Look familiar? Carbondale's downtown consisted of just a few solidly-built brick structures back in the 1890s and many of these buildings are still standing. Courtesy photo.

By Eric Doud
Carbondale’s Historic Preservation Commission

The Why
Carbondale’s age and location provides an opportunity to develop as a destination for heritage tourism, one of the strongest areas of growth in Colorado’s economy. Studies have shown that the strength of local historic preservation can be directly linked with the number of tourist visits in Colorado mountain towns. Carbondale’s older buildings, while modest, represent a unique period in the area’s development: the coming of the railroads, early agriculture and regional mining history. There remains enough of the town’s historic fabric that a visitor to Carbondale can easily grasp those early days.
Being situated at the northern entry to the West Elk Loop of Colorado’s Scenic and Historic Byway, Carbondale is a natural starting point for many visitors exploring the area. By incentivizing exploration of the town itself, the visitor’s length of stay can be extended with a direct economic benefit for the local community.
Not only is there an economic incentive for historic preservation, it also promotes a stronger sense of community and identity for businesses and homeowners. Preservation efforts contribute to the town’s cultural vitality and reinforce community pride by distinguishing a place. A strong community and a strong economy are inextricably linked; historic preservation supports both.
By encouraging compatible development, an area’s character and cultural integrity is enhanced and protected. In fact, studies show that property values within a historic district typically increase at a similar or higher rate than areas outside a district. Moreover, there is no evidence that a local historic district designation decreases property values.
Design guidelines and project reviews often result in more thoughtful development, helping a homeowner or a developer carefully consider a project in relation to its context. This process stabilizes the neighborhood’s fabric and can result in a more successful end product that has greater desirability and community acceptance.
In recognition of historic preservation’s value, economic incentives in the form of tax credits and grants are available on state and federal levels. Commercial properties that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places are eligible to receive up to 20% in credit for a rehabilitation project’s costs. State tax credits are also available for both commercial and residential properties, including owner-occupied homes, for up to 25% of the approved rehabilitation costs.
Colorado also has a State Historical Fund that is funded through state gaming revenues. This provides grants to public and nonprofit entities for a wide range of preservation activities. Here in Carbondale, four completed architectural surveys have been done under these state grants. The town’s historic commission can assist an owner in applying for qualified financial assistance in restoration and renovation work.

The What
The Town of Carbondale passed a historical preservation ordinance in 2007. Currently, it requires Carbondale’s Historic Preservation Commission to review all building permit applications within the Downtown Historical Area (DHA) consisting of the Historic Commercial Core (HCC) zoning district. This area consists primarily of the original downtown commercial buildings along both sides of Main Street.
Within the Historic Commercial Core, building permit applications are reviewed under Carbondale’s Historic Preservation Design Guidelines and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. The guidelines assist property owners to determine appropriate development within the historic district. The commission’s responsibility is to review proposed changes for the redevelopment of existing buildings and the design of new infill structures. The commission has the ability to provide suggestions to the proposed work to ensure that Carbondale’s historic heritage is considered. These suggestions are advisory and non-binding, but with the understanding that a project has the design responsibility to meet the community’s needs as well as the owner’s. In the larger view, a project that represents both sets of values can become economically more successful for the owner by becoming a desired and cherished building, as recognized by the community.
Carbondale has many historic properties, both commercial and residential. While commercial building projects are reviewed by Carbondale’s Historic Preservation Commission (CHPC), there currently is not a review process or associated design guidelines for the residential component within town. The CHPC is proposing that the Old Town Residential (OTR) zoning district be included within a review process similar to that of the historic commercial core. The current design guidelines will need to be updated to include residential development of historic structures as well as addressing appropriate infill.
Over the years, the town has conducted four separate residential surveys that have provided in-depth research on many of its historic homes and commercial buildings. While some structures are within the Old Town Residential district, many homes fall outside its boundaries. Through this effort, a list of “structures of merit” has been developed and adapted which can be found on the town’s Historical Preservation web page. A “structure of merit” is defined as a building that has historical importance contributing to the historic fabric of the larger community. When designated as such, there are no regulations or restrictions attached to the structure. The designation is simply to distinguish the building’s historic integrity so that its value as contributing to Carbondale’s historic heritage is not lost.
Owners of structures of merit are encouraged to consult with the CHPC when thinking about alterations to their buildings. In addition, structures of merit are eligible to become “Local Landmark” buildings. When landmarked, a structure is recognized as significantly important to the character and the quality of the community over time. An owner also becomes a steward of Carbondale’s local history and supports heritage tourism.
It’s worth noting that the Mount Sopris Historical Society, in conjunction with the CHPC, is developing a series of walking tours to highlight the town’s landmarked buildings and structures of merit. Starting downtown, four different walking tours are being proposed. These are to be coordinated with plaques providing background information on the history of the buildings as well as audio tours available through a visitor’s phone.
Historic preservation strives to maintain Carbondale’s originality and authentic fabric while strengthening that character. This can be achieved through thoughtful development regarding additions and alterations to historic buildings, as well as ensuring those buildings are not adversely impacted by new infill projects. Unlike many things, with each passing generation, the older a building becomes, the more valuable it is. As the fabric of the past becomes more and more rare, maintaining that fabric becomes more important.