Atlantic Cities
Urban Wonk

Who Has the Right to Preserve a City's Past?

Who Has the Right to Preserve a City's Past?
Flickr/bradbridgewater

The owners of the long-shuttered Gates Rubber Company factory complex in Denver want to knock it down. So do neighborhood groups who have been calling for the site to be redeveloped. But an urban explorer college student living in nearby Boulder has taken it upon himself to save the site by applying for a historic landmark designation – a controversial move that's causing many in the city to consider who has the right to preserve history.

Eugene Elliott is a 21-year-old from Iowa studying real estate and business at the University of Colorado, and he really likes the Gates Rubber factory. According to posts on the urban explorer forum UER.com, Elliott has taken a handful of trips inside the decaying complex. In papers filed with the city of Denver, he argues that the complex is an important element of the city's physical history and played an important role in the development of the economy. Complete with a $250 fee, Elliott has started the formal process of saving the complex from destruction.

The Gates company, city officials and various neighborhood groups are livid. They'd been working for years to usher the site towards redevelopment as a planned retail and residential development on the site. The historic preservation filing, they say, is a wrench in the gears and will add unnecessary further delay to the redevelopment. This recent article from Denver Westword details their disappointment.

Elliott didn't consult with Gates management before filing his application; he says he made attempts but couldn't reach anyone in authority. He didn't contact any members of the five neighborhood associations that have worked for years on cleanup and redevelopment plans for the site. His request caught city officials by surprise, too. City councilman Chris Nevitt, who'd spent countless hours in discussions with Gates and Cherokee, community groups and health officials about the property, was particularly outraged about the application — enough to call Elliott and try to persuade him to withdraw it.

"I hate to tell y'all this," Nevitt wrote in an e-mail blast to interested parties, "but someone has filed to designate the old Gates factory buildings as historic, thereby bringing to a screeching halt the process that would have made it possible for them eventually to be demolished...It's particularly disappointing that the application comes from someone who is not even a resident of Denver."

"I had a long and polite, but ultimately fruitless, conversation with Mr. Elliott. He appeared to show no interest in the opinions of the neighborhoods that have been invested in this site for all these years, nor to show much concern for the economic importance of redevelopment of this keystone site for Denver...Ah, the blissful self-confidence of the young."

For his part, Elliott argues that he thinks the complex is worthy of at least a little more conversation before redevelopment plans roll ahead.

That conversation is underway in Denver, where locals are now questioning whether the city's preservation laws should be changed. Elliott, some argue, shouldn't have the right to file historic preservation requests because he's not actually a resident of the city.

It's an interesting point, but also raises the question of just who has the right to want to preserve the past. There are some obvious conflicts of interest if only the owners of buildings have that right, and the same goes for neighborhood groups. Though Elliott claims his effort has no connection with his urban exploring hobby, urban explorers represent a group of stakeholders with a valid perspective on the significance of places like the Gates Rubber factory. And while a new residential and retail complex may be just what this area needs, there's probably also an argument that, depending on the design, another generic shopping and housing center would actually be more of a blight than a preserved factory.

A public hearing on the matter has been scheduled for September 4th. While no one expects Elliott's historic designation request to be approved, it has at least inspired a little more discussion about this piece of the city's history.

Image courtesy Flickr user bradbridgewater

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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