Lambourn House Public Testimony: 11/30/2015
Annie Levinsky, Executive Director
Thank you for taking the time this evening to consider the preservation of 5115 W. 29th Avenue. I suspect that you are going to hear a lot tonight about criteria and significance, about what makes a place “historic,” and competing interpretations of that term. To that end I would like to remind you that the Denver Landmark Commission, which evaluated this property prior to recommending it for your consideration this evening, is a body of nine expert individuals. Like the Planning Board, the commissioners are appointed by the Mayor. The statue requires them to exhibit professional expertise in architecture, history, landscape architecture and construction. They serve without compensation in order to perform a duty that is valued in our Revised Municipal Code, and in our Community Planning Documents, including BluePrint Denver, which states: “Historic preservation and urban design contribute to the development of a sense of place and community across Denver’s neighborhoods.” They also live and work here in Denver, and so in addition to their professional expertise, they know and understand our City, its architectural characteristics, its geography, and its history.
I would like to further note that Denver’s requirement that a property meet criteria in two out of three categories is a higher threshold than typical in cities across the country. In fact, the National Register of Historic Places requires only one category of significance. I also point this out because it has been suggested that properties such as the Lambourn House should have to meet criteria in all three categories to even be considered by this body. If that were the case there are many beloved, designated structures that we would have lost long ago. For example, our property, the Molly Brown House Museum, is often cited in discussions like this as an example of a site highly worthy of preservation but it could very easily be argued that it only meets criteria in two of three categories, as its location mid-block in Capitol Hill does not offer obvious geographic significance.
Preservation is not only above saving the obvious places, only the high-style designs, or the places built by the privileged class, it is also about reflecting where we came from, how people lived and earned their living, and how our City has changed over time. As Tom Mayes put it “Old places help people place themselves in that “great, sweeping arc” of time…they…contribute to people’s sense of being on a continuum with the past. That awareness gives meaning to the present, and enhances the human capacity to have a vision for the future.”
When the demolition review ordinance was passed by City Council there was research done into the policies of other cities, and the council members acknowledged that from time to time council would be faced with a difficult decision, but the tradeoff of having time to consider the impact of a potential demolition was worth it. The fact that council has faced this kind of decision on average less than once per year for the last ten years is a testament to the care with which the ordinance is employed, and it is really extremely rare that you have had two such decisions in a single month.
Historic Denver is not an applicant on this designation, but we were included in this specific conversation about 5115 W. 29th, the Lambourn House, before the public hearing at the Landmark Commission on October 20. Our Preservation Committee reviewed the materials and determined that the house does meet at least two of the criteria as required in the ordinance. As a result, we spoke in favor of the designation at the Landmark Commission. At that hearing we also emphasized the importance of moving the application forward so there could be time for a thorough conversation about the building before it is demolished, a conversation that had not yet occurred. We then worked to connect the community applicants with the property owner, as we greatly value such conversations and have had success in the past finding compromises or alternative outcomes that meet the needs of both parties.
After several weeks of outreach we were able to facilitate a meeting between the owner and the applicants on Friday, November 20, and we appreciate the willingness of both groups to sit around a table and talk about their perspectives, hopes and concerns. At that time both parties agreed to consider an alternative scenario in which the community advocates would have time to seek a preservation-minded buyer for the property that would allow the current owner to recoup his investment and seek a different opportunity. Prior to Thanksgiving the parties worked to negotiate terms, but ultimately there was no agreement on a realistic time frame or price.
We do think it is incumbent on both parties in this type of situation, the community and the property owner, to communicate with one-another and seek solutions that serve our city well long into the future. Due to the pace of current development and the real estate market these conversations are becoming less common, and the outcomes more disappointing. The answer to tonight’s question is not as black and white as it seems, and in your deliberations we hope you will consider that sometimes this venue is the only venue for conversation about the future of our built environment.
Historic preservation has been an incredibly important tool in Denver’s growth and development, contributing to the quality of life and very desirability that attracts so many newcomers. Seeking a reasonable balance, one that accommodates both development and preservation, is important not just in this situation, but to the future of our City. Thank you.