Preservation Peril: Does Saving a Home Make It Hard to Sell?
Last year, developer Nathan Adams spent six months fighting the historic designation of a property he owned.
All Judith Battista wants to do is sell the Jefferson Park home she’s owned for the past ten years for the highest price she can get.
The upkeep of the circa 1880s house at 2849 West 23rd Avenue has become too costly. Battista has combined forces with a couple next door who also want to sell their home, with the hope of maximizing the value of both parcels by selling to someone who would develop higher-density residences on the properties.
“As I’ve told everyone, my house is for sale to the highest bidder, and it is ‘as is,’” Battista says. But a move by her district’s council representative to designate her home as historic might impede her plan.
A developer who is interested in purchasing the properties is likely to make the sale contingent on both parcels having a non-historic designation. Though her neighbor got the certification without a fight — no one challenged it — Battista finds herself embroiled in a battle with the city after District 1 councilman Rafael Espinoza submitted an application for owner-opposed historic designation for her home.
Because Battista’s Queen Anne-style house was the childhood residence of well-known Denver architects Burnham and Merrill Hoyt, Espinoza maintains that it is historically significant. Collectively and individually, the brothers designed some of Denver’s most architecturally significant buildings, including the Park Hill Library, the Denver Press Club, Lake Middle School, Cherokee Castle and the amphitheater at Red Rocks. Many of the structures they designed have been designated as historic on a local and national level.
The potential historic designation of Judith Battista’s home would reduce its value.
Battista says she didn’t know about the home’s previous occupants when she bought it.
“Now they’re calling it the ‘Hoyt House,’” Battista says. “The Hoyts do not own this house. It’s my house.”
Before he was sworn in as a councilmember last summer, Espinoza, an architect, made at least two unsuccessful attempts to have properties in Jefferson Park and Highland designated historic. The difference this time is that he’s a councilmember who doesn’t have to pay a fee or need anyone else’s support in order to file the application — one deemed “hostile” by those who consider such a move a violation of property rights.
“The Denver hostile-designation ordinance is broken, and blatantly disregards property rights,” says Jessica Alizadeh, an attorney with Fairfield and Woods who is representing Battista in her fight against Espinoza’s application. “It is subjective, overreaching, and out of step with historic preservation in other major cities and even our own metro area.”
Under the city’s ordinance, any three people who live or work in Denver — they don’t have to be residents — and pay an $875 fee can apply for historic designation. A councilmember or the city’s director of Community Planning and Development also can apply to designate a building constructed before 1986 as historic.
“Our clients, as well as a growing coalition of opposition, are not opposed to historic preservation,” Alizadeh says. “They are opposed to an ordinance that allows one councilmember or three people — even out-of-state residents — to determine what a homeowner can do with their own property.”
If the city wanted to put in a road, a path or some equipment on property owned by a private citizen, it would be required by law to compensate that individual with the fair-market value for the loss of property.
“Yet here,” Alizadeh says, “where the city can saddle a homeowner with costly repairs, determine the type and extent of construction, prohibit demolition and limit or eliminate potential buyers, you receive absolutely nothing. There is something fundamentally unjust about that proposition. Under the present system, the time and expense to fight off a hostile application is so significant that even the winners are losers.”
On his campaign website, Espinoza, who declined to comment for this story, says that surveys his campaign conducted of residents in his district show that many feel out of control of development in their neighborhoods. “The responses show 70 percent of you feel that you have NO voice in the city council’s decision-making process. Also, 62 percent of you are concerned that development is out of scale with your neighborhoods. It’s no wonder, given the many examples over the past four years where our current councilperson has either actively or passively let developers run the show without adequate community input. The citizens of District One have spoken — it’s time for a change.”
Battista’s home is zoned to allow multiple units as high as three stories on the lot. People familiar with her situation have said that one developer has offered her nearly $800,000 for the property, but without a non-historic designation, the house, which would have to stay, would diminish the property’s value. In that case, the property is likely worth somewhere between the $420,000 value the assessor’s office has placed on it and the $595,837 Zillow says it’s worth.
Deviree Vallejo, a broker with Kentwood City Properties, has worked extensively with developers and homeowners in Jefferson Park and the surrounding neighborhoods. She says historic designation could reduce the price Battista could get for her property, which she bought for $325,000, by as much as half.
“Typically, when you have a house on a lot with high-density zoning, the lot will be worth much more than the house, and a developer is going to be the buyer who will pay top dollar for it, particularly when he can combine it with the lot next door,” Vallejo says.
Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver, argues that the home is a part of the neighborhood’s fabric.
“It’s part of the early Jefferson Park story,” Levinsky says. “There are only eight [original] properties that still sit adjacent to [Jefferson Park], and others are already slated for demolition.”
She argues that preservation isn’t the opposite of development.
“Jefferson Park has changed a lot already and will continue to change,” Levinsky says. “But there’s a desire to hold on to some of the pieces that are there. I think people mix up historic preservation as an anti-development movement.”
Although Battista believes it’s highly unlikely that she and her neighbors will get the maximum price for the property, she has agreed to let Historic Denver try to find a buyer who is preservation-minded.
The history of Battista’s house and a call for a buyer is posted on the organization’s website.
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“We know the owner wants to sell and the adjacent owner wants to sell,” Levinsky says. “We’ve been trying to find a solution that would be a win-win and allow them to recoup their investments.”
Neither of the Hoyt brothers has any known descendants who could potentially weigh in on the fight.
Espinoza’s application for historic designation on Battista’s house is the first time a councilmember has made such an attempt, according to comments made by Denver Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell during a recent city council committee hearing.
And it’s a tool that Espinoza apparently intends to use again. After realtor Jacob Gram filed for a non-historic status to demolish a structure at 3734-3736 Tejon Street in lower Highland, the Landmark Preservation staff received notice that Espinoza intended to file an application for historic designation for the commercial Mission Revival-style building built in the former Town of Highlands’ Little Italy neighborhood in 1934. One of the building’s original occupants was a millinery shop owned by Kate Ferretti, a nationally and internationally known hat designer who catered to Denver’s elite.
It’s unclear whether Espinoza will pursue an application for designation. Gram says that when he met with Espinoza on November 4, the councilman indicated he would not go through with it. Still, he says, he’s not confident the issue is dead.
“We’re not off the hot seat until the deadline has passed to file,” Gram says.
Espinoza is also interested in preserving a home on Boulder Street. He created a Facebook page on November 1 called “Certificate of Non-Historic Status Application 1649 Boulder Street.” On the page, which includes photos of the Queen Anne-style home at that address, Espinoza notes that the Landmark Preservation staff has found the building to have potential for designation. He also outlines the process for applying for designation.
Once an application for non-historic status has been submitted to Landmark Preservation, the city’s historic-designation arm, the building is posted on Landmark’s website for 21 days for comments.
Alternately, someone can bring forward an application for historic designation. If a notice of intent to file a designation is submitted within fourteen days of the posting, the posting period is extended to 28 days. If the posting period elapses without an application for historic designation, the building is issued a Certificate of Non-Historic Status.
The 2006 ordinance requires that city staff review all demolition and Certificate of Non-Historic Status applications to determine whether a building has potential for landmark designation and post its findings. If they determine that it has potential for historic designation, the application goes before the Landmark Preservation Commission before moving on to the council’s Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. If the committee approves it, it goes before the full council for a vote.
Of the more than 600 demolition requests and applications for non-historic status filed this year, city staff found that 27 were potentially eligible for historic designation.
The house at 1649 Boulder is one of a pair of cottages that were built for August Rische, a prospector and wealthy mine owner whose home was located two doors down, at 1659 Boulder. A German immigrant, shoemaker and cobbler, Rische teamed up with George Hook, a fellow shoemaker, to spend summers prospecting. In 1878, they asked Horace Tabor, a Leadville merchant, to provide them with food and whiskey in exchange for a share in their mining claim. They began digging on Fryer Hill and discovered a rich vein of ore. Their claim, known as the Little Pittsburg mine, produced so much silver that it kicked off the Colorado silver boom.
Rische, Root and Tabor became wealthy overnight, with the mine producing nearly $1.5 million worth of silver in a year. Root sold his share of the mine to Tabor. Rische kept his for a year but eventually sold it.
Tabor went on to become one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in Colorado before he lost his fortune during the Silver Crash of 1893.
Rische and his wife, Minna, moved to Denver in 1879. Their first house, located near Colfax Avenue and Sherman Street, was demolished for construction of the Colorado Capitol Building. Their next house, at 1659 Boulder — where they lived with their two children until Rische’s death, in 1910 — was demolished before 1995, but Rische had two cottages built to the south of his home. Although he never occupied them, the cottages are believed to be the only structures in Denver that retain a direct association with him.
In order for a structure to be designated for preservation, it must have maintained its physical integrity. In addition, the property must meet at least one criterion in two of three categories: history, architecture and geography.
The Queen Anne-style houses on Boulder and West 23rd each met the same criteria in three categories. They both have an association with a person who had influence on society, they embody distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style, and they promote an understanding and appreciation of the urban environment through their distinctive physical characteristics. The Mission Revival building on Tejon meets the first two criteria, according to the staff’s analysis.
Last year, developer Nathan Adams fought a historic-designation application that Espinoza filed for a property Adams owned at 2329 Eliot Street. Adams spent six months and more than $150,000 fighting to demolish a Queen Anne-style house that had fallen into disrepair. He paid $1 million for the property, which he had planned to develop with eighteen townhouses.
Though Adams ultimately won his case, he wasn’t able to redevelop the property, because the terms of his loan had changed and his partners were no longer interested in pursuing the deal. Though he ended up selling the house for $2.2 million to another developer, he says that with planning, architecture, engineering and entitlement fees, he didn’t make much of a profit.
“Had we not been successful at city council, we probably would have had to let staff go and scale back,” Adams says. “It’s crazy that one councilmember can put someone in this position.”
Adams says that even if Battista sold her house at a lower price to someone interested in preserving it, there would still be challenges.
“If she’s selling it for the house, the buyer wants to know the condition of the roof and of the sewer line and on and on and on,” Adams says. “If it sells for $500,000, she may have to fix things or make concessions. A developer doesn’t give a shit — it’s irrelevant.”
Historic Denver and the city have launched a survey called Discover Denver to find homes around the metro area that are historic — and potentially make it more difficult for people with old houses to sell their property. Discover Denver’s goal is to identify and catalogue historic and architecturally significant structures citywide. The pilot project started in 2014 with a survey of three areas: Harvey Park; Park Hill, Harkness Heights and Grand View; and Globeville and Cole. The program has now been extended to include Berkeley and Jefferson Park.
“The city staff may have consulted Discover Denver data when doing their review, because it can save them some time,” says Historic Denver’s Levinsky. “But given the requirements of their review process, which they have ten days to do, this home’s connection to the Hoyt family would have come to light regardless, given the importance of the Hoyts and the strong and long tie between the family and the house.”
Discover Denver has created criteria indicating whether a structure has the potential for historic designation. PD-C, or Potential District-Contributing, means that the building is located within a geographic area that could potentially be eligible for local historic-district nomination if it was built before 1986. But additional research and the support of local residents would be needed to create a historic district.
“This will have a chilling effect for owners who want to sell their property,” Alizadeh says. “For homeowners who have potentially historic properties and want to make changes, getting the commission’s permission will be a major uphill battle.”
Battista won’t know the outcome of the historic-designation application until Denver City Council takes up the matter on November 21.
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