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The Olinger Moore Howard Chapel. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Have Denverites Found a Way to Control Development?

A mechanism in the Mile High City's zoning code is allowing residents to challenge construction plans.

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For nearly 60 years, the Olinger Moore Howard Chapel served as many Berkeley neighborhood residents’ way station to the hereafter. Then, in June, a demolition sign appeared: Koelbel Urban Homes, a Colorado developer, planned to purchase the 2.07-acre plot, raze the chapel, and construct 58 townhomes. Some locals weren’t quite ready to say farewell to the building.

“It’s a thoughtful design,” says Marie Edgar, co-chair of Historic Berkeley Regis (HBR), a group of area history enthusiasts. “But it’s also a link to our stories.” HBR applied for historic landmark status. Typically sought by property owners, the city-approved designation comes with benefits, such as tax incentives for renovations. Now, though, Denver citizens are applying for historic designations against owners’ wishes—a process called owner-opposed landmark status—because it shields structures from the wrecking ball. “We saw a spike in 2014,” says Kara Hahn, a principal planner on the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC), “and we’ve already gotten three this summer.”

The LPC reviews all demolition applications to decide whether the structure in question possesses landmark potential. If so, the community has 21 days (plus an optional seven-day extension) to apply for the historic designation. LPC examines the argument before recommending a yay or nay. In 2014, residents in West Highland were able to halt the destruction of the 1931 Beth Eden Church through this process. Following suit, HBR and others (see: the recent bid to save East Colfax Avenue’s Tom’s Diner) are trying to use owner-opposed status to preserve their communities’ histories.

Or so they say. “I think there are some folks using the mortuary’s historic value to have more input on the development going on in their community,” says Carl Koelbel, vice president of Koelbel Urban Homes. Koelbel empathizes, pointing to the slew of slot homes that have been erected on nearby Tennyson Street in the past few years.

On August 20, the LPC recommended preserving the building, but City Council has the final say-so; it’s expected to deliver a verdict on the mortuary this fall. Then the building will likely be designated (limiting development options) or demolished—an outcome of extremes Hahn hopes to end. She wants parties to compromise, like those defending Beth Eden eventually did when a new developer refurbished the church (it houses Oasis Brewing Co.) and built adjacent apartments. That’s why this month LPC is asking City Council to increase the application period to 60 days. Hahn believes the extension will give locals and developers more time to negotiate a way to respect the past without bulldozing the future.

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