Looking Up, Downtown

Historic Denver puts together an unlikely alliance to save some of the city's coolest buildings.

In the waning months of 2000, history -- or in Denver's case, historic preservation -- marched down the street. The Denver City Council, with the full support of Mayor Wellington Webb, unanimously authorized the creation of a non-contiguous downtown historic district. It includes more than forty buildings that have played a role in Denver's architectural history; scattered throughout the central business area, they include some -- though not all -- of the best pre-1960s downtown buildings.

The creation of the Downtown Denver Historic District, as it is called, is a major coup for Historic Denver, the city's premier preservation group, and it is the culmination of years of work for the group's director, Kathleen Brooker. In 1998, Brooker, along with Historic Denver trustee Brad Segal and business leaders -- notably David Cohen and Evan Makovsky -- began to implement the idea of creating a historic district that would be radically different in its configuration from other such districts in Denver. The main tenet of their approach was that properties need not be adjacent to one another.

The Webb administration, laudably, threw in a tax-rebate package to entice property owners to endorse, or at least not oppose, the district. (The owners of buildings in such districts are already eligible for a variety of grants and tax set-asides from the state and federal governments.) Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth provided the political leadership to guide the district nomination through the often-treacherous city council process.

This smooth sailing indicated a complete political turnaround regarding downtown development. That's why I was so taken aback when the mayor endorsed Historic Denver's plan, and even more so when the city council's votes were counted. Even Ted Hackworth, who's been no friend of preservation, and Ed Thomas, who's been its outright enemy, voted in favor of it. In addition, many of the individuals and groups who acquiesced to its creation have worked long and hard in the past to fight preservation. (Previous attempts to create a district downtown, the first as far back as the 1970s, have always been opposed.) Most important was the Downtown Denver Partnership's endorsement of the district idea after it spent the last decade endlessly promoting demolition that eliminated Denver's established character.

All along, on the other side, there's been Historic Denver and other preservationists running around like overtaxed firemen -- racing from one 'burning' landmark to another and frantically try to quell the 'flames' of demolition before they completely consumed some important building. And usually they arrived too late.

So how did Historic Denver turn the tide this time? How did the group convince the normally recalcitrant city council and the mayor to get on board and endorse the plan? More important, how did they get the partnership to join?

The answer is that Historic Denver took advantage of the shift that's occurred over the last few years in the downtown real-estate paradigm.

In the past, the enemies of preservation have argued that history doesn't pay. Their logic has been that saving old buildings prevents their owners from getting the best return from their investments. In fact, Larry Melnick, a part owner of land beneath the Paramount Theatre, argued this very point when he opposed the creation of the new downtown historic district. Recently, though, economic reality has slapped people like Melnick right in the face.

There's no question that historic preservation has been an economic boon to central Denver; its collection of charming old buildings is one of the few advantages the city can draw on to attract companies and people from the suburbs. LoDo provides incontrovertible evidence to all but the most dim-witted that preservation means big money. Protecting the historic character of LoDo was codified in 1988, during the Federico Peña administration, with the creation of the Lower Downtown Historic District, which enforces strict preservation controls over the core of the neighborhood. Since then, the great success of the area -- which was mostly an abandoned warehouse district ten years ago -- has been a direct result of this wise preservation planning.

Consider this: If landmark-district protection had not been in place before Coors Field hit a home run, LoDo would not currently be the city's premier entertainment center or one of its swankiest residential districts. No, it would be a sea of parking lots stretching all the way to 15th Street -- maybe all the way to Speer Boulevard.

Instead, the boom in the adaptive reuse of commercial buildings that swept LoDo in the early '90s caught on in the rest of downtown in the late '90s, and a great number of buildings, mostly medium-sized structures from the early twentieth century, were rehabbed and given new uses. As a result, the big-money movers and shakers that make up the partnership, and who have long told the mayor and the city council what to do, are now more likely to be the owners of all those recently rehabbed historic buildings than to be among the handful of developers eyeing them for demolition.

So, in a brilliant stroke, Historic Denver's Brooker appealed to these newly preservation-minded owners and got their help in creating the new district. It turned out that there were quite a few of them, and they used their collective clout to get all of Historic Denver's ducks in a row and to get the Downtown Denver Partnership's invaluable approval.

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