Property Rights

Neighborhood Activists Would Rather Preserve Tom's Diner Than Let Its Owner Retire in Peace

Denver NIMBYs are using historic preservation laws to stop a restaurant owner from selling his diner to a developer so he can retire.


Tom Messina owns a restaurant. Or at least he thought he did.

For the past 20 years, Messina has operated Tom's Diner on Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver, Colorado. Running the popular 24-hour restaurant—located just a few blocks from the Colorado state capital—is demanding work that Messina is looking to move on from as he nears retirement age.

"I'm a restaurateur who's worked his life flipping pancakes and selling eggs," says Messina. "I have a beautiful family I want to spend time with. I just turned 60 and I want to do something else."

Messina's plan had always been to finance his retirement by selling his restaurant. That dream looked like it would become a reality earlier this year when Alberta Company offered him $4.8 million for his property, which the Colorado-based developer plans to turn into an 8-story apartment building complete with shops on the ground floor.

The price was right for Messina and Alberta's plans fit perfectly with Denver's 2010 rezoning of the property, which marked it as part of an urban center neighborhood fit for denser, mixed-use development.

Everything was going swimmingly until Denver's historic preservationists got wind of Messina's evil plan to sell his property and retire after two decades of serving Denver residents in order for new business owners and residents to work and live where his diner currently sits.

When Alberta Company applied for what is known as a Certificate of Non-Historic Status, which would allow the building to be demolished and redeveloped, five community members assisted by the local preservationist nonprofit Historic Denver filed an application to designate Messina's restaurant a historic landmark. If granted, this landmark status would prevent the building's redevelopment into apartments, drastically reducing the value of Messina's property.

In their 30-plus page application to the city, these activists argued that Messina's restaurant—first built in 1967 as part of the now-extinct White Spots restaurant chain—is a classic example of mid-century Googie architecture and thus worthy of protection.

The same application notes that seven White Spot restaurants were built in the Denver-area in the 1960s. Three of them are still standing, including another one on the same avenue as Messina's restaurant. Nevertheless, these preservationists argue that Messina's building is a particularly good example of Googie tilted roofs and expansive glass windows.

These same activists note that a 2008/2009 survey marked Tom's Diner as eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, and the Historic Denver Guidebook includes an entry on the building.

In a July 16 report, city planning staff recommended that Messina's building be given landmark status. The following week, the city's Landmark Preservation Commission, at a public hearing where Messina pleaded with them to leave his property alone, voted unanimously to recommend landmarking the restaurant. The landmark application now goes to the city council, which will make a final determination.

Messina describes that decision as "kick in the gut." The value he might lose from a landmark designation, he says, would jeopardize the retirement he's worked so hard for.

"I'm sure people can imagine how it would feel," he tells Reason. "You plan for something and you think it's yours to do as you wish and then this pops up."

In the run-up to the city council's decision, preservation activists have said they want to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement that will allow Messina to sell his building while saving the building aesthetic they value so much.

"We met with Tom today to present him with some creative and viable solutions. We know this is a life-changing opportunity for him, which is why our focus is on a solution that meets his needs and protects the identity and history of the Colfax corridor," Jessica Caouette, one of the five people who signed onto the landmarking application, said in a statement posted to her Facebook page last week.

Messina says that he's had several meetings with activists where they've presented him with alternate designs for his property that would have apartments go on the vacant parts of his lot while leaving the current restaurant structure intact.

But building only on the 60 percent of his land unoccupied by the diner, says Messina, would still greatly reduce its value. And that's assuming he could even find a developer who'd be willing to build what activists are looking for.

In addition to the personal cost this would visit on Messina, it would also deprive Denver—which is rapidly becoming one of the country's most expensive cities—of additional housing.

The city council is scheduled to discuss the landmark application for Messina's property next week and will vote on whether to grant it later in the month.

Using historic landmark designations to prevent unwanted development is not uncommon, and is often done over the objections of the property owner in question. Similar cases include the Strand bookstore in New York City and the fight over the Showbox concert venue in Seattle.

For Messina, the issue boils down to the fact that this is his building, and he should get to decide what happens to it, not a city council or neighborhood activists. He tells Reason "that something I've worked for my entire life could be decided this way is very unsettling."