Elyria has gone through a lot of changes where the residents didn’t have a say and a big part of that is development and demolishing of old homes,” explained Ana Varela. “Making a historical district protects our structures from being demolished without approval or renovated in a way that removes the character of the home.”
Varela, who lives in Elyria, is spearheading an effort to create a historic cultural district in the neighborhood. Denver’s historic districts highlight the architectural or cultural significance of an area. They also create special guidelines regarding if and how buildings can be modified or replaced.
Denver has over 50 historic districts, but only two historic cultural districts–Five Points and La Alma–whose criteria for recognition was based in part on more cultural aspects than strictly architectural, using new criteria approved in 2018. Designation has ten criteria, for which a district must meet at least three. Previously, city officials explained, there were fewer criteria and they skewed towards wealthier, whiter neighborhoods because they were more focused on grandiose buildings. The additional criteria and other changes allow for more recognition in communities of color and working class neighborhoods.
Varela describes the neighborhood style as “Similar to La Alma, deep roots in late Victorian cottages, [including] smaller, multi level Victorian homes with humble trimmings and decor.” More importantly to her, though, is the ability to recognize the contributions residents of Elyria have made to the city since homes were built there starting in the 1880s. The historic designation can help prevent homes from being demolished and replaced with larger, expensive homes that some residents feel are not aligned with the character of the community.
Michael Flowers, Director of Preservation Action for Historic Denver, noted that “Elyria has a lot of great history.” Historic Denver, a nonprofit organization separate from the city, supports proposals like Varela’s with a variety of resources, including a $15,000 commitment for this effort to pay for researchers, printed materials for community meetings, and similar costs. He sees the organization operating in a support role, though, and doesn’t want residents to think the organization is pushing an idea the community doesn’t support. “This is a community process. It’s a community-led process…we want community input,” he explained. “One way or the other we want to know what people think.”
Currently, Varela and other organizers are gathering community input and research on homes in the area to create a formal proposal for the city.
Creating a historic district often takes over a year according to Kara Hahn, Principal Planner with Landmark Preservation, part of the Community Planning and Development department for the city. Hahn explained there are three unofficial phases to the process. Right now the Historic Elyria team is in the first: gathering information and creating the proposal. Once it’s finished, if the city moves forward with the idea they will spend about five months holding community meetings, answering questions, and getting feedback. From there it goes to the Landmark Preservation Commission and ultimately city council for approval. Each district has its own criteria based on the unique characteristics of the area.
Historic districts are not without downsides though, and residents will need to weigh the benefits and drawbacks when deciding whether they want to pursue a historic designation that would include their home. “Contributing structures,” the term given to those homes and other buildings that are recognized for their historic values, cannot easily be removed. If a homeowner wants to scrape their small, older home and replace it with something larger and modern they may not be allowed to, which can also impact a potential buyer’s interest and resale value. There’s also restrictions on what sort of renovations can be done, especially to the exterior of the building. Some improvements and repairs, even with flexible criteria, can prove more costly for homeowners as well.
There are resources available to homeowners to offset costs though, explained Hahn. There are state tax credits (not deductions, but actual credits against taxes owed) as well as a historical fund with competitive grants for improvements and maintenance to keep homes habitable and habitated. Recently, some of those funds have been updating their own criteria, again to recognize needs in less affluent communities.
Hahn explained that one reason each district has unique criteria for how homes can and can’t be altered is to ensure that improvements to homes aren’t too expensive for homeowners. “Part of the reason to do customized design guidelines is to look at it through a lens of equity.”
Historic Elyria is in the initial planning stages and seeking input from residents. We’ll be following their progress and providing updates in future issues of The G.E.S. Gazette.
Interested in learning more or giving input on the idea?
Ana Varela, Historic Elyria
Michael Flowers, Historic Denver
City of Denver Community
Planning and Development
www.denvergov.org/cpd (Select “Landmark Preservation”)