Historic district dissent in NW Denver

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historic district

Historic district dissent.

Last week, West Highland neighbors filed a draft application with Denver Community Planning and Development to create another historic district in the Northwest Denver neighborhood.

Although the application will likely will be revised to a certain extent, it does not sit well with Kevin O’Connell, a 22-year resident of what could become the Packard’s Hill Historic District if, as expected, the historic designation is approved by the Landmark Preservation Commission and then by City Council.

Still, the proposed district is so steeped in history it is almost inconceivable that the Landmark commission would not enthusiastically recommend the approval of the district, which stretches from West 32nd Avenue and the west side of Lowell Boulevard to Osceola Street and north to West 35th Avenue.

Consider:

  • Benjamin F. Stapleton, a former mayor of Denver who had ties to the Ku Klux Klan, lived in Packard’s Hill from 1911 to 1920. (It should be noted Stapleton later repudiated the KKK.)
  • Another prominent resident was physician pioneer Dr. Mary E. Ford, who began her medical practice at a time when  few doctors in the city were women.
  • William Quayle, “one of the most important architects working during the city’s real estate boom from 1880 until the panic of 1893,” according to the application, designed the Webber/Mills/Ford House in 1886 at 3825 W. 32nd Ave.
  • Some 82 percent of the 173 properties in the proposed historic district would be “contributing” structures.
  • Ninety-four percent of the homes in the neighborhood were built before 1920, with 26 percent of those built before 1900.

While most of the properties in the proposed historic district would be homes, the area has a history of retail and commerce that flourishes to this day.

“Historically, businesses in the area supplied a wide variety of essential goods and services, and principally catered to local residents of the historic district and other subdivisions that developed in the area. Today the area contains a mixture of restaurants, shops, services and professional offices that are frequented by people from nearby neighborhoods, other parts of Denver and beyond,” according to the application.

The Packard’s Hill Historic District would be near two other historic districts: the Wolff Place Historic District, designated in 2006, across West 32nd Avenue to the south and the Ghost Historic District, designated in 2010, to the southeast.

Supporters detail why they feel the new historic district is beneficial at the Packard’s Hill Historic Neighborhood web page.

However, even before the (figurative) ink on the 66-page historic application for the Packard’s Hill Historic District was even filed, much less dry, O’Connell launched a grassroots group called Keep West Highlands Free, opposing the proposed district. The anti-historic district movement is not just occurring in Northwest Denver. Across town,  for example, neighbors have launched Stop Historic Park Hill.

“Our goal is to give a voice to residents who are opposed or ambivalent to the formation of the proposed Packard’s Hill Historic District. We are circulating a petition to show City Council that there is articulate opposition. Regardless of the age of your home, if you live in a historic district, you will be required to undergo a review/approval process before undergoing ANY exterior improvements. Know the facts,” O’Connell posted on Keep West Highlands Free Facebook page last February.

O’Connell is a civil engineer and a lawyer by training but works as a fine artist represented by Robischon Gallery in Denver. His studio is in a house he built in 2003 on an over-sized lot on Osceola Street.The studio building shares a yard with his Queen Ann Victorian home.

He thinks the new house, designed by Tom Obermeier, a founder of OZ Architecture, is equally as appealing as the 132-year-old Victorian he and his wife, Maddy, live in.

He appreciates much of the newer buildings popping up around Denver, even as many on sites such as Denver Fugly pillory them.

The proposed historic district, he thinks would hurt the fabric of the neighborhood, not protect it from unwanted development and change.

He believes the roots of the proposed historic district  hearken back to what many still (incorrectly) call the RedPeak development.

historic district
This map shows the boundaries of the proposed Packard’s Hill Historic District.

More than five years ago when neighbors learned that Denver-based RedPeak planned five-story apartment buildings near Lowell Boulevard and West 32nd Avenue, they formed a group called No High Rises in Highlands.

A number of people who contributed to the 66-page application prepared by Front Range Research Associates also were outspoken and early opponents of the RedPeak apartment community, which ultimately was developed by Broadstone, a brand of Alliance Residentiala. (The final plan included two five-story buildings and one four-story building.)

Neighbors went as far as filing a lawsuit against RedPeak and the city of Denver, claiming that the development was the result of illegal “spot zoning” and not in accordance with Blueprint Denver, which considered the sites an “area of stability” and not an “area of change.”

The neighbors lost the lawsuit on every count.

Before the neighbors lost the lawsuit, and even before the trial began, RedPeak dropped its contract to buy the land and was dismissed from the suit. The landowner group sold the property to Alliance Residential, which with no fanfare recently opened the units in what is called Highlands 32.

historic distirct
Highlands 32 is not part of the proposed historic district, but the luxury rental community may have set the district into motion.

Units in Highlands 32 now are being leased from $1,335 to $3,045 per month. Units range in size from 452 square feet to 2,260 sf.

Alliance also bought the design plans for the luxury community.

historic district
Another view of Highlands 32

The luxury community is neither the architectural monstrosity that neighbors feared, nor has it led to the congestion and traffic that opponents were sure to follow, according to O’Connell.

“I walk by it all of the time and I think it is a good fit for the neighborhood,” he said.

The proposed district includes what was called Packard’s Hill (platted in 1887), Highland Place (1888) and the First Addition to Highland Place (1889).

The district takes its name from an early banker and real estate developer, William Carleton Packard.

Packard came to the area after serving as an editor of the Greeley Tribune.

“When the Denver area experienced a remarkable development boom, he moved with his family to the city and platted Packard’s Hill, perhaps drawn to the area by its location adjacent the town of Highlands, whose elevated moral standards were reminiscent of Greeley’s,” according to the historic district application.

Interestingly, the district doesn’t include the Highlands 32 or a number of prominent retail buildings along West 32nd Avenue.

“Buildings originally constructed for commercial uses (such as the 3600 block of West 32nd Avenue) are not included,” according to the historic district application.

“The map (of the proposed district) is kind of gerrymandered,” O’Connell said.

He suspects that the applicants didn’t want to face the ire of commercial building owners who at some point might want to renovate or replace their current buildings.

historic district
Kevin O’Connell stands in front of the home he built in West Highland, which serves as his art studio.

“Everything along 32nd is zoned commercial, which allows three-story buildings,” he said.

On Friday, O’Connell is scheduled to meet with City Councilman Rafael Espinoza to make his case against the historic district.

Rather than a historic district, O’Connell favors creating an overlay district, which would spell out specific things neighbors want or don’t want for the area.

For example, it might prohibit three-story buildings or require a minimum of five-foot setbacks from the sidewalk, he said.

“There are ways to preserve the neighborhood without such a draconian measure as a historic designation,” he said.

Putting on his lawyer cap, he notes there is no “due process” for opposing a historic neighborhood or a vote taken of residents to determine if they support it.

Even the name of the proposed district, Packard Hill, speaks volumes of the process, he said.

“The irony that it is named after a developer doesn’t escape me,” he quipped.

If you scratch the surface of just about any deal, there is a story behind it. The Rebchook Real Estate Corner looks at the what and who that make the Colorado commercial real estate industry spin every Tuesday and Thursday online at CREJ.com. The people behind the deals are passionate about what they do, whether they focus on offices, apartments, industrial, retail, land or lending. They also are passionate about their clients. Given the cyclical nature of commercial real estate, those who prosper in it have plenty of stories to tell. I hope to share them with you. 

This column includes news stories, in-depth looks at deals, profiles, Q&As and pieces on the latest trends. Contact John with story tips at JRCHOOK@gmail.com or 303-945-6865.

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