As Tom Messina sat in front of a microphone in the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building during a July Landmark Preservation Commission hearing, he tearfully explained why he opposed the historic …
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As Tom Messina sat in front of a microphone in the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building during a July Landmark Preservation Commission hearing, he tearfully explained why he opposed the historic designation of the building that houses his diner.
“I have poured my soul, my tears into the building and the business,” he said. “This building is not worthy, and represents nostalgia more than brick and mortar.”
Messina applied for non-historic status on the building at 601 E. Colfax Ave. in early May. The status helps make it easier to demolish buildings. Messina had also already begun working with developers to create a new vision for that corner of Pearl Street and East Colfax Avenue.
He didn’t know his application would spark a debate throughout the Capitol Hill community: Five residents raised money for their own application to give Tom’s Diner the historic designation that would preserve the building.
Messina is working with the applicants, but does not think the building should preserved. After 20 years, he is ready to leave the restaurant business. And, he said, selling the land will provide for his family’s future.
“It amazes me that such a small voice can have such an impact on my story,” he said after the meeting. “Something doesn’t feel right about this.”
Denver’s booming growth has stirred up a multitude of issues, from affordable housing to equitable neighborhood planning. But a key one — and an emotional one — resides in the birth-and-death life cycle of business that sees longtime places close because of rising rents and construction that hurts revenue. But new businesses also are welcome: They can create excitement in a neighborhood. Often, they fill unmet community needs such as small markets in a food desert or an ethnic restaurant that reflects Denver’s international communities.
And businesses along Colfax Avenue and in Cherry Creek find themselves in the middle of it all, needing to adjust, rebrand or find new ways to bring people into their stores.
Although the construction can be a burden at the time, better walkability and more apartments in an area can also mean more people shopping in the future.
Brian Phetteplace, director of economic development with the Cherry Creek North Business Improvement District, said that within the last year six large construction projects just wrapped up in the small shopping area. The Cherry Creek North district extendds from First Avenue to Third Avenue and from University Boulevard to Steele Street.
During construction, pedestrian traffic remained fairly steady, Phetteplace said. The fact that Cherry Creek was already walkable helped keep those numbers up, he added. The business district recently relaunched its brand with a new logo. Creating a stronger brand and hosting local events such as sidewalk sales and the upcoming Cherry Creek North Food and Wine, are some of the things the organization is doing to boost numbers as well.
People spend the most time in Cherry Creek North on the weekend with some heavier weekday traffic during the lunch hour, according to Phetteplace. The district recently installed sensors to help track pedestrian traffic, Phetteplace said. Now that construction projects are over, he’s hopeful more people will start to come out.
Development in Cherry Creek has also recently brought in several big name businesses to the shopping district, such as an Amazon store and Yeti coolers.
“The construction and the new space is proving to be an attraction,” Phetteplace said.
On top of those big names, Phetteplace said 50% of Cherry Creek North’s businesses are owned by women, and 70% are considered small businesses. The district promotes those factors to attract more customers, Phetteplace said.
In north central Denver, Frank Locantore is preparing for a large construction project on his end of town — the city’s new Bus Rapid Transit Plan on East Colfax Avenue. The project will completely change the layout of the street, placing buses in the center with new and improved stations at several intersections.
Locantore, executive director of the Colfax Ave Business Improvement District, has been a part of the planning process for Colfax bus routes since the beginning. Working with the city has meant he can also help prepare some of the businesses in his area for construction. One issue stressed in planning meetings and focus groups has been ensuring that construction impacts are lowered, Locantore said.
“There’s very little that’s either 100% good or 100% bad. It’s the execution of it,” he said. “It’s been a very strong message to do as little disruption as possible.”
Educating businesses will be a big component. Another idea is using back doors to businesses so customers can avoid areas of heavy construction, Locantore said. Since construction workers are there anyway, Locantore wants to look into getting those workers in the doors of businesses for lunch breaks or other shopping needs.
On the city side, construction budgets often include a percentage for art projects in the area, Locantore said. Instead of an art project, he hopes to work with the city to create a grant system for businesses that may need extra assistance because of heavy construction that prevents customers from shopping.
Locantore is a firm believer in the Rapid Transit Plan on Colfax, saying that it will bring more people onto the bus, which will mean more people walking — and shopping — on the street. But he also said he wants to be “clear-eyed about the destruction” that could happen to a business budget during construction.
“Let’s make sure that the businesses that have been really working over the past few decades don’t get pushed out,” he said.
While construction impacts can squeeze the budgets of some Denver businesses, others are being completely erased.
Small legacy businesses, such as Shelby’s Bar and Grill, are being exchanged for new office buildings or housing projects. Shelby’s, which was located at 519 18th St., was a single-story building originally built in 1906. Although it started as a funeral parlor, the building spent most of its life as a local bar.
Antelope Real Estate, the building’s former owner, sold the property in March 2018, according to city records. Over the next several months demolition plans kept being pushed back before Shelby’s finally closed its doors in June of this year.
Bars and restaurants are often the target of new development because many are in one- or two-story buildings, said Tom Noel, a professor and associate chair with the history department at the University of Colorado in Denver.
“Any time you have a boom there’s always more of a threat,” Noel said of the risk to businesses.
Aside from the businesses themselves, Noel added that many older buildings in Denver have historical significance. He jokes that his doctorate is in Colorado bars since he has written a few books on the subject, which included information on Shelby’s. One area he pointed out that has historical significance is a stretch of buildings on Larimer Street in the Lower Downtown neighborhood that used to be part of skid row, or buildings on Market Street that were formerly brothels during Denver’s earliest days.
Many of the “the old-time favorite bars are gone,” Noel said, and without those businesses, Denver begins to lose what makes it unique.
“We’ll become another generic city,” he said.
The city’s landmark ordinance helps provide some buildings a layer of protection. Exterior alterations on historic buildings need to be approved, and once a building is protected it becomes extremely difficult to demolish.
Larimer Square is an example of how the landmark ordinance helped prevent development, Noel said.
Initial plans from Urban Villages wanted to demolish a historic building and add two taller buildings. Residents and preservation organizations such as Historic Denver opposed the project. Now, Urban Villages is working with the community to create plans that keep the historic character of Larimer Square. Finalized plans will need to go through the landmark preservation office.
“That’s been one way to try to counter growth,” Noel said. “Thanks to the landmark ordinance, we do have some protection.”
But at the same time, Noel worries the city might not be doing enough. It is very rare for the Landmark Preservation Commission to recommend historic status on a building when an owner opposes it.
In the case of Tom’s Diner, the opposite occurred.
Denver residents Jonel Beach and Sam Dorrance presented their evidence at the July 23 Landmark Preservation Commission hearing on why the building should be historically protected. With prominent architects from the Googie design era, Denver history as part of the White Spot chain, and an orienting location on Colfax, the diner hit every category it needed for a historical designation and then some.
Much of the current building’s historic integrity, Dorrance said, is due to Messina himself, who worked to preserve it when he first began running Tom’s 20 years ago.
“We understand that this process is creating uncertainty, so we are continuing to work diligently toward a win-win option that honors the investment and care he has put in the building,” Dorrance said during the meeting.
Historic Denver, a nonprofit preservation organization, often works with building owners to try and find a compromise: keeping the historic integrity of a building while still finding a way for property owners to make money off a potential development. In this case, Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver, recommended the property boundary be redone to only include the building, allowing Messina and developers to potentially build on the rest of the property.
Noel believes these compromises are the best of both worlds. It’s important, he said, to “realize the owner has some legitimate interest in making some money out of the project.”
The Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted to move the Tom’s Diner application forward to City Council, adding in a further recommendation following the suggestion from Levinsky and the Historic Denver team.
But Messina has his concerns about the landmark preservation.
The building that houses Tom’s Diner is old and in need of repair, he said. While the plot Tom’s Diner sits on is zoned for eight stories, keeping the building the same could lock the one-story property in place forever, he said, also reducing the property’s value.
Messina believes the building has run its course.
“A restaurant will not sustain that corner,” he said after the meeting. “It really needs change.”
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