Analysis: Historic preservation challenging

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Historic preservation in Colorado has never been easy or permanent. One generation’s precious historic structure can quickly become another era’s white elephant, a dreary old pile of bricks that needs to be torn down or gutted. Along the Front Range, skyrocketing real estate prices fueled by an influx of new core city residents has challenged preservationists.

In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of 19th- and early 20th-century buildings in Denver and Colorado Springs were torn down in the name of “progress” and “urban renewal.” It was a time when preservationists were few and impotent, when no ordinances protected historic buildings and rigid building codes made it difficult for well-intentioned property owners to renovate older structures.

Larimer Square

“By the end of the 1960s, urban renewal had torn through one-third of downtown Denver leaving a swath of parking lots,” Dana Crawford recently wrote in a column in the Denver Post. “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.”

Crawford spearheaded that effort, saving an entire block of historic buildings that had been erected when Denver was a struggling little town near the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Platte. Her redevelopment was a success, sparking the rebirth of Lower Downtown and an enduring affection for historic preservation throughout Colorado. That affection found tangible expression in 1990, when voters approved a statewide initiative that legalized casino gambling in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek and directed a portion of gaming tax revenue to the State Historical Fund. Since then, the fund has directed more than $300 million to support historic preservation projects in all 64 Colorado counties.

A new threat

Almost half a century after Crawford saved Larimer Square, the present owners of the property are proposing a radical redevelopment.

“[They] propose erecting two towers (one up to 400 feet tall) on top of Larimer Square for condos, workforce housing and a hotel,” Crawford said. “The plan would also require partial demolition of several Larimer Square buildings.”

If approved by city officials, Crawford believes that the plan would not only reduce Larimer Square to a group of “kitschy storefront façades,” but also put at risk more than 400 landmarked properties and districts in Denver neighborhoods.

Will the plan go forward? That’s not clear. What’s obvious is that the once-forlorn block is now extraordinarily valuable real estate and will only become more valuable over time.

Cripple Creek

When the first casinos opened in Cripple Creek in 1991, the city’s newly written historic preservation ordinances led to the renovation and preservation of historic building façades along Bennett Avenue, which still retains much of its 19th-century appearance. But the buildings behind the façades were substantially altered and rebuilt to accommodate casino use. The gaming initiative also directed substantial shares of locally generated gambling revenue to the host cities, funding dozens of non-gaming-related preservation projects in Cripple Creek.

Since the Wildwood Casino opened in June 2008, there have been no new Cripple Creek casinos nor any major expansions of existing casinos. Revenue dropped during the recession, and has only recently regained pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, Black Hawk branded itself as a Las Vegas-style resort destination, symbolized by the 32-story Ameristar Hotel & Casino.

Black Hawk’s success may have contributed to the decision by Full House Resorts to launch a $70 million renovation of Bronco Billy’s, a long-established Bennett Avenue mainstay. While leaving historic storefronts intact, the renovation will add a glass-walled modern structure and a parking garage behind them.

Colorado Springs

Of the thousands of 19th- and 20th-century structures in the city, none outside of the Old North End Historic District have any protection against substantial alteration or demolition. The North End is protected by an historic preservation overlay zone, approved decades ago by a vote of homeowners of the district. The overlay zone created community and individual incentives to preserve the neighborhood in its existing form, and discouraged scrape-offs and nonconforming alterations.

South of the North End, historic structures along Cascade Avenue, Tejon Street and Nevada Avenue have no such protection. And as property values soar, land uses may change.

On June 5 a 1902 7,500-square-foot building on a 10,000-square-foot lot at 725-731 N. Tejon Street sold for $1.3 million in an all-cash transaction. It had sold in 1996 for $395,000, and its 2018 assessed market value was $515,823.

In Denver, landmarked properties such as Larimer Square cannot be demolished without the assent of the city Landmark Commission. Such assent can be given, according to the ordinance, “in cases of demonstrated economic hardship or when a property is deemed an imminent danger to life, health or property by city building inspectors.”

Could the Colorado Springs City Council consider similar protections?

“I would certainly like to make sure that we have some safeguards in place,” said City Council President Richard Skorman.

Colorado College owns the entire square block bordered by Tejon Street, Cache la Poudre Street, Nevada Avenue and Tejon Street, and is reportedly considering it as the site of a major athletic facility. 

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