- Denver City Council votes tonight on hostile historic designation.
- Guest columnist, a broker and developer, says the council should vote no.
- Historic designation a guise to stop unwanted development, Tom LaRocque argues.
By Tom LaRocque
Special to Denver Real Estate Watch
The City Council will vote tonight on whether a 2,200-square-foot link to Denver’s history will survive more than a few more months.
The decision regarding a historic designation over the objections of the owner, may as well earn a page in the history books.
A developer, Nathan Adams, will learn the outcome of his $1 million bid to buy 2329 Eliot Street, a once proud Victorian that is still habitable but, even its owner says, ready for the wrecking ball.
The owner, 65-year-old Jim Sonnleitner, will learn whether in fact he can sell the property to Adams, and then maybe retire from roofing.
Their deal is contingent on avoiding the council’s dreaded historic designation, which would prevent the developer from knocking it down.
Sonnleitner’s neighbors in Jefferson Park will find out whether the so-called Anderson House, with tenuous ties to 19th Century history, will be replaced by 18 modern townhomes.
Denver citizens may learn something about how far the long arms of their city officials can reach into their lives.
Should the decaying 129-year-old house be preserved?
The question is complicated, and the history is a little bizarre.
My answer is no; the house can go.
Finding the right facts here is like navigating an obsolete floor plan of cluttered, confusing rooms.
First stop is…
The History Hall
Colorado’s hungriest cannibal was Alfred (or Alferd) Packer.
After an 1874 winter trek over a mountain pass near Gunnison, Packer confessed to having eaten his human companions.
He ended up on trial in Denver, where he consorted with attorneys including William Anderson.
Anderson lived in the Eliot Street house and owned it for a time.
His connection with Packer was insignificant, say detractors of the overblown mythology.
The feckless attorney swindled Packer out of a few dollars and they parted ways.
Anderson’s brush with “celebrity cannibalism” is not grounds for immortality, say the critics.
There’s more to the Anderson story.
He shot a newspaper publisher and stood trial.
Again, what part of a city’s legacy should be memorialized?
Nobody called this property the Anderson House before the current development controversy, notes Adams, the developer.
My Take: Our walk through the “history department” yields scant justification for preserving the Sonnleitner property. It’s a nebulous connection to forgettable parts of Denver’s past.
Now we move on to…
The Business Office
Here we are where the deals get done.
Sonnleitner purchased the beloved Anderson place in 1989, 14 years after buying the similar-sized structure next door. Both lots and a third one are part of the proposed sale.
When Adams approached him about selling the decrepit property, Sonnleitner figured $1 million wasn’t a bad price.
Even the optimists at Zillow say it is worth barely half that, and they can’t see the rotting front steps.
In media commentaries and on his own web site, Sonnleitner has praised Adams as a straight shooter and an upfront guy.
Critics of their deal have long maintained that the seller could do better.
Terminate that contract and sell for a higher price to some preservation-minded developer, they advise. A win-win-win, they call it.
Sonnleitner cites the absurdity of airing his private business dealings in public, yet has been forthcoming about his reasons for sticking with Adams.
I too find it odd, but what’s really hard to swallow is the financial claims of people who oppose the deal. Consistently they say the property would be worth more than a million dollars if the Adams offer went away.
What has been conveniently overlooked by many is that Adams did not make a “low-ball” offer for $1 million to Sonnleitner. Adams offered the full asking price that Sonnleitner requested. And Sonnleitner was represented by a broker during the process.
The strength of any offer stems from its likelihood to close, contingencies, buyer track record, seller timetable, etc. The appeal of $1 million today could easily exceed the uncertain prospect of even $1.2 million down the road. Especially to a guy who wants to retire.
As recently as Saturday, a new wrinkle appeared.
An offer of $1.1 million has been presented to Sonnleitner, according to Betty Luce, acting as the buyer’s agent.
Her unidentified, preservation-minded client is “interested” in the City Council vote and even “disappointed” that his offer hasn’t been accepted.
The implication is, they can work with the property with or without a historic tag.
What’s unclear, is whether Sonnleitner is free to accept a new offer, given his contract tie-up with Adams ¾ or willing to, given the normal uncertainties in any offer.
The new offer may be just a back-up, and perhaps too late to be considered
It’s like arriving at noon for a 12:05 flight out of DIA.
Your plane hasn’t left, but you’ve missed it.
My Take: No argument for preservation comes from the deal-making discussion. The “highest and best” is not always the highest. Let’s respect the owner’s ability to make up his own mind.
Next, we visit…
The Due-Process Parlor
We enter this room with nagging doubts about procedure and protocol, based on what we’ve read.
In May, Sonnleitner and Adams secured a Certificate of Non-Historic Status.
Normally. such a document says there will be no historic designation. It clears the way for demolition. This sale almost went on unobstructed.
But at the 11th hour—make it the 13th hour—a historic application was submitted.
Among the four applicants was Rafael Espinoza, then still a Councilman-elect (not yet sworn in) for District 1. Espinoza was elected on a popular development-curtailment platform.
The councilman insists he did not “pull rank” or expect special privileges that evening. Just an ordinary citizen doing citizen business. But at 7 pm.
Here the story gets kind of funny.
Adams secured the Non-Historic certificate that very day around 4 p.m. With the deadline an hour away, he figured he’d thwart any last minute challenges. But then the wily councilman-elect slipped in even later that evening, and somehow got the undoing started.
They were both wrong about the deadline.
They’d miscalculated, and were entitled to another day, said Denver District Court Judge A. Bruce Jones in a multi-part verdict that roundly went against the developer. (Again it was Adams who initiated the suit in an attempt to remove roadblocks.)
The application moved on to a hearing at the Landmark Preservation Commission.
Its Oct. 6 decision recommending historic status was not a surprise.
It was by then a very high-profile case.
Like asking the barber, in public, if we need haircuts. Damn right we do.
I am not persuaded by the commission’s position.
Yes, the Packer Property—sorry, the Anderson House—is historic, folkloric, and whatever else they demand. But did the planners carefully consider the preferences of the owner, as required by their own rules? Hmmm…
My Take: The landmark commission blessed the historic request, and a court absolved on any procedural issues. But how did we get here? Tonight’s proposal doesn’t broadly represent a neighborhood.
Next stop …
The Games Room
With so many shady events in the home’s distant past, it is fitting to find some shenanigans in recent history. Sonnleitner’s pursuers said they’d pleaded with him for a meeting, before deciding to TP his home.
“I never heard from them,” he said in a media report.
The preservationists quickly admitted he was right. It was not an intent to deceive, they said.
The claim resulted from haste in preparing paperwork.
When a third party secures historical status without the owner’s consent, it is sometimes called a “hostile” historic designation.
It doesn’t take too many neighbors to target a property that way. It takes three, according to Community Planning rules.
So let the games begin.
When a few activists can benefit from the travails of one odd man out, I fear chaos.
Ganging up for a hostile designation is just the start.
The lexicon could include retaliatory, pre-emptive, and price-corrective historic designations.
Defenders say it’ll never be that bad.
One reason is, it’s a hassle to go get a historic designation. And expensive—the four admirers of Sonnleitner’s architecture had to shell out nearly $900!
I say look at the ROI (return on investment).
Envision an investor angling to knock down home values on a specific block. Consider a homeowner who just had a run-in with his neighbor over parties or parking. I’m calling the Landmark Commission!
The city says historic designation has a positive impact on home prices. Property values are 12 percent higher in neighborhoods with locally designated historic districts (like Baker and Curtis Park) compared to adjacent areas. In my book, that interpretation is a stretch.
The planners may need a refresher in causation versus correlation.
Even if property values get a bump overall, the potential for abuse is situation-specific.
My Take: Tonight’s council vote is about one hostile plan in particular, not third-party actions in general. Yet it is precedent-setting. To minimize abusive actions, the council should approve legitimate applications and fend off the rest, like this one.
Finally we enter…
The Silent Sanctuary
(In this room, where truth is spoken, we must whisper.)
Denver Post reporter Jeremy Meyer visited Sonnleitner at home in September.
The place was “a dump,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Post
Mice scampered about, and the rooms were ridden with peeling paint and cracked plaster. “The kitchen is absurd,” noted Sonnleitner, who concurs with the poor assessment of his house.
The sink, fridge, and range are all in separate rooms.
That, my friends, is the property they’re trying so hard to preserve.
It is lauded as a Queen Anne Victorian, but it’s not like the queen ever lived there.
Hundreds of similar, grand architectural specimens populate Jefferson Park and Northwest Denver.
A few are on the same block.
Espinoza is sitting out of this evening’s vote, which is the right thing to do, as one of the applicants.
The District Court upheld his right to have applied at 7 p.m. on a Thursday. But is that sort of behavior what we want in city officials, even if not yet duly sworn in?
It seems so high school.
More to the point:
- Ugly, out-of-scale new developments are bad.
- Underhanded operators should be called out.
- Developers care mainly about profit.
However, a functionally obsolete shack serves no one, irrespective of its visual appeal.
And city officials should not pander or assume unequivocal public support for Anti-Development-ism.
Tonight, they should vote no on CB15-0768.
My Take: Queen Anne notwithstanding, isn’t all this preservation talk just an anti-development campaign in sheep’s clothing? Of course it is.
The recent $1.1 million offer would bring a fair amount of density to the property as well, without tearing down Cannibal Estates. Sorry, the Anderson House.
So it’s not about stopping development. So say its supporters. But first the deal would have to close.
When private property becomes public scenery, we are all doomed.
All that shields us is our respect for individual property rights.
When our neighbors can go after you, us, all that’s left is the government. The council men and women should understand that.
“This is a huge property rights issue,” Adams has said in the media. There should be an outcry, he says.
So why are we whispering?
Tom LaRocque is a real estate broker, licensed general contractor, and new-home developer. Visit DenverHousePros.com for more information.
Interested in buying a home in Jefferson Park? Please visit COhomefinder.com.
Have a story idea or real estate tip? Contact John Rebchook at JRCHOOK@gmail.com. DenverRealEstateWatch.com is sponsored by 8z Real Estate. To read more articles by John Rebchook, subscribe to the Colorado Real Estate Journal.