What's next for the Pobre Panchos site after historic preservation appeal? Here's what we know

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Update: On Aug. 3, H&H Properties appealed the Historic Preservation Commission's decision upholding the landmark designation determination of the former Pobre Panchos building. The matter will be before City Council anywhere between 28 and 77 days from the appeal's file date.

The tug of war over Pobre Ponchos' future saw its latest development Wednesday night as the Fort Collins Historic Preservation Commission unanimously voted to uphold a landmark eligibility determination of the former Mexican restaurant's building.

The commission's decision comes as a boon to the family of Frank Perez, who ran the north Fort Collins restaurant from 1969 until a terminal cancer diagnosis prompted him to sell it in 2020. Frank died that October, two months after the sale.

Wednesday's decision also represented a blow to the building's owners, Asher and Darren Haun, who planned to sell the property to Raising Cane's after shuttering the restaurant earlier this year.

Raising Cane's, which was hoping to purchase and construct a new drive-thru restaurant on the Pobre Panchos site, said it was now looking for new sites to consider.

"At Raising Cane’s, it is part of who we are to respect each community we serve," the company said in a statement sent to the Coloradoan Thursday. "As we continue to weigh all our options, we are looking at other locations to be home to our second restaurant in Fort Collins."

On a mission to open a second Fort Collins location, the chicken tender chain originally set its eyes on Pobre Panchos, 1802 N. College Ave., and a neighboring used car lot at 1800 N. College Ave. The company's plan to raze the lots' existing buildings to make way for its new drive-thru kicked off a historic review of both properties because of their age.

Given Pobre Panchos' 53-year legacy as an early Hispanic-owned business in Fort Collins, the building was deemed landmark eligible by city staff, while the other property was not. Operating under H&H Properties, LLC, the Hauns appealed the eligibility determination for the Pobre Panchos site, which was ultimately upheld by the Historic Preservation Commission Wednesday.

In its motion, the commission agreed that Pobre Panchos was landmark eligible due to its significance in the history of Fort Collins' Hispanic and business community, its role in expanding what was then a relatively new cuisine in the city, its role in potentially starting a pattern of development in north Fort Collins and the Perez family's contributions to the Hispanic community and north Fort Collins area.

What we know about the future of the property

With the eligibility determination still in place, community members, a city council member or the commission itself could now take the steps to officially designate the building as a local historic landmark, Senior Historic Preservation Planner Jim Bertolini told the Coloradoan earlier this month. If the building becomes a landmark, it would be protected from future demolition or unapproved exterior changes.

Monica Bird, one of Frank's daughters, told the Coloradoan she plans to pursue that designation.

"I feel like (the commissioners) listened to us and what we wanted (my dad) to be remembered as," Bird said after the hearing Wednesday.

The Hauns, who were represented by attorney Jeff Cullers at Wednesday's hearing, are free to appeal the commission's decision to Fort Collins City Council. Darren Haun said he would have to speak to Cullers before deciding whether to take that step. He declined to comment further about the commission's decision late Wednesday.

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Standing before the commission Wednesday, Cullers argued that the squat, 61-year-old stucco building at 1802 N. College Ave. was not architecturally significant nor had enough integrity to warrant preservation.

"This is a generic box, that's all this building is," Cullers said. "We can do better — perhaps name a park or a street after the Perez family."

"The restaurant survived a long time in a hard industry," he continued, "but that is not a historic trend and success (in the restaurant industry) is not a historic event."

Citing the property's small building and lot size, the Hauns' commercial real estate broker Mark O'Donnell said it is not large enough to generate enough income to support a restaurant again. He also said its size constraints don't make it well-suited for a retail store or office, tying the Hauns' hands as they consider what's next for the property.

During the appeals hearing, Historic Preservation Commissioner Eric Guenther said he wants historic landmark status in Fort Collins to be an aspirational achievement. In this case, however, he said he doubts the Hauns would have purchased the property had they known it would have been deemed landmark eligible. Sitting in the audience, Darren Haun emphatically shook his head and gave Guenther a thumbs up.

'A beacon for generations to come'

For members of the Perez family, the Pobre Panchos building represents an extension of their family home — a place where Frank greeted and chatted with every guest, where he dished up family recipes from his native Mexico and where the Perezes nurtured a cozy community of regulars for more than 50 years.

After working in the area's sugar beet fields and going to a local school that forced him to speak English and give up his name Francisco in favor of the Americanized "Frank," Bird told the commission her dad enlisted in the U.S. Navy to defend his country. He served for 11 years and came home to Fort Collins in the mid-1960s. He went on to take over his mom's restaurant, Pancho's Cafe, and moved it from Old Town to 1802 N. College Avenue in 1969.

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The move allowed the Perezes to purchase a building instead of lease one, although Frank had to go to Greeley to secure a loan since he couldn't get one from local banks, Bird said.

On its undeveloped stretch of North College Avenue, there was ample parking in the building's surrounding dirt lot, which attracted Frank to the property, his widow, Mary Perez, told the commission. Frank planted rose bushes out front because they were his mother-in-law's favorite, Mary said. Later, he designed and commissioned the construction of two framed stained-glass windows, which still hang inside the restaurant today.

"There was nothing there but a building, weeds and all," Mary recalled. “So when my husband and I bought it, it came to life.”

While Pobre Panchos was once part of a small smattering of businesses on North College Avenue, development along the north Fort Collins corridor has exploded in recent years. Not only was the restaurant's parking lot eventually paved, it now overlooks a mammoth King Soopers Marketplace shopping center, with fast food chains, car washes and a Starbucks nearby.

As development encroached on little Pobre Panchos, its building largely stayed the same, with one addition made to its back in the 1990s.

“The building reminds us of what my dad often said: 'It’s not where you come from that defines who you are,' " Bird told the commissioners Wednesday.

"This building is the physical reminder that with a strong faith in God, hard work and perseverance, no barrier of racial segregation can get in your way," she said. “That building can be a beacon for generations to come to show them nothing can keep you down."

What's next for Pobre Panchos?

The Fort Collins Historic Preservation Commission has upheld a landmark eligibility determination for Pobre Panchos, 1802 N. College Ave. That does not mean it is currently a local landmark. Instead, the commission's decision paves the way for someone to either kick off the landmark designation process or for property owners Asher and Darren Haun to appeal the commission's decision to Fort Collins City Council.

If a group of community members, a city council member or the commission itself takes the steps to officially designate the building as a local historic landmark and succeeds, the designated property would be protected from exterior alterations, demolition and new construction that doesn't fit under a set of national historic property standards. It owners would also be eligible for state tax credits, a zero-interest loan program and grants for improvements.

This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Fort Collins commission upholds Pobre Panchos' landmark eligibility