There’s a perception that historic preservation only ever always gets in the way of development. Once we’ve saved one important house and turned it into a museum, what would be the need to landmark anything else? Can’t the preservationists just focus on the museum and let everything else get scraped and replaced? We need more _______ (housing/office space/parking/big box stores/fill in the blank with whatever the need of the day is)! 

But discounting historic preservation can have negative social, economic, and environmental ramifications. I’ve already written a whole four-part series on how historic preservation is an important part of creating a vibrant local economy, so I won’t delve into that here. I would like to address one specific example in Fort Collins that shows just what it could look like to value historic preservation while at the same time allowing for new development.  

A conceptual review was submitted to the City of Fort Collins in 2023 regarding the property where 2Mazda of Fort Collins (formerly Spradley-Barr Ford) is located. The proposal also includes the Sherwin-Williams property to the south and a third parcel that is used as additional parking space by the dealership. The City’s Preservation Department had a historic survey completed on the property and found that the 2Mazda building (Possibly buildings. I haven’t been able to read the report yet.) are eligible for historic designation. That means that there is something significant about the building(s) — most likely their relationship to a car-centric pattern of development that was new for the City at the time, their significantly mid-century Modern architectural design, and the new use of a construction technique in the back portion of the main building — and that they retain enough integrity to convey that significance.

When a commercial property contains a designated historic landmark or is found to contain a building eligible for designation, the City requires that the “proposed development is compatible with and protects historic resources” (LUC 3.4.7(A)1). In the case of the old Ghent Motor property (now 2Mazda), the code requires that “Historic resources on [the] development site are preserved, adaptively reused, and incorporated into the proposed development” (LUC 3.4.7(A)(1). There’s still a pathway towards demolition if the property owner wants to pursue that, but because of 3.4.7, they’ll just have to take some extra steps to get there. I have yet to see a property owner take this route, at least not in the past decade or so. Usually when the property owner continues to insist that demolition is the only way to achieve their objective, they will appeal the eligibility decision to the Historic Preservation Commission, and if the HPC still upholds staff’s decision, then the property owner can appeal to City Council. 

The kind of building reuse required by the Land Use Code, section 3.4.7, has been done many, many times within the city of Fort Collins, with good results. A recent, beloved example on the east side of town is the conversion of old farm buildings at Jessup Farm into a restaurant, cafe, brewery, and other small shops. While 205 single-family homes, 220 condos, and 330 apartment units were constructed on greenfields around the old farmstead, the adaptive reuse of the farmstead itself has provided a sense of connection to Fort Collins history that would have been lost if those buildings had been scraped. They add an authenticity to the entire development — a value add — that comes only by keeping the older buildings, with all of their character and patina.

The Balfour development proposed on E. Harmony in 2022 was going to leverage the historic farmhouses, barn, and shed to create a Western sense of place for the new 5-story independent living development. (The image above was taken from the company’s marketing materials on the project.) Unfortunately, the project seems to have been canceled (perhaps due to the sudden rise in interest rates?), but the advantage of keeping and integrating the historic buildings into their design is evident as you look through the marketing materials developed for the project.

Other recent projects that have retained historic resources include the new Alpine Bank building on the southeast corner of College and Prospect, the Music District on S. College, and the lofts at 148 Remington Street. 

So what the code is asking the developers of the old Ghent Motor property to do is to find a creative way to leverage the resource that they have on their property, rather than throwing it away. The historic resource has value to the community as a whole, reminding us of our past, including past values and stylistic choices. By retaining the resource and using it for a new purpose, the development would immediately retain a sense of authenticity that it would otherwise take decades to accrue. It would also keep materials out of the landfill and reduce the amount of new resources that need to be harvested, processed, hauled, and installed into a new building. And there’s still plenty of room on the site for a significant amount of new construction.

Compare the developers’ proposal (above) to what the project might look like if they instead retain the historic buildings (below). Granted, the image is an ugly cut-and-paste job and would require reworking, but it’s enough to give you a sense of how the corner buildings could be retained and reused and there’d still be more than enough room to add all the things that the developers want to add. 

The applicant is hoping to add a new gas station at the corner of Drake and College — half a mile south of where a gas station was recently scraped to be replaced by a bank and one mile east of where another gas station was recently converted into a pizza shop. (There’s also a gas station one mile to the north and half a mile to the south of this location. So if there used to be four, and two have already closed, isn’t that a sign that we don’t need another one? But what do I know.)

No matter what the applicant wants to put on the site, the code requires that they find a way to reuse the building on the corner or go through the necessary steps to demolish. Retaining the historic buildings wouldn’t be particularly onerous. The old Ghent building has a lot of natural light, making it a brilliant location for a restaurant or cafe. It could also be a beautiful retail space with ample floor space.

If we are in desperate need of housing, which we are, and have nowhere else to put that housing but where historic buildings reside, then we need to find a way to bear the loss while building for the need. But when there are times that we can provide for the desperate need while still retaining part of the DNA of our community — resources that help us better understand who we are and where we’ve been — then why wouldn’t we choose the path that helps us keep that sense of place?