Tom’s vs Time, and Everyone Else


Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website

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39 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    This is an amazing story. It’s a frickin diner and people are getting all weepy over it. I get the nostalgia and understand that. I was just back in NJ for a family reunion and went to look at old stuff from my younger days. Some of it was there, some was changed. That’s life, get the frick over it.

    Adding on. What with cameras and video now we can have so many memories yet some people are more tied to having the actual thing. Take a million pix and let the guy cash in for his retirement.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to greginak says:

      If you think this is silly, there was a huge fight in San Francisco over a Laundromat. The owner of the mat wanted to build an 8-storey apartment building (probably condos for purchase but I am not sure). The anti-condo activists argued that the building should be preserved because lots of local activists had offices on the upper floors a few decades ago.

      The developer won eventually but it was a four-year fight.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        But it shouldn’t be a fight. If you want to preserve the building, buy it. If, after you own it, you want to give it some historic protection, then you can apply for protected status, so it can’t be torn down if you are no longer the owner.

        The very idea that a person, or group, with zero ownership interest in a property, can come in at the last minute and interfere in such a transaction without having to front any capital of their own offends the hell out of me.

        Now if we had it such that an interested party could come to the table with a comparable offer and ask the city to let them buy it in the interest of historical preservation, I could stomach that. They are showing that they not only respect the interests of the current owner, but also have the financial means to maintain the building, or the support of those who do.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    While I appreciate the desire to preserve historic landmark structures, this method of doing so is, IMHO, crap. It’s a taking. These people are using the city to exercise a form of eminent domain, and then refusing to compensate the owner.

    If they want to place preserved, they can cough up the $4.8M, or the city can. Or they should have filed this action years ago. Or THEY can find a developer who will pay the owner and be willing to preserve the building.

    But they should not be allowed to come in at the 11th hour and stop the sale with some magical thinking that it’ll all be OK for the owner.Report

  3. Avatar PD Shaw says:

    My prediction is the effort fails, but the compromise being floated seems particularly strange for a relatively small parking lot on a commercial strip. If he could only develop apartments on the parking lot, where would people park to go to the diner? Where would people park who live in the apartments? What zoning restrictions would need to be varied?Report

  4. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I can relate to the feelings of the protesters. When I go back to the community I grew up in, there are dozens of examples of old businesses that I loved that have been replaced by something dull and uninspiring. It’s irritating. My cousin, who is a few years older than me, said to me, “Yeah, they didn’t ask our permission, did they?” With a grin.

    It’s hard to confront the fact that the world doesn’t organize itself around what you like and want. And as one gets older, you start noticing that more and more. Perhaps that’s because for a while, it kind of seemed like the world did organize itself around what you wanted. In many ways, these changes signal the fact that I will die some day. That’s not a pleasant thing to confront.

    At the same time, I think maybe some of the places that I thought were so special really weren’t that special, they were just special to me. And maybe some of the new places will become special to someone else.

    And I also wonder how this is different from the gentrification that Rufus observed just a few days ago.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      “It’s hard to confront the fact that the world doesn’t organize itself around what you like and want.”

      I worry that much of modern society sends the exact message that the world DOES organize itself around you and what you like and want. While I sign on and support the fairly modern notion of respecting the individual as they come, I think the pendulum swings too far when society is reduced to a collection of individuals, each of whom sees themselves as being at the center. As a teacher of young children, I see how this mentality dominates so much of parenting these days and with real problematic effects. I think we’ll see more of this type of thinking, not less, as the trend continues and those raised steeped in it become adults.

      If I was Tom, I might just accidentally leave a burner on one night with a greased rag near by. The developer is going to knock the property down anyway.Report

  5. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Some thoughts on NIMBYism/FIMBYism:

    1. There is an obvious Baptist and bootlegger dynamic. It is easy to call the bottleggers out on their hypocrisy but unfortunately they are rich and powerful;

    2. I don’t know how to deal with the Baptists because they have a sincere and real feel of long-term or permanent displacement (especially because you are talking about groups that are long-term renters and were systemtically denied home ownership because of racism often) but their decided strategy is also shooting themselves in the foot;

    3. What people want it seems is a place to call their own. A lot of the rejection of condos in the city often seems to boil down to “but developers never build homes for people like me.” This might be true enough. There is an aesthetic rejection of condo development because it is often bland, square, and sometimes anti-septic looking.

    4. But this is because there is still a lot of pent up demand for housing at the upper-middle class professional level.

    5. People also want things to be trapped in amber from the time they move to a particular area generally especially large cities. Mainly I think they are confusing aesthetics with being young, healthy, and able to go out all night with minimal adverse effects the next morning.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      #1 Yes, their hypocrisy is a shield for their own interests. You can’t shame em, they hide behind their lies, and you can’t really hurt em because they are wealthy and well connected. You can, however, work on the bonds between them and their Baptist patsies which is the best way forward since they depend on the Baptists for votes, clout and cover.

      #2 All you can do it tell em the truth.

      #3 Yeah well condos can come in all shapes and sizes but in high density urban settings you really need higher buildings with lots and floors and it’s tough to get away from that rectangle as it’s the best use of space.

      #4 And a lot of elderly people waiting to cash in on the whole thing.

      #5 It’s human and especially American nature. You don’t want to buy an apple and have it turn into an advocado; likewise you don’t want to buy a single family house in a single family neighborhood and have it turn into denser housing. The latter, however, is badly necessary.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      #3 – #5 is basically whining.

      Here’s the rub. The people who are stopping Tom from selling are people who have housing. They aren’t trying to preserve the building architecture, they are trying to preserve the aesthetic of that neighborhood (do they even live in that neighborhood anymore?). If this was really about the architecture, they’d ask to halt demolition so they could instead move the building somewhere else where it could be preserved.

      Neighborhoods change. Neighborhoods must change, because the needs of the residents change. Right now, the residents need mixed use space, not a single use diner.

      If they really want to keep the diner there, go in, strip out a bunch of the interior features of the place, and store them. Then, when the new building is there, buy or lease a chunk of the commercial space and recreate the diner with what you salvaged.

      But no, these people just want to force others to spend money so they can enjoy their nostalgia without fronting anything of value.Report

      • They aren’t trying to preserve the building architecture, they are trying to preserve the aesthetic of that neighborhood…

        The building architecture, you could make a case. It’s one of the last examples of Googie architecture in Denver.

        The neighborhood aesthetic… When I worked for the state legislature I occasionally took walks along Colfax to clear my mind and passed Tom’s Diner when I went east. East Colfax lacks a meaningful aesthetic. It is the antithesis of an aesthetic. It is a hodge-podge of stuff, most of it ugly, anywhere from 1 to 100 years old, with a few places of note scattered here and there (eg, the Fillmore or the Cathedral, both of which are wedged into their setting with no thought about aesthetics). There’s a good reason that no one has ever tried to get any part of Colfax declared an historic district or neighborhood.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

          Right, so preserve the architecture. Move the building, or something.

          My objection is not about preserving the past, it’s about using the power of government to enforce your aesthetic preferences without being required to bring anything to the table except some paperwork.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            I assume the value of the building is irrelevant to the property value? I gotta friend in Vegas, Peanuts Giancana, who can arrange an accident for the diner, and pretty cheap, too.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to George Turner says:

              Honestly, I wouldn’t blame the guy if, at this point, he didn’t lock up one night and leave the gas on the range going, with a table candle burning nearby.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                They’d probably pin the arson on him and then the city would sue him for a couple million, on top of throwing him in jail.

                No, his best bet is to arrange to sell the restaurant to a company that is really good at managing selected properties throughout the world, including skating rinks, luxury hotels (that serve incredible taco bowls), and golf courses from Westchester to West Palm Beach.

                The restaurant would still burn down in less than two days, but he would be completely blameless.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to George Turner says:

                So that’s how the Trump organization makes it’s money!Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain says:

          I think a lot of people like cities with a hodgepodge feel because it feels organic.Report

          • Then let it grow.

            Interestingly, Tom’s Diner sits in middle of the Colfax Business Improvement District, a group of the landowners that want to make fairly drastic changes to the feel of a mile or so of the street over the next couple of decades. They are seeking extensive changes in the zoning along Colfax to make it more transit and pedestrian friendly, and give it a more contemporary urban feel. Lots of redevelopment. When they started, they had to make an inventory of potentially historic buildings, and included Tom’s (also the Cathedral, the Fillmore, and several other places). So far as I know, they have stayed out of this particular fight. Matching the current offer for the land is out of their league.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Your culture is over, old man. You might have loved something in the past but capitalism is in charge now.Report

  6. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I kind of feel like we’ve had this conversation here before…Report

  7. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    Preservation of old buildings is a complex topic because buildings are, and do, many different things serving many different interests which don’t always align.

    A building needs to satisfy all its stakeholders; Preserving a building doesn’t mean anything if it can’t perform financially; Or if it can’t fulfill a useful function.

    For example, a building is, to a city planner, a collections of uses, and a mass, which occupies a place in the urban fabric; it generates traffic, activates the streetscape, and brings welcome or unwelcome uses which define the neighborhood;
    To the architect it might be a signature work of art, a form and space which contributes to the delight and enjoyment of the users.
    To the developer, it is a line on a spreadsheet, which produces income and either represents a safe harbor for capital, or a lucrative yet risky gamble;
    For the neighbors, the building is an aesthetic part of the urban fabric, either an eyesore, landmark, or just part of the background;

    Buildings are intensely public things with all sorts of externalities; So when they change, there are always a lot of stakeholders who have conflicting interests.

    At one time here in downtown LA, the old buildings in the core were approaching zero value; they were built as banks and office buildings in the pre-war era, but fell out of favor as the new modern high rises grew in Bunker Hill.
    But as times changed, the market for old architecturally unique buildings revived, and now they are worth quite a lot, and almost all have been rehabilitated as apartments.

    Cities themselves are like living organisms that need to constantly evolve and change; As much as I love old architecture, it doesn’t work to try and freeze them in amber.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      I always thought a possible workaround is when a buildings façade or interior is preserved but the use changes. The old commercial exchange building in LA is now a hotel called the Freehand. The old Bank of America is another hotel.

      These debates always revolve around who gets to be a stakeholder and who doesn’t in the end.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Sure, but always when the question arises of who actually pays the bills and absorbs the financial consequences of decisions being made those same clamoring hordes of interested people scatter like roaches in sunlight leaving only the owner holding the bag.
        All those squalling people yelping about aesthetic, neighborhood character etc.. sure don’t put any money where their mouths are.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to North says:

          Exactly! Entropy will not be denied. Preservation costs money and effort. This is why I find people like the activist in the video so reprehensible*. Not because she wants to preserve a bit of history, but because she wants to demand other people use their money and effort to enact that preservation.

          If the building is so beloved, she should have no trouble getting a critical mass of people in and around the neighborhood to donate money and time to keep it. But that isn’t what she did.

          *The city council is equally reprehensible for giving into her demands and not granting anything to the owner, who has, AFAIK, done nothing more than contribute to the local economy in positive ways, and would now like to retire comfortably.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to North says:

          I was discussing this with my attorney housemate yesterday evening. He said it will only go one way. The owner has had the value of his property destroyed by government action, and he will file suit for recovery. He thinks the city will go ahead and buy him out at the value he could have gotten. I was doubtful, but he was quite certain because he’s seen it time and again.

          His says their reasoning is that nobody gets upset when they give some property owner compensation for what they take, whereas a whole lot of voters get very upset if they don’t. So they take the path of least resistance.

          So then I suggested that the city will find themselves owning an aging restaurant, and they’re not in the restaurant business. As soon as the activists wander off to some other issue, the city will probably turn around and sell the property to the developer, and tout what a great new neighborhood is on the way.

          Of course, if he gets really pissed off he might pour over the zoning laws and see if he can turn it into a strip club, since not many locals are going to rush to support one of those.Report

      • Then there’s the opposite.

        Down the street from Tom’s a few blocks is the Fillmore Auditorium. The building has been used for many things since it was constructed in 1907, since a large, bland, warehouse-like space is useful. What people know it as now is a music venue: Mammoth Gardens in 1970 (the Who and the Grateful Dead played) eventually failed; Mammoth Event Center in the 1980s and 1990s eventually failed; and now the Fillmore. Between those incarnations, the interior has been gutted and replaced. Over the years there’s been cosmetic work done on the exterior. You could bulldoze it flat tomorrow, build something with no stylistic resemblance, but if you slapped “Fillmore Auditorium” on the front and it sat 3,000 people for live music, everyone would be happy.Report

  8. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Also I have one more thing to say on this matter

    am sitting
    In the morning
    At the diner
    On the corner
    I am waiting
    At the counter
    For the man
    To pour the coffee
    And he fills it
    Only halfway
    And before
    I even argue
    He is looking
    Out the window
    At somebody
    Coming in

    I think we can all agree this is the definitive word on Tom’s DinerReport

  9. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    Status update… The five people seeking historic status for Tom’s Diner withdrew their application on Thursday (Aug 15). The city council will issue an official certificate of non-historic status today (Aug 16).Report

  10. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    Yet another update to the saga of Tom’s Diner, in which a group of local people sought historic status for the building against the wishes of its owner. The diner has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and will not be demolished. The building will be owned by GBX Group, a company that specializes in maintaining and operating historical buildings. The previous owner, who was selling the building to fund his retirement, says he’s happy with the deal. The announcement says that the building façade and important interior elements will be retained, but there will be considerable revamping.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Of all of the dumb ways that this could have ended, this is the least offensive dumb way for it to end.

      So… good? I guess?Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I live in a historic district, and while most of the homes are either restored or original but kept up, there are a few that are falling down. It is nice to see it when those homes move out of badly kept and into the being resorted, but there are a few that are too far gone. There was a trio of homes, I am guessing they were owned by one person as they sold as a lot, that fell into that category and was scheduled for demo by the new owner about a year ago. At the last minute, someone petitioned the city council to put a hold on that, so they sat as the buyer tried to find some way to unload them. She even tried a giveaway for the structures.

      When it became clear that there were no takers (they were condemned, had been squatted in and qualified as an eyesore) the city allowed demolition. Which took place as soon as the order was signed, literally. They were destroyed by daybreak.

      I am generally not a fan of modern houses in historic areas, they stand out like sore thumbs, but if the owner of the land wants to demolish his property, seeing no profit in keeping what is there, it’s his business. In Toms Diner’s case, someone else seems to want that property and pay for it, allowing the former owner to retire. This is a true win-win.Report

      • Other than some taxpayers. Getting listed by the National Register qualifies the owner for some tax credits and makes them eligible for a variety of grants (both private and public). The GBX press release makes it pretty clear that the deal wouldn’t be possible without those.Report