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The story of the Old North End is one of triumph for preservation 

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Strolling through the quiet streets and beautifully preserved homes in the Old North End, it’s difficult to believe that this extraordinary neighborhood, a late-Victorian gem, was ever threatened by commercial development.

Bob Loevy’s new book Preserving a Historic Neighborhood – The Story of The Old North End in Colorado Springs, Colorado, tells an interesting story. His carefully detailed and well-documented account makes it clear that without the unremitting efforts of organized residents, the neighborhood might have met the fate of similar near-downtown residential enclaves in many American cities.

Loevy, then a young professor at Colorado College, moved into the Old North End on Feb. 1, 1976. A few months later, he became president of the North End Homeowners Association (NEHA). He was well-qualified for the position, as he’d served on the Planning Commission from 1972 to 1976 and was smart, aggressive and politically savvy. And, as he modestly notes, “no one else wanted the job.”

“The North End has a problem,” Loevy notes in his book. “Four of the six streets that run north-south through the neighborhood are arterial streets carrying heavy automobile and truck traffic. In other cities, this has been a condition that leads to rapid urban decay.”

Single-family homes become apartments, Victorian homes are torn down and replaced by “commercial uses such as convenience stores, law offices, restaurants, motels, etc.”

In the 1960s, many local civic and business leaders had been seduced by the bitch-goddess of growth, sprawl and urban “renewal” — a mindset that led to the demolition of many downtown and near-downtown historic structures. The Victorian neighborhoods that once extended unbroken from Cache La Poudre to Boulder streets are now largely commercial, but the North End held firm.

Led by sophisticated preservationists such as Loevy, Elaine Freed, Cathy Mundy, Mark Nelson, Bev Reinitz and Dave Munger, the North End Homeowners Association (now ONEN) has battled city officials, would-be developers and state bureaucrats since 1957.

“This is a long and detailed story,” Loevy says. “There was no magic formula or instant solution that preserved the historic character of the Old North End.”
From 1957 to 1976, the Association played defense, attempting to fend off requests for zone changes and use variances “usually for commercial outlets or multifamily dwellings.” Neighborhood reps negotiated with CC and Penrose Hospital for informal agreements that limited their extension into the Old North End.
Once he became NEHA president, Loevy went on the offense. In 1976, they created a master plan, and sought to have the area added to the National Register of Historic Places. Loevy drove to Denver to meet with an official of the state historical society. Such was our reputation at that time that the official told him “I did not know that there was anything of historical value in Colorado Springs.”

Once he visited the Old North End, the official was impressed and enthusiastic, and much of the neighborhood was designated as a historic district in 1982. Yet it wasn’t until 2000 that Council, led by North End resident Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, adopted protective historic preservation overlay zoning for the district.

There were still battles to be fought — over sound barriers on I-25, heavy truck traffic and state highway designation on Nevada Avenue, and many others. Even after winning so many battles, Old North End leaders take nothing for granted. City officials may seem supportive now, but that hasn’t always been the case.

“The turning point for the neighborhood came in 1957, when the association was founded,” he said. “From that point forward, the neighborhood was never without organized guidance.”

The North End had power to begin with, thanks to its residents, described by Loevy as “doctors, lawyers, professors and downtown businesspeople.” They understood how to play the game. Residents of poorer and more diverse neighborhoods and subdivisions enjoy no such advantages, and the change to the strong mayor system of government may have made city government less accessible to citizens, and less protective of single-use residential zoning. You have to lobby both the mayor’s office and City Council, and you won’t be able to institute change if both don’t assent.

Moreover, PlanCOS, the city’s latest comprehensive plan, embraces mixed-use zoning, with commercial uses cheek by jowl with single- and multi-family residences. That may mean existing mixed-use neighborhoods like the Westside can expect more commercial uses, multi-family residential structures, traffic and noise.

If you don’t like it, fight. You won’t win all your battles, and you’ll have to work tirelessly, maybe for decades. Loevy’s advice: Organize — you can’t do it alone. Fiercely resist zone changes and variances while collectively creating a vision for the neighborhood’s future.

— John Hazelhurst

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