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Preservationists Wary Of Plans For Larimer Square

More than 50 years after renowned preservationist Dana Crawford saved one of Denver’s oldest blocks, Larimer Square’s current owner is trying to determine what the future holds for the city’s first designated historic district. 

Larimer Associates wants to enhance the character of historic Larimer Square.

Larimer Associates CEO Jeff Hermanson, who has owned the block since 1993, recently announced plans to build two new buildings there, including one that will bring affordable housing to the district. But pushback from historic preservation groups has prompted him to engage the community by creating an advisory board that could have up to 60 members.

The historic buildings on the block date to the late 1800s and are in need of repair, Hermanson said, noting that one has settled in such a way that there is almost a foot difference between its wall on the alley and the facade fronting the street. There also are sewer and HVAC issues, he said. 

“There are only so many coats of paint you can do before you have to do a deep dive,” said Hermanson, who estimates he has invested $30M in the block since he acquired it 25 years ago. “Our goal has been to envision a transformative project. Now we want to hear from the community. [Our vision] is big, it’s bold, but if we can’t get community buy-in, it doesn’t happen.”

Larimer Square hosts the Chalk Art Festival each year.

Hermanson, who says the process will take several years, is working with Urban Villages on the plan, which proposes two buildings as high as 40 stories behind the square with green roofs that are envisioned to serve as urban farms for the restaurants below.

“We’re very open to whatever alternative the community comes up with,” Urban Villages principal and Chief Development Officer Jon Buerge said. “It may be very different than what we presented.”

Historic Denver Executive Director Annie Levinsky, who is among those who have been asked to participate in the process, has expressed concern that the proposal for Larimer Square would change protections that have been in place for Larimer Square for more than 50 years. Some of those protections include keeping the buildings’ height to 64 feet.

“We’re opening a Pandora’s box if we monkey with those guidelines and mess with Larimer Square,” Levinsky said. “It’s a big part of our success story, and I think we need to be careful about things that cannibalize our success. We hope the process really starts at the beginning of Larimer Square and why it’s so important. The city needs a refresh of that. We’re willing to be at the table and work with the owners to vet ideas. We want Larimer Square to survive and retain the existing fabric and sense of place.”

Larimer Square's chef-driven restaurants dish up their specialties at the annual Dining Al Fresco event.

If Crawford hadn’t saved the block, Larimer Square would have fallen victim to the city’s Skyline Project, where the Denver Urban Renewal Authority razed 27 contiguous blocks of downtown to create surface parking lots and make way for modern skyscrapers like Tabor Center and Republic Plaza, which both were completed in 1984.

From the day she arrived in Denver in 1954, Crawford began searching for a place where people could gather for socializing, dining and shopping. While living in Boston, where she earned a degree in business administration from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard University), she had fallen in love with the city’s vast inventory of historic buildings, and she hoped to find something similar, if smaller, in Denver. While raising four boys with her late husband, John, she explored the city, and in 1963 she discovered the perfect spot, on Larimer Street between 14th and 15th streets — the heart of what was then Denver’s skid row. 

That block of Larimer had a storied past. It had been home to Denver’s first bank, as well as its first bookstore, dry goods store and photographer. The original City Hall had stood on the grassy corner of 14th and Larimer. (It was torn down in the 1940s.)

Larimer Square is Denver's first designated historic district.

Crawford and a group of investors spent several years quietly buying property until they controlled enough of the block to announce the creation of Larimer Square. Though her original intent was to have local tenants, she populated the block with national tenants like Ann Taylor, Talbots, Lara Ashley and Williams-Sonoma in an effort to make it work financially. Today, the block is dominated by chef-driven restaurants and local retailers. 

So what does Crawford think of Hermanson’s plans for the block?

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on historic buildings over the next decade or so, so people better be prepared,” she said. “For a while, they kept saying I was supporting it, but I didn’t fully understand what they were trying to do. I do support a public process.”