JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald
In many ways, the city’s historic assay office is a typical Durango home with a basketball hoop in the driveway, a roaring fireplace and a microbrew kit.
Only by venturing inside and seeing the flat-screen TV tuned to CNBC, some desktop computers and a poster of a Venn diagram with the title “Hope plus buying is not an investment strategy” might one realize the office built in 1898 to evaluate gold and silver from Silverton is now home to Swan Wealth Advisors, which manages $500 million and expects to top $1 billion by year’s end.
In a late-night debate worthy of a cable financial show like Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money” or “Squawk Box,” the Durango City Council on Tuesday voted 3-2 to allow Swan Wealth Advisors to continue to use the building at 277 East Third Ave. as a commercial office in a residential zone, which was considered anathema to those wanting to preserve the character of the East Third Avenue neighborhood.
Swan was something of an ugly duckling to Councilor Sweetie Marbury, who argued that a house is a commercial office if “it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.”
“It’s a great business, but it’s in the wrong place,” said Marbury, who joined with Councilor Dick White in opposing the conditional-use permit at the recommendation of the city’s planning staff.
Officials as well as the Boulevard Neighborhood Association worried that a conditional-use permit would set a bad precedent and open the door for the dreaded “commercial creep,” or the conversion of more historic homes into dental practices or law and real estate offices.
East Third Avenue resident Jim Foster wondered why the financial firm had not done its “due diligence” when it acquired the property in 2010. Frank Anesi argued that the conditional-use permit was a case of asking for forgiveness instead of getting permission.
City planners clarified that residential businesses can be allowed under certain conditions, such as a business owner living in the home and limiting the number of nonfamily employees.
Swan, which originally was allowed two employees under a residential business permit, has grown to six employees because of its thriving business. Swan employees don’t live there, but the firm argued that the building has many homey uses, such as a place for employees’ kids to come after school or for employees to work out on exercise equipment in the garage.
Against those who argued that Durango must uphold its zoning rules, Cynthia Roebuck, a private land planner hired by Swan, responded that Swan met the conditions for a variance or an exception to the rules.
Because of its proximity to the noisy highway and train station, the office at the southern end of East Third Avenue has not been popular with potential homebuyers. Its previous use was a rental for college students. The neighbors who live closest to it advocated on Swan’s behalf because the firm is quiet and discreet. It does not have a business sign in its yard.
Councilor Christina Rinderle, who regularly jogs by the building, said she never realized it was an office until the controversy. She joined with Mayor Doug Lyon and Councilor Paul Broderick in supporting the conditional-use permit.
They also noted the property already was bordered by a hotel and had permission to use a Best Western Rio Grande Inn parking lot to minimize impact to the neighborhood.
While city officials argued that there was no financial hardship to qualify Swan for a conditional-use permit, the firm argued it loved the historical symbolism of occupying an assay office.
“We are the assayers of new wealth in Southwest Colorado,” said Rob Swan, a member of the options-trading firm and self-described “evil brother” of the firm’s president, Randy Swan.
Roebuck said the office would not affect the neighborhood’s national historic designation because the use of a building is not considered relevant to the historic designation.
While its business is national and the firm has few clients who visit, those clients who do fly in on private jets seem to be impressed with the building and its views of the Animas River and the mountains.
“We can’t compete with Wall Street, Chicago or LA,” said Randy Swan, president of Swan Wealth Advisors, in an interview. “We don’t have high-rise buildings. To them, this is cool. This is not like being down in Bodo Park next to Coca-Cola Distributing. This is sitting out on the back porch looking at the river. That’s the image we try to portray.”