Along with fireworks, dog excrement, and parking, the topic of Historic designations for Northside neighborhoods and buildings can be one of the most divisive among local residents.
Typically at issue is the value of preserving the character of storied Denver neighborhoods in the face of development-driven property speculation, versus the flexibility property owners generally want in developing their land or improving residences and other buildings.
It’s an evergreen topic and not just for the Northside, which is home currently to six historic districts (Packard’s Hill; Wolff Place; Allen M. Ghost; Witter-Coffield; Potter Highlands and Tilden School for Teaching Health). The city of Denver’s 54-year-old Preservation Ordinance has led to the creation so far of 52 local historic districts and more than 300 individually landmarked properties. (See the interactive map at https://www.denvergov.org/maps/map/historiclandmarks).
What is Historic designation and why is it often contentious?
The process for creating Historic neighborhoods and sites and for reviewing changes to buildings covered by a designation is handled by the Landmark Preservation Commission of Denver Community Planning and Development. City Council then has final say on creation of any districts or historic landmarking of individual buildings.
It’s an evolving process, too: on Sept. 29, the Commission’s staff kicked off an update to the historic design guidelines enacted in 2014 and last updated in 2016. The update will include community meetings and input and public review of draft updates, with a concluding public hearing and vote by the Commission.
Historic designation is intended to preserve a neighborhood’s essential character, while enabling improvements or additions that can contribute to that character rather than modifying it beyond recognition. According to the non-profit Historic Denver Inc.: “Historic designation is one method of ensuring that changes to a neighborhood occur thoughtfully, preserving the fabric of a neighborhood that people love — homes with history, vital dwellings that preserve the past, while acknowledging modern lifestyles.”
This balancing act typically plays out in design review by the Commission’s staff and members, based on overall guidelines as well as additional requirements that may be specific to an individual Historic District. For any building changes that require zoning, building, demolition, or other city permits, a separate design review and approval are required. Property owners of landmark buildings or buildings considered “contributing structures” in a Historic District, must do this if they want to make exterior changes — which may include windows, doors, siding, garages, additions or other elements.
According to the Commission, “Design review ensures that these projects preserve the properties’ key historic character-defining features and qualities.” That’s where building or renovating properties in a Historic District can get contentious. Although some changes considered “minor” can be reviewed and approved by Commission staff without a full Commission review — such as replacement gutters, re-roofing, and re-pointing — the process can add time and expense to other more significant projects.
The experience of Kristin Broms, who is in the process of digging out and finishing the basement of her family’s 1890s-era Queen Anne home in the Packard’s Hill Historic District, is common. She and husband Colin bought the home in 2016, as the process for getting the district approved was in its final stages. They were not thinking about renovation at the time given the significant interior work and an exterior addition already done by previous owners; two children later, they decided to expand their living space via the basement.
An initial challenge was finding out exactly how design review would impact the project, a common gripe among affected property owners. Realtors may not provide sufficient information during the home-buying process and some contractors may be better versed than others. “You know you live in a historic district but nobody sends you the rules of what that means,” Broms said.
Design review added about a month to their project’s expected time frame, even though there was limited exterior renovation involved. However, one element — a proposed new, non-egress window in a side wall visible near the front of the house — would have required a Commission hearing, possibly adding several months to the project’s inception. Broms decided to forego the window rather than have the delays.
Other factors that can add cost in such a project include guidelines that visible exterior windows and doors be wood or wood-clad, rather than less expensive fiberglass or metal.
“It’s great that some of these old homes with character aren’t being knocked down,” she said “But it still feels as if the process is opaque and subjective.”
Besides additional bureaucracy and potential costs to make desired or needed renovations, there has been opposition to historic designations in the past from homeowners or developers who argued retroactive restrictions infringed on their property rights. Some also argue their property values would suffer from the requirements or restrictions that designation entails.
One group of four homeowners in the Packard’s Hill Historic District has two pending lawsuits challenging the city of Denver’s approval of the district, the first dating to the 2017 approval and the latest filed in late September according to an October 6, 2021, article in the online news publication BusinessDen.com.
One alternative opponents often propose is a so-called zoning overlay that typically provides specific exceptions to district guidelines to make them less restrictive.
However, district supporters argue that overlays may not go far enough in preserving a neighborhood’s unique character by protecting buildings that are considered “contributing” structures from extensive, sometimes un-aesthetic renovations, design alterations or even demolition.
At the same time, proponents say district design guidelines are flexible enough to enable modernization of buildings and lots with the proper review and, if needed, appropriate rezoning to accommodate structures such as new ADUs. Marie Benedix, a member of the community group that successfully applied for the Packard’s Hill Historic District designation in 2017, noted that she installed solar panels on the main roof of her 1908 Classic Cottage with little difficulty in meeting the Planning Commission’s guidelines.
“So historic districts – just as much as any other single-family home area – can be part of that ‘gentle upzoning’ that City Council has said it would like to see in existing neighborhoods,” said Benedix, who has lived in the home since 2007. “What we don’t get is the wanton loss of history and character and the unsustainable sending off to landfill of homes that are 100 years old and could easily get to 200.”
Historic Denver has cited research indicating that some 99% of design reviews result in project approvals. The non-profit also cites a private economic study conducted in 2011 — well before the current home price surge — that found property values in Denver historic districts either increased or stayed the same as in nearby, undesignated neighborhoods.
Proponents also argue that the process for getting a Historic District designation approved is difficult and may take years in some cases, a deterrent to all but serious efforts. It begins with an application of proof to substantiate that the identified area meets at least three of 10 historic and architectural criteria for consideration. The process then proceeds to application review by the Planning Department staff and the Landmark Preservation Commission. If it passes muster, there follow public hearings before the commission on the application’s merits; review by the Denver Planning Board; and review by the City Council’s Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that determines whether the full Council will consider it.
The Council then presents the application publicly with first, second, and third readings along with a public hearing before voting on final approval. In addition to fact-finding research to support their applications, which may be aided by public grants but typically also require funding by proponents themselves to pay the cost of historic research, applicants also typically conduct communications outreach to gather public support for designation.
Paul Cloyd, chairman of the Design and Preservation Committee of the West Highlands Neighborhood Association, noted that getting designation for the Tilden School district adjacent to Highland Park was a substantial effort even with the support of all building owners in the designated area.
“It still took close to 2 1/2 years just to get through the process,” he said. “It’s a tough process.”