preservation and recognition of diverse historic resources.

While the conversations were robust, at the end of 12 months the task force reached consensus on a set of changes to the process. Key outcomes include shifting the way the consideration time is spent to focus more on collaborative solutions, rather than designation alone; implementing a new mechanism for gathering input on historic district proposals; and adjustments to the designation criteria to be more inclusive of culturally significant resources so that our landmarks and historic districts reflect the full diversity of Denver’s heritage.

These amendments were shared with the public during a series of meetings in May and June 2019, but due to the municipal election, there was a delay in City Council’s consideration. The recommendations are now set for a vote this September. While we wish they’d existed before this summer’s debates, we’re looking forward to refocusing attention on win-win outcomes and a collaborative process in our efforts to ensure that Denver’s historic places are actively used and relevant moving forward.

We are aware that Councilwoman Kendra Black has proposed additional amendments beyond those developed through the work of the task force.  The timeline on that proposal is not yet clear.  Read the story in Denverite for further detail.

Read more about the proposed ordinance changes recommended by the Task Force here.