March 3, 2010
The owners of a beautiful brick wall on North Cascade Avenue say Mayor Lionel Rivera has agreed to meet with them at 11:30 a.m. today at their home in order to hear their side of the story before an act of wall desecration and architectural censorship begins. Let’s hope the meeting leads to a constructive outcome that benefits Colorado Springs.
City Councilman Sean Paige, former editorial page editor of The Gazette, said he will also attend the meeting. As of press time, The Gazette could not confirm whether other members of the City Council would attend.
“I hope they do,” Paige said. “I will find it deeply disappointing if only two members of a nine-member council show up to hear their story. I would be stunned by that in a city that purports to protect property rights. The least we can do, if we’re going to sanction this destruction of the Christiansens’ property, is to hear their side of the story.”
People on each side of this dispute make excellent points. City officials claim Holger and Sally Christiansen built the wall too high, and in violation of process, around their home at 1221 N. Cascade Ave. The Christiansens and a variety of friends and neighbors say the city, the city’s Historic Preservation Board and the Old North End Neighborhood Association misused historic guidelines and redefined the “natural grade” of the property, which determines the starting point for measuring the height of the wall.
The whole conflict involves hundreds of letters, e-mails, photographs and a recent court case in which a district judge sided with the city because the Christiansens hadn’t exhausted all other options for resolving their grievance before going to court. The controversy began more than two years ago, after wall construction began.
As it stands, city officials get to determine the fate of the wall, and they want the Christiansens to cut it down to size. Doing so involves an extremely expensive and complex process of cutting through mortar and brick with a slurry cutter, which can operate only when the temperature is right. It threatens to stain the red brick brought in from Virginia. If the Christiansens are to preserve the ornate brick that forms the top of the wall, they’ll have to cut the structure twice and take out sections.
The wall chopping will be mostly punitive. The Christiansens will be out tens of thousands of dollars, and the community will be left with a mutilated wall, quite possibly stained by the project, that could look awful.
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Instead of this punitive destruction, city officials could punish the Christiansens in a way that would benefit the Old North End Neighborhood and the rest of the community. Instead of ordering desecration, city officials could impose a hefty fine. The fine could be equal to the cost of the administrative vandalism project, or more.
Instead of ordering the Christiansens to uglify an aesthetically pleasing wall, city officials could demand they substantially upgrade a nearby park, or pay to maintain Acacia Park’s beloved Uncle Wilber Fountain for children.
City Hall has won this battle, and city officials hold all the cards. The message is clear: Don’t build anything without the full and written blessing of applicable historic boards, all city officials and the appropriate neighborhood or homeowners association. If you do, you will lose and it will cost you big. In Colorado Springs, private-property rights have become as much a collective right as an individual right. Everyone gets that, as a result of this wall dilemma.
The message won’t be lost if the Christiansens are ordered to spend a hefty sum doing something constructive rather than destructive. Mayor Rivera and Councilman Paige, think about restorative justice. Please consider creative and positive ways to resolve this in a manner that preserves the integrity of rules and players on both sides of this fence. Bring an innovative solution to your colleagues and sell it. Let no desire for bureaucratic vandalism stand in the way of common sense and the aesthetic welfare of Colorado Springs. Punish the Christiansens, if you must, but do so in a manner that’s restorative and constructive. — Wayne Laugesen, editorial page editor, for the editorial board