By Kathryn White
Community members gathered recently for the second public meeting on a proposed West Colfax historic district.
With attendance at around 50 — nearly double the number that attended the Nov. 9 meeting — a broad range of resident questions surfaced.
Councilwoman Amanda P. Sandoval provided a brief history of the Jewish community in the area and a flowchart showing where the historic district idea currently sits within a potentially years-long deliberation and application process.
Kara Hahn, Denver Landmark and Preservation’s planning and regulatory supervisor, said a historic district designation primarily affects modifications a homeowner intends to make to the exterior of their property.
Senior City Planner Becca Dierschow said home improvements would be subject to review by the “Design Guidelines for Denver Landmark Structures and Districts.”
“Things like gutter repair, storm doors, storm windows, paint, those things don’t need review by Landmark staff or the commission,” Dierschow said. “Anything that requires a Denver building permit, things like re-roofing, replacing windows, installing a new HVAC unit for example, does require Landmark review. The vast majority of these, about 80%, can be reviewed at the staff level and don’t need to go to the commission for review.”
Most reviews take one to two days or up to two weeks. Larger projects — pop-top additions, large rear additions, infill construction — make up the remaining 20% and go before the Landmark Preservation Commission.
Reviews in this category take a minimum of four weeks from the date a completed application is filed, but longer if complications arise such as the need for architectural designs to be updated in order to conform to guidelines.
Sandoval, Hahn and Council President Jamie Torres, who will represent the area beginning this summer, fielded a host of questions. How long does this type of process take? They said it can take as long as needed to get community input. What about current construction and vacant lots?
Projects already permitted will not be affected, and no project will be affected until (and only if) a historic district designation is approved by the Landmark Preservation Commission and City Council, a process that can take years.
Attendees had other questions, such as are there other ways to honor the cultural significance of the neighborhood? Why not preserve specific properties of significance, instead of a 220-property area? Will adding a layer of bureaucracy make redevelopment geared toward meeting the demand for housing more costly? Shyam Goswami moved to the West Colfax neighborhood in 2018.
“I drew a 5-mile radius around downtown and said to myself, ‘I want to be here so I can bike to work,’” Goswami said. “That was the main draw. There is a lot of diversity in the neighborhood, and I love that. Especially because Denver doesn’t have a lot of diversity. I do want that protected.”
Goswami’s home is within the proposed district, and he attended the meeting with a lot of questions. He considers himself in learning mode. And yet he questions whether a historic district is right for the area.
“Protecting some of these buildings is important, no matter what happens,” Goswami said. “There are cool individual homes and structures and little pockets that could be protected. But there are a lot of buildings in the proposed district that just aren’t that. I have concerns that things would just get left in a state of disrepair because of the red tape around getting them fixed up.”
“There was a bit of an emphasis on property values in the meeting,” Goswami continued. “My reason is frankly not property values. I think it’s important to understand the lack of control that you will have in changing anything on the exterior of your home. That to me is the main thing.”
Ben Stetler moved to West Colfax in 2009.
“I knew that west Denver had a rich, diverse history, of which the Jewish culture was a part, and I’ve learned a lot more about the Jewish history after having lived here for 14 years,” Stetler said.
Stetler, who is a professional mediator and former president of the West Colfax Association of Neighbors (WeCAN), said he believes his brick bungalow on Utica Street would be considered a contributing property within the framework of the proposed historic district.
Dierschow explained, “Based on the period of significance and why the district is listed as being significant, buildings are considered contributing to the historic significance of the district or non-contributing. Buildings that considered non-contributing have a little more flexibility in terms of what can be done to them.”
Properties are explicitly listed as contributing or non-contributing in a proposed historic designation application.
“I think we are a great neighborhood because of the cultural diversity and the Jewish cultural diversity that this neighborhood experiences,” Stetler said, “and I for one am extraordinarily grateful. I worked very closely with a lot of folks in the Jewish community on the redevelopment of St. Anthony’s. I think the intent in honoring the culture is important. The proposed historic district is, in my view, not the correct way to achieve the outcome.”
Stetler said he believes there is a way to honor the intent without restricting homeowners from making improvements, “I love my house. I’ve put a lot of money into making it more structurally sound. But it’s 800 square feet of living space.”
Pamela Smith, a member of the Jewish community seeking to explore the historic district idea said about Jan. 11, “After the meeting there was a discussion of the name ‘Jewish Historic Cultural District’ and that using ‘Jewish’ could invite antisemitism. Various different titles were offered.”
Community meetings, originally intended to be monthly, have been put on hold. Sandoval’s web page providing updates on the process now opens with, “After hearing from the community, we have updated the name to the West Colfax Historic Cultural District.”
Smith hopes to confirm the direction of the process and the next community meeting by mid-February.
“A community that builds unity can do remarkable things,” Smith said, “A Landmark Historic District nomination is a tool in your toolbox that can help define your community.”
“I hope that the conversation continues to be thoughtful,” Stetler said, “and that folks can engage this conversation in a way that, while there might be different opinions, folks feel respected and heard on all sides. There are a lot of perspectives.”
Look for updates about future meetings and find a link to the Discover Denver’s West Colfax Survey Report (2021) containing background on the area’s historic significance on Sandoval’s page at mailchi.mp/ mailchimp/wcjd.
The Denver North Star’s coverage of the proposed historic district began in December and is ongoing. Readers are encouraged to read previous stories and send questions or comments to Kathryn White at firstname.lastname@example.org.