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A bunch of Nimbys won’t let a Denver business owner sell his diner – is that fair?

By August 18, 2019No Comments

(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)

Tom Messina has worked hard over the past 20 years making omelettes and burgers for thousands of loyal customers at his diner – Tom’s Diner – in Denver. Now the guy has an opportunity to sell his business and retire and can you blame him? Unfortunately, a bunch of Nimbys do – and they’re trying to put a stop to his plans.

Nimbys – an acronym that stands for Not In My Backyard – generally oppose developments in their local area but – surprise – wouldn’t have a problem if the development was being done somewhere else.

Unfortunately, when word got out that Messina had accepted an offer of $4.8m from a local developer to knock down his diner and build a residential high rise on the spot, a small but vocal group of Nimbys rose up in protest and applied, without Tom’s permission, for a historic landmark designation for Tom’s business.

Again, this is Tom’s business. His money. His retirement.

The Nimbys argue that buildings similar to the diner’s “Googie” architectural design – a futuristic, Jetsons-like style that was popular with diners and similar establishments in the mid-20th century – are disappearing from the American landscape and that losing Tom’s Diner would be a blow to preserving this genre.

“Some historians say it’s probably the best example of Googie in Colorado,” Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver, told CityLab. Historic Denver is a local historic preservation organization, and according to CityLab, is not one of the parties applying for landmark status but merely acting as a “resource to community members and in the conversations with the owner and developer”. I’m assuming that those “conversations” do not include retirement planning advice for Messina.

But the Nimbys have their opponents, thank goodness. One of them is the city’s newspaper. “We could imagine there are times when a piece of property is so significant to Denver’s history, or its architecture such a rare gem, that we would support a hostile taking of value from an owner with zero compensation,” said the Denver Post in an editorial. But “Tom’s Diner, built in 1967, is not part of a historic district. In fact, it is now at odds with the more modern buildings that surround it. If we had our druthers, Tom’s Diner would be preserved. But we cannot imagine even the most successful of businesses that would be willing to pay nearly $5m for that property and keep the building as it is.”

Both parties are trying to figure out a compromise. Maybe re-zone the property to allow the developer to build alongside the diner? A city-backed property swap? Compensation from the owner from public funds? Would taxpayers be willing to pay $4.8m to a small business owner in order to preserve history? Do the Nimbys even care?

Unfortunately, time is quickly running out and Denver’s city council will need to decide on the issue by 31 August. Let’s hope that everything works out satisfactorily for all parties. Otherwise, Tom could be forced to feed a bunch of local Nimbys for many years to come.

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