Colorado Springs, Featured, Local, Scott Weiser, Uncategorized

Colorado Springs updating its historic preservation plan, claims ‘carrot not stick’ approach

COLORADO SPRINGS–On the heels of a controversy over the potential designation of uptown Denver’s iconic Tom’s Diner as a historic landmark against the owner’s wishes, Colorado Springs kicked off its update of the city’s historic preservation plan at an open house at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum Wednesday.

HistoricCOS is another element in Colorado Springs’ PlanCOS revamping of the city’s comprehensive plan that has been ongoing for several years.

Since the 1970s, after the destruction of some city-owned and private buildings that angered residents, Colorado Springs has been striving to preserve the historic qualities of the city.

In 1988 the city passed an ordinance creating a seven-member Historic Preservation Board (HPB) comprised of volunteers appointed by the City Council.

The city’s first comprehensive plan for historic preservation was implemented in 1993.

It established historic overlay zoning districts for properties that “have been identified as historically significant,” which subjects property owners to additional review by the city HPB for any reconstruction, structural alteration or demolishment.

Property owners in historic overlay districts apply for a city permit to make alterations that is reviewed by both city planning staff and the HPB. If a “Report of Acceptability” is issued, the property owner can get a building permit and proceed.

The HPB is an advisory board but it also exercises quasi-judicial powers in issuing or denying a Report of Acceptability after its review. The report can be appealed and final determination of whether the project can proceed lies with the City Council.

The update coincides with a recent conflict in Denver over Tom’s Diner between owner Tom Messina and local residents, which erupted over the issue of property rights versus historic preservation.

The controversy was triggered when Messina, 20-year owner of the 60s era former White Spot restaurant on Colfax Ave. submitted an application to demolish the building and sell the property for redevelopment.

Tom’s Diner in Denver, photo courtesy of

Denver’s historic preservation code allows anyone to file an application to have anyone else’s property considered for historic landmark status.

Five Denver residents filed an application June 14 to have it declared a landmark, putting Messina’s demolition permit on hold. After review, the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend to the Denver City Council that the diner be designated as a historic landmark.

Landmarking would prevent Messina or anyone in the future from demolishing the building and would force Messina to continue to run it as a diner for as long as he owns it.

Messina wants to retire and has an offer of $4.8 million on the property from a developer who wants to build an apartment building on the lot, which is within a couple of blocks of the State Capitol.

In the end, the applicants for landmark status withdrew their application with little explanation and Messina got his certificate of non-historic status and can now demolish the building and sell the property, but not until after the hue and cry from both preservationists and property rights advocates made national news.

Colorado Springs takes a less confrontational approach in that individuals are not allowed to apply for historic landmark status on someone else’s property. The city does not have a local register of historic places or a landmark designation process.

Dan Sexton, Principle Planner for the Colorado Springs Planning and Community Development Department, told Complete Colorado that the city relies on guidelines and standards from the U.S. Department of the Interior when it comes to external materials and modifications of historic structures.

Sexton said that internal renovations are not subject to HPB review, although a change of use, from residential to commercial for example, would trigger an advisory recommendation from the HPB as to whether the change is appropriate.

Minor work such as repainting, reroofing or minor repairs are generally approved over the counter by staff at the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, which does permitting and inspections for seven local jurisdictions.

The new plan leverages federal tax incentives to persuade property owners to conserve historic structures and it emphasizes outreach and educational programs to gain cooperation.

“This updated plan supports a ‘carrot, not a stick’ approach, encouraging homeowners to pursue preservation through incentives, rather than regulation,” says the city’s HistoricCOS website.

“Concern that preservation efforts will take away private property rights appears to be an important message voiced by the community,” says the plan.

But, it goes on to say, “While this desire for a grassroots approach remains an important consideration, there is also an overriding theme relating to the importance of saving historical features of the community. This is supported by the belief that City government must take the lead in ensuring historic resources are protected… This advocacy includes the creation of more comprehensive and transparent regulations governing development and demolition of historic resources, and increased City staffing devoted to historic preservation.”

What this bodes for the future of historic preservation and private property rights in Colorado Springs is not yet clear.

A PDF draft of the plan is found here.


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