- Denver City Council votes no on historic designation for Jefferson Park home.
- Council’s vote a victory for property rights.
- More than 3 dozen spoke passionately for preservation and property rights.
In a victory for property right advocates and a defeat for historic preservationists, the Denver City Council on Monday night rejected the historic designation for a home in Jefferson Park.
The council voted 7-4 to turn down the historic designation for the home at 2329 Eliot St. that was facing the designation against the wishes of the owner, Jim Sonnleitner.
“Allow me to retire in peace and possibly build a home with no stairs,” Sonnleitner told the council, which listened to more than three dozen citizens during a session that lasted 3 hours and 37 minutes.
About two dozen people attending wore white t-shirts that said “Support Jim” in black letters.
Sonnleitner said that he felt as if his property rights were being “trampled,” by what some call a hostile historic designation, since it was against his wishes.
Sonnleitner, a roofer by trade, said he is getting “too old to pound nails,” and his home is his pension.
The council’s decision clears the way for Sonnleitner to sell his Queen Anne-style home to local developer Nathan Adams.
Adams has agreed to pay Sonnleitner $1 million for the home and surrounding property at a newly created address, 2323 W. 23rd Ave., where Adams plans to build 18 energy-efficient townhomes priced in the upper $400,000s.
Complicating the matter was that last Friday a backup offer from another developer for $1.1 million had surfaced for what preservationists call the “Anderson House,” because a lawyer, William W. Anderson, lived in the home for several years.
Anderson received national notoriety during the “Yellow Journalism” days of Denver for shooting Harry H. Tammen and Frederick G. Bonfils in 1900, the publishers of the Denver Post. Anderson, who eventually was acquitted after three trials, shot them following a scuffle regarding Anderson’s apparent interest in representing Colorado cannibal Alfred Packer.
A number of council members said they did not believe that the events of 115 years ago warranted approving the historic designation.
While the story is “interesting,” councilman Kevin Flynn said it also is “exceedingly thin,” and not “remarkable” enough to warrant a historic designation for the home.
He pointed out that Tammen’s house on Humboldt Street in Capitol Hill is not a landmark building and that Tammen was far more important to Denver’s history than Anderson. Flynn also noted that none of the events involving Anderson occurred in the house. He said if historic designation was granted, the bar was so low that almost any house more than 30 years old would qualify for a historic designation, maybe even his own.
He and several other council members said it should require the “highest bar,” before granting a historic designation against the wishes of the owner.
“The strong arm of government should not be used in this case,” Flynn said.
Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman said she heard more people talk against development than in favor of saving historic buildings.
For example, developer David Zucker, principal of Zocalo Community Development, which is headquartered in Jefferson Park, said many residents he spoke with felt like they were “under siege” by developers who were making “land grabs.”
Susman also questioned the propriety of commemorating someone who got away with attempted murder, especially in light of the horrific shooting that have occurred in the Denver area.
She said it is appropriate to honor the places where things such as the Sand Creek Massacre occurred, but not the villains.
Along the same lines, Councilman Paul Lopez said he doesn’t care about David Chapman, but the former Beatle, John Lennon, who was murdered by Chapman.
And while he thinks that Northwest Denver is suffering from over-development, a lack of affordable homes and gentrification, a historic designation against the wishes of Sonnleitner is not the appropriate tool for dealing with those issues, Lopez said.“Jim seems like a straight-up guy,” Lopez said. “He works with his hands, like my grandfather.”
City Councilman Rafael Espinoza, who represents District 1, which includes Jefferson Park, recused himself from the vote. That is because when he was a councilman-elect he submitted the historic application paperwork, which got the ball rolling on this.
“Jim (Sonnleitner) is the loser,” Espinoza said after the vote.
He noted that not only had another developer surfaced willing to pay $1.1 million and save the home from the wrecking ball, but also it was possible that other developers would have bid the price even higher, possibly north of $1.5 million.
Asked if he thought the vote would have been different if he had participated in the discussion, Espinoza said he would have made a strong case why the home should be saved.
In fact, he said there is no such thing as a “hostile” historic designation and it shows a bias when that phrase is used.
“I would have told Kevin Flynn he is wrong,” Espinoza said.
“I would have told Paul Lopez this is not a museum,” being preserved, he said.
With the council’s vote, there is almost no chance that the buyer willing to pony up $1.1 million and save the home will do so.
“I think that deal is dead in the water now,” because of the contract Sonnleitner has with Adams, said Betty Luce, a broker with Nostalgic Homes, who represented the developer with the back-up offer. She said there were no contingencies to her developer’s offer. During the hearing, Sonnleitner’s broker, Michael Ayer, said the back-up offer should not “muddy the waters,” adding that the second offer had some contingencies, although a historic designation was not one of them.
During the hearing, Councilwoman Robin Kniech said while no one has ever called her anti-development and she often supports density, in this case she was voting for the historic designation. She noted that the ordinance does not require an “extraordinary” set of circumstances to approve a historic designation, even against the wishes of the homeowner.
She said what she heard from neighbors was a desire to preserve the fabric of their community and history, with a little bit of “unhappiness with development.”
Kniech said she hopes that the developer can find a way to save the home, even though he is not required to do so.
Jerry Olson, a Jefferson Park resident who has been actively fighting for a historic designation, said it would be nice if Adams would “do the right thing,” and save and renovate the home.
“I don’t think he will,” Olson said.
Adams said that while he is greatly in favor of preserving truly historic buildings, Sonnleitner’s house does not merit such treatment.
He said many neighbors and others were using historic preservation as a tool to stop development they do not like and that is totally inappropriate.
He said if the council approved the historic designation, the Landmark Preservation Commission and the council would be inundated by efforts to “save” homes, when the real purpose was to top development.
A number of people who spoke in favor of historic designation said that is not the case, noting that the back-up offer would save the house, but would still include a number of other new homes on the parcel, which covers almost 20,000 square feet.
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