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Against a blue sky, a Googie-style sign that says: “Tom’s Diner. Always Open.”
“Tom’s Diner. Always Open.”
Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

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An Iconic Diner May Soon Be Developed Into Housing. The Owner Couldn’t Be More Relieved.

Preservationists wanted to save Tom’s. The problem: Tom didn’t want to be saved

On the car-centric strip of East Colfax Avenue in Denver sits Tom’s Diner, a 24-hour restaurant known for greasy-spoon fare, retro vinyl booths and counter seating, and a striking multicolored roof that looks like something out of The Jetsons. Built in 1967 as part of a local restaurant chain, before it eventually became Tom’s Diner 20 years ago, the property is a prime example of Googie architecture, a style most popular throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s representing what was then thought of as futuristic. But soon, Tom’s Diner will close, and the land it occupies will likely be developed into housing. The owner couldn’t be more relieved.

Tom’s owner Tom Messina had always meant for the diner to one day become his retirement nest egg. Originally from Long Island, Messina took over the East Colfax space and opened Tom’s in 1999. A few years later, he took out a loan to buy the building. It wasn’t long before he started getting unsolicited offers to sell it for more than what he had paid, 5280 reports. “I’ve had offers for the last 20 years on that property, so I saw the value,” Messina told Eater over the phone. “I hung on, thinking someday … it would all be worthwhile.” After two decades of working around the clock in an industry in which it is notoriously difficult to build a business, it would be the “carrot at the end,” he said.

Messina put Tom’s up for sale last year, and this spring, he received a $4.8 million offer from a developer. Together, they applied for non-historic status on the property to allow it to be demolished and replaced with an apartment complex. But city staffers found that the property had potential for historic landmark designation — meaning the public had a month to try to save it. Suddenly, the diner became the center of a controversy that divided a community, threatened the owner’s livelihood, and served as a flashpoint for the contentious complexities of historic preservation, urban development, and other questions of how we live in cities across the U.S.

Five people, with the support of 670 petition signers, a few dozen GoFundMe supporters, and local historic preservation nonprofit Historic Denver, submitted a “hostile application” — against the property owner’s wishes — mainly on the basis of the building’s notable architecture style. Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously recommended landmarking the building, leaving the final decision up to the City Council. The sale was at a stand still; Messina, whose family’s financial future depended on the sale of the building, said it felt like he’d “been kicked in the gut” after the preservation commission’s vote.

The story, first covered by local news, ended up garnering national attention on both social media and in the press. It’s not hard to see why: the conflict has generally been framed, like in libertarian magazine Reason’s write-up, as a narrative about a small business owner whose rights to a) do what he wants with his property, and b) retire in peace, are essentially being infringed upon by the government and nosy “Not in My Backyard” neighbors or, as they’re known in some circles, NIMBYs — a shorthand for people who oppose development in their local areas. In Denver, public opinion was weighted in Messina’s favor, with the Denver Post even publishing an op-ed from the editorial board calling upon the City Council to reverse the Landmark Preservation Commission’s recommendation to save the building.

But the impulse to dismiss preservationists in cases like Tom’s and others — the tavern Tom Bergin’s and the 24-hour diner Norms La Cienega in Los Angeles, a Denny’s in Seattle, the Strand bookstore in New York — as meddling NIMBYs who prioritize aesthetic value over a city’s growth or a business owner’s retirement is too easy, when questions of historic preservation, urban development, and property rights are anything but. It’s an oversimplification of a complicated larger debate, the split of which doesn’t fall along more typical left-right political lines. “Politics and planning make strange bedfellows, and so you have these groups aligning that you would never think would align,” Jeremy Németh, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Denver Colorado, said in a phone interview.

On the one hand, you have NIMBYs: typically wealthy, white baby boomers blocking housing and transportation projects because of the minor inconveniences (traffic congestion, noise, unwanted new residents) those changes would bring, as well as working-class activists and progressives fighting gentrification and displacement in their own neighborhoods. (The latter arguably more moving than the former.) And on the other, YIMBYs (imagine NIMBY, but “yes” instead of “no”): sometimes progressive millennials and urban planners facilitating more affordable homes through increased density and housing development across the board. Or other times, anti-poor, pro-luxury developer activists overly focused on a free-market approach that promises the “filtering” down of housing from the rich to the poor.

Again: it’s complicated.

In the case of Tom’s, the pro-development argument would be that Tom’s had already been zoned for up to eight stories of development in the heart of Denver, a city facing a housing shortage, along a historically seedy strip that is slated to undergo major transformation with the development of a bus rapid transit system. “It’s on Colfax, it’s near the Capitol in downtown,” YIMBY Denver president Adam Estroff told Eater over the phone. “We don’t want to see that ability to put in housing to be taken away.”

This argument, according to Németh, involves weighing the collective good or the personal enjoyment of a single building: “It’s not about tearing down people’s houses and … creating lifeless, 100-story towers all over town. It’s about strategically deciding where density needs to go. If we want to live up to the goals of our city plans — in which we say we want more people riding transit, more active street life, getting people out of their cars — this is one of the main steps to doing that.”

However, there has been a wave of backlash against the rapid growth that has taken place in Denver the last 8-10 years, according to Andrew Goetz, co-author of Metropolitan Denver: Growth and Change in the Mile High City and a professor specializing in urban studies, and urban and regional planning and policy at the University of Denver. “Some of the neighborhoods in Denver have become skeptical about new development and have wanted to limit the amount of development that’s coming in, limit the height of new buildings, and try to maintain the character of these neighborhoods,” he told Eater over the phone.

Those groups of anti-development people, he said, may include long-time residents fighting displacement and change in the face of gentrification, and it may include people who are more concerned with increasing traffic, or who are frankly a little xenophobic — ”there is somewhat of a confluence between those viewpoints, but politically they’re coming at it from different perspectives,” he said. “But in the end, they agree they don’t want to see this kind of development taking place.”

The main NIMBY argument against demolishing and redeveloping Tom’s, as detailed in the application to landmark it, has been that the building is culturally, historically, and architecturally significant. Built in 1967 as part of a local White Spot chain established by prominent Denverite William F. Clements, it was designed by California architects Armet and Davis, well known for their Googie architecture. Out of three remaining Googie-style White Spot structures in Denver, Tom’s is the only one that hasn’t been significantly altered. The applicants also point out that in 2009, Tom’s was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, although Messina ultimately decided to not list the building.

Jessica Caouette, one of the applicants, said in a phone interview that the group had been working with Historic Denver and with Messina throughout the whole process to try to come up with an alternative that wouldn’t involve razing Tom’s. In an act of concession, the commissioners dropped the parking lot around the diner from the landmark application, so that theoretically an apartment building could be built around the diner — a move that Messina said wouldn’t net him the same amount of money due to developer reluctance to lose prime real estate, but that Historic Denver suggested could work based on successful development solutions in the past.

Caouette, who owns Tandem Bar in Uptown Denver, stressed that she is not a NIMBY, but is actually heavily invested in YIMBY ideals of building more housing and developing dense urban areas. What she found frustrating in this case, she said, was that the developer was so focused on “making the right profit” off the planned eight-story, 113-unit, market-rate apartment complex that the company was “refusing to look at alternate options” that would leave the diner — and the character of East Colfax — intact.

“We continue to say affordable housing is a goal, but we don’t actually require that anyone build any affordable housing … we continue to say it’s just not valuable for developers to do that anymore,” Caouette said, referencing critiques of the pro-market-rate-housing, pro-filtering YIMBY movement. “I wonder why we continue to have these discussions, but we’re not having deeper discussions about what it means to build a better city?” she said.

Fights like this one are, on a broader level, about “what kind of city do we want to become?” said Németh. Cities must strike a balance, according to Goetz, in which there is development without degrading the quality of living. “There are certain areas of the city that you want to be able to preserve because they’re a reflection of the city, its past, its roots,” he said. “But on the other hand, you don’t want to have too much preservation, because you’re not allowing the necessary change.” In recent years, Goetz said, Denver has been so focused on increasing development and density that “now, according to some measures, Denver actually ranks pretty low in providing access to open space and parks. That’s one of those things where you have to find the right balance.”

But high-minded ideals aside, the trials and tribulations of historic preservation are, ultimately, also very personal. Both sides acknowledged that, grappling with mutual empathy and discomfort at the fact that the conflict was unavoidably close to home.

“We want to express that we appreciate Tom’s years and years of effort and the grief that we’re causing right now,” said Caouette. “We respect Tom. Part of the reason why we want to save the building is we really love the work and the effort he put into keeping this building in this kind of condition.”

“I know the people that are doing this are good people,” said Messina. “I don’t think they have any ill will. I don’t think they’re anti-development. I just think that they love the building. It is a pretty cool building.”

Messina, now 60, confirmed in early August that he would be closing his diner regardless of the outcome of the landmarking decision. He told Eater he was ready to retire and spend time with his family: “I want to move on to something else.”

On the evening of August 15, Caouette and the other applicants trying to save the building withdrew their application to landmark Tom’s, a little more than a week away from the August 26 date City Council was scheduled to make a decision about it. The group wrote in a statement: “[We] have decided to pull our application before the issue is forced onward to Denver City Council. It is our firm belief that the future of the building is in good hands … We hope that new parties coming to the table can use creative strategies to include the preservation of the iconic Googie-style building in a development that enhances the Colfax corridor.”

Tom’s Diner has been issued a certificate of non-historic status valid for the next five years. It can now be demolished, though the preservationists said they hoped the building could still be saved through additional discussions and creative solutions. Messina suggested in a conversation with Eater on the morning of August 15 that he was ready to put this ordeal behind him as quickly as possible, without drawing it out any further. When asked when he saw himself retiring and closing Tom’s, should everything work out, Messina said simply: “When the check clears.”

Although the saga of Tom’s Diner has come to an end, these kinds of conflicts — between neighbors and City Hall, business owners and activists — will not. As our affordable housing crisis continues and as cities must grow and swell and adapt to the changing needs of their inhabitants, new and old, that query of Németh’s remains at the heart of this tension between preservation and development: What kind of city do we want to become?

Already, in Denver, the community surrounding Colfax Avenue may have to ask themselves that question again. A proposal to redevelop the Denver Diner — also a former White Spot and another example of Googie architecture dating back to 1966 — has been submitted to the city by the diner’s owner, local business news site BusinessDen reported last Thursday.

The enterprise looking to replace it?

A Chase bank branch.

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