City’s History Should Trump Developer’s Economic Feasibility

Yesterday’s Denver Post featured an article written by Tina Griego about the old Cathedral High School buildings at 1840 Grant, in Denver. 

Sagebrush Capital, a developer who is under contract with the Archdiocese of Denver to buy the property, intends to demolish all the buildings and build an apartment complex on the site.  Sagebrush’s application for a certificate of non-historic designation from the city (a precursor to an application for a demolition permit) prompted city planners to open up a time period to allow people to apply for the building to be designated as a Landmark Structure.

According to the article, city planning staff describes some of the complex as representing “an exemplary example of Spanish Renaissance Revival style by a noted architect.”

A representative of Sagebrush Capital says that “it’s not materially, structurally or economically feasible to redevelop these buildings.”  It’s often not economically feasible for for-profit companies to redevelop historic structures.  However, the question of material and structural feasibility should be answered by a different party.

In order to preserve the character of a city, the qualities that create a sense of place and set one city apart from another city, city planners need to think beyond short-term economic growth.  Retaining the features that make up the unique feel of a city has to be a priority over other things such as economic development.  (Imagine if planners all over the country were to approve every proposed demolition and development in every city.  In a matter of decades, Denver, Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte could be virtually indistinguishable from each other.)

The law of our city actually states that the preservation of such exemplary buildings is a public necessity.  Denver’s Code of Ordinances contains a chapter on Landmark Preservation, in which it states that:

It is hereby declared as a matter of public policy that the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures and districts of historical, architectural or geographic significance, located within the city or its mountain parks, is a public necessity, and is required in the interest of the prosperity, civic pride and general welfare of the people.” – Denver, Colorado, Code of Ordinances, Title II – Revised Municipal Code, Chapter 30 – Landmark Preservation, Article I. – In General, Paragraph 1.

Some of these buildings at the Cathedral High School complex are irreplaceable.  Buildings such as these contribute to the character of our city in a way that cannot be duplicated with new construction.  Historic buildings often act as a cornerstone for neighborhoods, and are a source of local pride for good reason – they’re unique and memorable.  What makes Denver the city it is?  What happens when that historic character is “all used up”?  At that point, why would anyone want to live in (or build in) Denver, if similar nondescript opportunities for living (or building) are more economically feasible elsewhere?

I will be extremely disappointed if Landmark Preservation Commission does not recommend to City Council that the exemplary buildings be designated as Landmark Structures.  I will be extremely disappointed if City Council does not vote to designate the exemplary buildings as Landmark Structures. 

The long-term benefits of preserving the special things about Denver, including historic buildings that contribute to the character of our neighborhoods, need to be a higher priority than any short-term economic benefit.

Additions to Historic Buildings

I believe that there should be a clear separation between an original historic building and an addition to that historic building.  I happen to strongly prefer traditional additions onto historic buildings, but I consider my style preference to be personal, and not something that should be dictated by historic preservation guidelines or zoning codes. 

I want to see the historic building as its own entity expanded by what is obviously a later addition.  I do not want to see a historic building with an addition with brick toothed in and a new seamless roof over the entire building.  This misleads future observers of historic buildings into believing that the building was originally built that way.  It waters down future observers’ understanding of the integrity of historic forms and construction methods.

a little boring?

My friend Lara posted this quote on her Facebook wall:

“Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.” – Alain de Botton

I think it’s a poetic way to point out that if buildings are to work together to make up a successful city block, or a whole city, they need to defer to each other, to the pedestrian, and to the street.

A bunch of boring buildings that work well together make a much better city block than a bunch of buildings that are all screaming out to be noticed…