Patrick Finney of FINN real estate did not anticipate the storm of invective that greeted businessden.com’s July 17 publication of a rendering of his new office building at 1549-1551 South Pearl …
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Patrick Finney of FINN real estate did not anticipate the storm of invective that greeted businessden.com’s July 17 publication of a rendering of his new office building at 1549-1551 South Pearl St. The building will replace Greentree Cyclery and Gaia Bistro.
Almost immediately, the rendering appeared on social networks Nextdoor Platt Park and Nextdoor Washington Park West where it garnered a startling 88 comments over four weeks.
This on a network that deals mostly with lost dogs and used furniture and where most postings usually last only a couple of days.
The comments typically vented residents’ and merchants’ frustrations with the spate of new buildings that fail to “fit in” with Old South Pearl’s early 20th century aesthetic.
“Every new building on Pearl Street is too big, too trendy and just plain ugly. The parking garage is truly atrocious. How truly sad is it that the very reason that people love these areas is being destroyed in front of our eyes?” commented Chip Lynch of East Washington Park.
Anne Grau of Platt Park summed it up nicely: “There goes the vintage feel of the neighborhood.”
Of the 88 comments, only one, from a resident of Englewood, was positive, suggesting that as a private property owner, Finney had every right to adopt whatever design proved best for him.
She is right, of course.
By way of a follow up, Jolon Clark, Denver City Council representative for District 7, said in a recent interview, “If I can present to the city a plan that meets all [the zoning] requirements, the city is compelled to approve it without input from City Council or anyone else. It’s called ‘Use by right.’”
According to Councilman Clark, creating a vehicle for design control takes many volunteer hours and a fair amount of money.
“If a neighborhood has never stepped forward and said, ‘This is important to us; we want to do this,’ and come up with a plan for how to do that, all [developers] have is the Zoning Code,” he said.
South Pearl Street is zoned U-MS-2, zoning speak for urban, main street, two stories.
Main Street zoning covers, among other things, how buildings will be positioned relative to the street, their setbacks, height, walkability and “transparency”—i.e., windows at pedestrian level.
The zoning code does not cover how buildings should look or what materials they’re made of, nor, in the end, does it discuss whether they should fit in with the existing neighborhood.
But according to Andrea Burns of Community Planning and Development, there are three ways the Code can be modified to include design guidelines. All require time, effort and—most difficult of all—consensus on the part of the neighborhood’s residents.
But “without them,” Clark says, “the potential for what people could do with property in Platt Park and on Pearl Street is vastly different from what we have today.”
One way is to apply for and receive a historic district or a historic landmark designation from Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. According to the Commission’s website, there are 52 historic districts in Denver and 332 Historic Landmarks. The application processes for historic district or landmark status are lengthy and complex and can cost between $250 and $1,500, but design guidelines included in either designation are binding.
Burns says the second way for a neighborhood to put together binding design guidelines is to work with Community Planning and Development on a neighborhood plan which includes design guidelines. Once again, this requires substantial volunteer time investment. Unfortunately, the city is far behind in creating neighborhood plans, which take about two years to complete.
“The good news is we have been given more staff and resources for 2016-2017 to plan more neighborhoods faster,” Burns says.
She also points out “the zoning code was adopted by City Council in 2010 with input from several thousand residents who participated, and in that respect residents have already exerted some control over what gets built. Zoning regulations are the result of extensive, thoughtful community conversations.”
Burns points to Cherry Creek and Arapahoe Square as examples of neighborhoods with design guidelines.
As a third option, Burns says a Registered Neighborhood Organization can formulate strong suggestions regarding new construction and businesses, but these are not binding.
For example, John Urbana of Platt Park People’s Association’s (3PA) Committee for Responsible Development (CFRD) says when the old India Pearl building was slated for demolition to make way for the Tavern Platt Park, the Tavern agreed to reconstruct much of the facade. Correspondence between 3PA and Historic Denver indicates, however, the Tavern breached the facade preservation agreement with Historic Denver and 3PA.
“Historic Denver says there is no remedy but to sue Tavern which neither they nor 3PA has the resources or support to do… A very discouraging turn of events for 3PA and Historic Denver,” said then-president of the 3PA Board, Kathleen Gueymard.
The Tavern cited problems with structural integrity for scrapping some, though not all, of the facade’s features.
Charlotte Elich, owner of 5 Green Boxes and treasurer of South Pearl Street Association, has operated businesses on the street for 40 years. She believes the design of new construction does make a difference in the appeal of Old South Pearl as a shopping and dining destination.
“I don’t think it would be a bad idea to have something in writing that would have the support of the neighborhood that would say, ‘If you’re planning on building or buying, this is stuff we would love to have you consider,’” she says.
Finney explained in a recent interview a 55 percent rise in rent at his Cherry Creek office inspired him to buy and remodel Gaia as a new location. According to Finney, remodeling proved impractical for the old house. He also contends there was no animosity expressed on either side of the sale.
“I found out that Greentree was for sale. I did not force Greg [Wallach] out, I didn’t even force Gaia out. They voluntarily listed the properties on the open market,” said Finney, and he bought them.
Finney contends he is working hard to cooperate with 3PA, which asked him for three things: parking, preservation and notice of construction. He says his building can accommodate 28 new day and 10 new night off-street parking spaces and 10 bike spaces, and he will do the best he can at providing construction notice.
As for preservation, he says, “It’s definitely OK for people to question how a new construction is going to fit in. And I want to hear their feedback. The nexus between property owners’ rights and the neighborhood’s economic and aesthetic needs is collaboration. I love Old South Pearl, and I want to make sure it works well for everyone.”
3PA’s Urbana believes that good standing in the neighborhood carries some weight in these negotiations. Finney presented the final architect’s rendering of his new office building at a 3PA meeting on September 20. Unfortunately, his presentation was not listed on the meeting agenda, so few members attended.
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