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Saving Places: Preserving Denver's History

Adaptive reuse projects can be tricky, but they could not be more important. They make places interesting. They give cities character, and in most cases, they preserve a piece of history.

Saving Places: Preserving Denver's History
Larimer Associates CEO Jeff Hermanson was instrumental in redeveloping Denver Union Station.

But across the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, buildings that were considered old were demolished to make way for the new, modern, steel-and-glass-style architecture. Denver was no exception. The Denver Urban Renewal Authority bulldozed many historic buildings on Larimer Street between 15th and 17th streets. 

But one block between 14th and 15th streets, known as Larimer Square, was saved by a Denver housewife who cared deeply about preserving the city’s past.

Dana Crawford assembled the block and preserved it,” Larimer Square Associates CEO Jeff Hermanson told attendees at Colorado Preservation Inc.’s Saving Places Conference. “It’s a celebrated moment. The flip side is that it was an embarrassing moment for the community. Eighty-five percent of the historic fabric of Denver was destroyed. It was cheaper to tear the buildings down and create parking lots. Times have changed. Thank God for Dana Crawford. ”

 

Saving Places: Preserving Denver's History
Zeppelin Development President Kyle Zeppelin said it is possible to help keep original residents in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Hermanson spoke during the Preserving Places that Matter — Breathing New Life into Old Buildings in Denver session of the conference.

Tenants now are putting a premium on heritage buildings, which has been a boon for preservation in the city, said Hermanson, who now owns Larimer Square. His company was instrumental in the preservation and adaptive reuse of Denver Union Station, the transit hub and hotel project he worked on with Crawford. 

“Union Station is really the gold standard for adaptive reuse as far as renovation goes,” Zeppelin Development President Kyle Zeppelin said. “It’s become a model for a lot of cities. It’s not just preserving history but making it relevant to the present day. It helps to have $1B in public funding, but it was very well executed.”

Zeppelin is a master of adaptive reuse. His company repurposed the old Yellow Cab central office into Taxi, a mixed-use campus in Denver’s River North neighborhood. It also gave an 1880s foundry new life as The Source, a bustling artisan food market that features 13 vendors and a bar. 

 

Saving Places: Preserving Denver's History
Punch Bowl Social has opened its 10th location in the old air traffic control tower at Stapleton.

RiNo is one of Denver’s urban neighborhoods that is rapidly gentrifying, but Zeppelin said there are ways to keep longtime residents in place.

“There’s an opportunity, and there are examples to grow a neighborhood where every minority or working-class resident can afford to remain in the neighborhood,” he said. “Part of it is just being invested in the community for the long term. We’re not a two-year flip. We haven’t really sold anything in the last 20 years. Longer-term investments and wanting to be part of something that feels right that’s not displacing people has served us well — even for the bottom line.”

 

Saving Places: Preserving Denver's History
OZ Architecture Managing Principal Rebecca Stone said old warehouses have character.

Zeppelin Development, founded by Kyle Zeppelin’s father, Mickey, is widely regarded as a company that finds the next hot place to go. It developed Taxi in an old industrial area that was sorely lacking in a vibe that would attract people. But today, RiNo is probably the most sought-after location for restaurants, bars, offices and residences, many of which are in old warehouses.

OZ Architecture Managing Principal Rebecca Stone said even if warehouses are not historically significant, they are still worth repurposing. 

 

Saving Places: Preserving Denver's History
Urban Villages Chief Development Officer Jon Buerge looks for momentum in neighborhoods.

“They have great old bones and interesting architecture,” said Stone, whose firm repurposed the old air traffic control tower at Stapleton Airport into Punch Bowl Social. “You can’t just build that character new. From a design perspective, they’re incredibly valuable.”

So how do you know what the next great place is? It is hard to tell, Urban Villages Chief Development Officer Jon Buerge said.

“When I first moved to Denver in the late ’90s, a warehouse in RiNo was $4 to $6 a square foot,” he said. “Now it’s $250 a square foot. Investors are always trying to answer that question. We look at what’s happening in the neighborhood. Is there momentum? Is there great character? It’s hard to create character.”