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Protecting Larimer Square, Again?

By Dana Crawford, Preservationist & Developer, Urban Neighborhoods & Annie Levinsky, Executive Director, Historic Denver, Inc.

Published in the Denver Post on June 17th, 2018

By the end of the 1960s, urban renewal had torn through one-third of downtown Denver leaving a swath of parking lots.  Saved from the wrecking ball was Larimer Square, a watershed moment that restored the soul of the city, and continues to demonstrate how historic preservation and economic revitalization work hand in hand.

The protection of Larimer Square as Denver’s first historic district in 1971 also marked the beginning of a new vision for a city that honors authenticity, values a strong sense of place, and recognizes that Denver’s path to becoming a great city isn’t by looking like every other city, but  instead by embracing the places that make us unique.

That early vision inspired the protection and economic successes of the Lower Downtown Historic District, Union Station, and dozens of other districts throughout the city. It was re-affirmed in both the 1986 and 2007 Downtown Area Plans, which called out how our “well-protected historic building fabric” positioned our downtown at “the forefront of the 21st century urban West.” This vision, and Larimer Square itself, have been catalysts for Denver’s current success.

But in case you missed it, Larimer Square’s future is again in question.  In February, Larimer Square owner Jeff Hermanson of Larimer Associates, and partners Urban Villages, proposed erecting two towers (one of them up to 400-feet tall) on top of Larimer Square for condos, workforce housing and a hotel.  To accomplish this proposal, Denver City Council and the Mayor would have to approve amending the blocks’ legal protections, including the 64-foot height limit. The plan would also require partial demolition of several Larimer Square buildings.

Larimer Associates and Urban Villages have cited several rationales: the financial burdens of infrastructure and long-term maintenance, concerns about Larimer Square’s relevancy and market competitiveness, environmental sustainability, and even Denver’s affordable housing crisis. The initial images and plans, they’ve said, are meant to spark a conversation about these issues.

The stakes for this conversation are high.   Larimer Associates and Urban Villages wisely decided to put the two-tower proposal on hold to form an advisory committee to explore alternatives, because the two towers—even with setbacks—would destroy the block’s integrity and scale, reduce the historic buildings to kitschy, storefront façades, and open a Pandora’s box on the future of more than 400 historic landmarks and districts in Denver’s neighborhoods.

Those of us, and others, who have been invited to participate in the advisory committee expect detailed information and open and transparent dialogue about the core problems that the owners are seeking to solve.   Major investment and new buildings have been added carefully to Larimer Square in the past 20 years.  It should continue to evolve—without destroying the block’s scale and character.

Together we can develop ideas and locate the resources necessary to protect these irreplaceable buildings, but only as long as the sharp focus is on solutions and alternatives that honor the vision and landmark protections that saved Larimer Square nearly fifty years ago.

Trends suggest that historic buildings and districts in fast-growing cities like Denver will see a new wave of intense pressure.  This is all the more reason to honor the places that we as a community have carefully, thoughtfully, and creatively protected.   We must ensure that future generations have the opportunity to see, feel, and experience the real Larimer Square.

Read it in the Denver Post
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