Editor’s note 8/16/19: On Thursday August 15, residents withdrew their application to designate the East Colfax diner as a Denver landmark, clearing the way for the owner, Tom Messina, to move forward with his plans to sell the property to a developer.
On a quiet Thursday morning, a gray-bearded man sits at the counter in Tom’s Diner, eating a plate of pancakes. Tom Messina, the owner, is out of sight, but not for long. A waitress wanders behind the counter, while a cook bangs pots on the other side of a stainless steel hutch. Most of the booths sit empty. A construction crew works along the street outside, cones shutting down the right lane of westbound Colfax, slowing traffic headed toward the Capitol.
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By now, Messina has told his story countless times. Nearly every Denver media outlet has covered the controversy surrounding his diner, its potential demolition, and now its potential landmarking. It all started with an application for a Certificate of Non-Historic Status that Messina and the property’s potential buyer, Greenwood Village-based Alberta Development, submitted to the city in May—a certificate that is necessary for development on the 21,000-square-foot lot to move forward.
But Messina’s story starts long before his diner became a centerpiece of the ongoing battle between old and new Denver. The 60-year-old, self-described “restaurant guy” grew up on Long Island and spent his first 20 years after high school working in the food industry, from catering and back-of-house operations to restaurant management, at locations like the Boca Raton Hotel and Club and Fort Lauderdale Convention Center in Florida, among others.
In 1994, Messina moved to Colorado, initially landing in Colorado Springs. Five years later, he relocated to Denver and helped open the Gothic Theatre. One day, while driving through Denver, he caught sight of a classic diner on East Colfax Avenue and Pearl Street and his interest piqued. It had a futuristic look, with a distinctive roofline, large windows, and a decent-sized parking lot. After two decades of working in the restaurant industry, he thought he was ready to run his own business.
In 1999, Messina took over the working restaurant and renamed it Tom’s Diner. He rented the space for a few years, and in 2003, took out a loan to buy the building for $800,000. “I always knew that, as a businessman, you need to own the property to determine your destiny,” he says.
The restaurant wasn’t an instant success. Originally built as a White Spot coffee shop—one in a chain of nine diners that sprung up in the Mile High City from the late-1940s to the mid-’60s (this location shuttered in the mid-1980s)—the building changed hands multiple times before Messina moved in; an entry in a Historic Denver guide to East Colfax says “none [of the other restaurants] achieved long-term success until Tom’s Diner.”
In those early years, Messina spent every waking moment at work. He knew restaurant life, but the challenges of running a 24-hour diner were new to him. Just months after buying the property, Messina realized the numbers weren’t adding up. He refinanced the condominium he’d bought down the street, borrowed more money, and sold his dream car, a Mercedes 450SL, to make his mortgage payments—all while facing skepticism from friends who told him he was crazy for buying the diner in the first place, as well as the doubts that he says naturally arise as a business owner facing a slow period. Messina says his saving grace were the crowds that rolled in around 3 a.m., when area bars closed.
Within a year of purchasing the diner, Messina received an unsolicited offer on the property for $1.2 million, $400,000 more than he had paid for it. Other offers came along over the next 15 years, but Messina says the time was never right. He finally owned his own restaurant, and he wanted to run it.
As Tom’s Diner remained relatively untouched, Denver grew and changed around it. The property’s value multiplied, as did its tax burden. According to information in the Denver Property Tax and Assessment System, in the past year, the actual value of the property leapt from $1.7 million in 2018 to its current value of $2.76 million. The taxes followed suit—since 2010, they’ve increased 167.8 percent.
Messina put the diner and its surrounding parking lot on the market last year, after paying taxes that were 92.6 percent higher than the previous year. In addition to the tax burden, he says he had a reality check, and realized “the line in front’s getting shorter—old age.”
“If I’m average, I’ve got 15 good years,” he says. He has young kids: an eight-year-old and nine-year-old. He wants to spend time with them and be fully present, not have the business constantly on his mind, pulling him away. “I want to be there for the ball game.”
Since 2006, the property has been zoned for up to eight stories of development. This spring, Alberta Development made Messina an offer of $4.8 million (other houses on the block sold for $5.2 million last April). But when they filed the application for non-historic status—a typical step developers take before finalizing deals to ensure their plans won’t be thwarted after purchase—the sale came to a halt.
Whenever an application for non-historic status is filed, city staffers review the application and corresponding property. If they find that the property has the potential to become a Denver landmark, they notify the surrounding community by posting signs on the property and sending emails to the district’s city council representative and relevant registered neighborhood organizations. The public notification period lasts 30 days, and during that time, community members may file a Landmark Designation Application to attempt to preserve the building.
That’s exactly what happened to Tom’s Diner: City staff found that the property had the potential to be a landmark, and five community members submitted what’s referred to as a “hostile application” to designate the building. The application went to the Landmark Preservation Commission, which found that the building met all three landmarking criteria: history, architecture, and geography. The commission recommended approval of the landmarking to the Denver City Council, and on August 6, the Land Use, Transportation, and Infrastructure Committee recommended the application to the full Council.
The characteristic roof that in part attracted Messina to the building is, in fact, a notable example of Googie architecture, a space-age style with sharp edges and diagonal lines. The same architectural style can be found just a few blocks east on Colfax at Bastien’s Restaurant and further east still at Los Toritos in Aurora, another former White Spot location.
The White Spot chain was established in Denver in 1947 by William F. Clements, a prominent figure in Denver’s food and beverage scene. Clements hired Armet and Davis, a California architectural firm, to design seven Googie-style restaurants in Denver. Tom’s Diner was built in 1967 and is one of only three remaining structures (Los Toritos and the Denver Diner are the other two); Tom’s is the only one that hasn’t been significantly altered.
Jessica Caouette, owner of Tandem Bar, is one of the five community members who collaborated on the Landmark Designation Application. A Denver native, Caouette grew up blocks from the diner (before it was Tom’s) and graduated from East High School. When she and the other applicants found out Messina was selling his property to a developer who would demolish it, they were surprised.
“Tom had spent such a long time working and preserving the interior and exterior of the building that we thought that he had a lot of love for the building and that he would never want to tear it down,” she says.
Caouette and the other applicants connected through Historic Denver, a nonprofit preservation organization that was created in 1970 when it successfully kept the Molly Brown House from being demolished. Historic Denver is not officially pursuing the preservation of Tom’s Diner, but has served as a resource to the applicants and is trying to help find a win–win solution for all parties.
The initial application asked for preservation of Messina’s entire property, including the parking lot, but the applicants say they are not opposed to any and all development on the site—they just want the diner to remain intact.
“Rather than going from a piece of land for sale to knocking down a historic building, we want to say, what are some other options that are out there?” Caouette asks.
Historic Denver has successfully proposed development solutions that retain historic structures in the past. Annie Levinsky, Historic Denver’s executive director, pointed to the redevelopment of the building that housed the Tavern Uptown, which was originally a 1900s grocery store, two blocks north of Tom’s on Pearl Street and 17th Avenue. Like Tom’s, the building had an adjacent parking lot. When a developer from Tennessee purchased the land with the intent to demolish the structure and erect a 10-story apartment building, Historic Denver worked with them to propose a solution that would appease both parties.
“[The developer was] able to adjust how they placed the density on the site and retain the structure,” Levinsky says. “They built a building that had a really comparable number of units as their original plan.” The only difference? That historic building, which the Tavern will move back into when construction is completed, isn’t designated as a landmark—it’s protected through an agreement between the developer and Historic Denver.
Levinsky recognizes that these agreements aren’t possible for every project, but she and the applicants see potential for a creative solution to allow development at 601 E. Colfax Ave. while preserving the diner’s unique architecture. The challenge is that the defining characteristic of the building is its fedora-shaped, cantilevered roofline, and that can’t easily be built upon.
“We do a lot of rooftop or side additions, but on this particular building, a rooftop addition [building floors directly on top of the diner] would probably not be something that would meet our design guidelines,” says Kara Hahn, principal planner for Denver Community Planning and Development. CPD handles landmark preservation and holds the stamp of approval for any changes made to the exterior of landmarked buildings.
Another option under discussion is landmarking only the building itself, which would exclude the L-shaped parking lot. However, in this scenario, the space available for development will decrease, and likely represent a loss of market value, according to Zach Sloven, managing broker for Generator, a Denver-based real estate and development firm that is not involved with Tom’s Diner or the preservation efforts.
“If you can build eight stories, obviously you’re going to create a much larger income stream than you would if it was one story or even trying to revamp the existing structure,” says Sloven, adding that splitting the lot could make it less desirable to developers because they wouldn’t be able to build “as significant a structure.”
Messina maintains that he is ready to retire and leave the building behind, but being able to sell for a significant price is crucial. The diner is his only asset. “This is my 401k, if you will,” he says. “I have no hard feelings leaving Tom’s Diner, because my time has come. The building is tired….the building owes us nothing.”
The final decision on whether or not to landmark Tom’s Diner is now in the hands of City Council. A public hearing and final vote on the matter is scheduled for August 26, five days before the 120-day deadline designed to prevent placing undue burden on the property owner. If no decision is made by August 31, the application for non-historic status will be approved and Messina should be able to move forward with his deal with Alberta.
And if the property is landmarked? Messina doesn’t know what will happen. It’s unclear whether his deal will fall through (Alberta reps didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment), and Messina is concerned that no other developers will be interested in taking on the property. He’s closing the diner either way, but his future—much like the future of the building—is up in the air.