Sandwiched between two retail shops, 1411 Larimer St. is a skinny building, hardly 10 feet wide, a single room. Within this tight space, real estate developers have crammed the entire history of Denver’s renowned Larimer Square — from a detailed timeline across the wall to bricks that have fallen off of the square’s 150-year-old buildings.
The miniature museum, known as the Community Engagement Center, was created in February by Urban Villages. For two years, the company has handled the pending Larimer Square developments in partnership with the square’s longtime owner, Jeff Hermanson. Hermanson aims to address the infrastructural, electrical and plumbing issues present in every building on Larimer Square.
In 2018, developers presented the community with an initial proposal to repair damages and build new spaces that could finance these repairs. That proposal required partial demolition of some buildings and the creation of two buildings hundreds of feet high. Currently, the tallest building in Larimer Square stands at 64 feet.
But in June 2018, Urban Villages announced it would be rethinking its plans after groups and individuals voiced disapproval. The company confirmed in early January that it would not go forward with the original proposal.
“For many decades, the city has made a really concerted commitment to saying that this will be the low, human-scale part of downtown,” Annie Levinsky said. Levinsky is the executive director at Historic Denver, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic landmarks across Denver.
“Larimer Square is where the historic buildings are,” she said,” and the scale is an authentic part of its history.”
To be sure, many community members have expressed that the large scope of the developers’ plans seems unusual, if not unprecedented, for a historical district in Denver.
But with an unusual proposal has come an unusual commitment to gathering community input, as well: The company has spent more than a year acquiring feedback, culminating thus far in the establishment of the community center.
Development associate Jesse Bank led the charge in designing the space, hoping to eliminate the challenges that led to previous controversies.
“It’s like how in math class, if you just write the answer, the teacher will say `show your work,’ ” Bank said. “That’s what this is place is for. This is us showing our work.”
When visitors walk into the center, they come face to face with a timeline that highlights key moments in the district’s past: Dana Crawford’s effort to transform the square from its previously rundown state in the 1960s, the square’s 1971 establishment as a historic district and Hermanson’s 1993 purchase of the square.
After following the timeline to the back of the room, visitors find information about the current state of the buildings and what repairs are needed.
They then have the opportunity to let developers know what they would like to see through one of several methods. Some visitors write their comments on the colorful banner pinned to the center’s wall, while others toy around with a miniature model of Larimer Square — built mostly of white Legos — moving blocks around to reflect what certain changes may look like in the real Larimer Square.
Jon Buerge, chief development officer at Urban Villages, said the center will likely stay open to the public until construction begins. Ideally, he said, Urban Villages will roll out possibilities for a new proposal by the summer of 2019. However, developers are waiting to get more feedback before laying out an official timeline.
His team is still unsure what the potential proposal will include, he said. While Urban Villages has committed to staying away from demolition, the company continues to explore the possibility of building new structures in places where there are not already historic buildings.
It is also entertaining the idea of creating a building taller than 64 feet in one of several places, most likely on the lot with the parking garage at 1422 Market St. The suggestion has yet to be agreed upon by the developers and submitted to the city.
However, several citizens have already expressed skepticism on the grounds that such a tall building would be inauthentic to the history of the area.
The company’s interest in taller buildings stems from a desire to create more affordable housing in Larimer Square. While building a low-rise luxury condo could help finance the project, Buerge said, the company would prefer to raise the same amount of money from apartments that a broader range of tenants could afford.
This would require more tenants, therefore requiring more stories in the building. But Buerge views the plan as a preferable and inclusive alternative to building luxury housing.
“We don’t want to just do the bare minimum,” Buerge said. “We’re committed to doing things the right way.”
Adding such a building to the area would require city council to amend the ordinance that lays out construction guidelines in Larimer Square. Currently, that ordinance caps building height at 64 feet.
In some ways, said Denver’s landmark preservation supervisor Jennifer Cappeto, the amendment would be the first of its kind.
“There have been amendments to ordinances because buildings burned down or situations like that, but not a height amendment, and not something with the same ramifications,” she said.
For Lisa Purdy, the question of whether to amend the ordinance hits especially close to home. Purdy spearheaded a 10-year effort to create the Lower Downtown historic district. The district stretches from Wewatta Street to the alley between Market and Larimer streets, making it the district directly adjacent to Larimer Square.
Like Levinsky and those at Historic Denver, Purdy expressed concerns about what a taller building would do to the historical authenticity of Larimer Square.
“It sets a terrible precedent if developers decide they don’t like the regulations of a historic district,” she said.
“Larimer Square is our city’s first historic district,” she said. “If it isn’t really protected in an authentic way, then what is?”
She added that Historic Denver fully supports any development in compliance the district’s guidelines.
“Historic places are not frozen in time — they can evolve and should evolve to meet our community’s needs,” she said. “But they can do that in a way that is respectful of the scale and allows us to have continuity in these places.”
To assist this process, Historic Denver has sought to help Urban Villages find solutions that would not require taller buildings. Primarily, the nonprofit has provided the company with information about acquiring funding from local and national sources, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Buerge said the company plans to utilize such funds. However, he added that, in a best-case scenario, these finances will cover less than a third of the project’s estimated budget of $130 million or more.
While the solution to funding the project remains unclear, all parties involved said they agreed on one thing: the renovations should protect the widely beloved experience of Larimer Square and refurbish buildings so that tenants can stay for many years to come.
“It’s a really vibrant part of downtown, and it catalyzed the preservation movement throughout the city,” Cappeto said, “so the buildings need to be repaired and have life in them.”
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