Trials and Tribulations

As plans for a Hispanic cultural center crash, Denver's old county courthouse burns.

It takes three Denver police cars and four officers to evict the spindly, aging man from his burrow in the old county courthouse at Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue. Two of the officers come up the front steps, carefully traversing broken glass and chunks of wood. The other two wait out in the fierce February cold, shaking their heads at the dismal sight of boarded windows, empty bottles and cigarette butts. One officer wonders aloud about what happened to the city's plans to renovate the building. "Wasn't there once some deal to make this place lofts?" he asks.

The homeless man eventually emerges, blinking in the sunlight and rubbing his bare hands. He doesn't have any of the answers. He was just looking for a place to get warm, which is why he started a gasoline fire in what used to be the finest courtroom of its time in the West.

Soon firefighters arrive to suffocate the blaze, drenching the ornately carved woodwork in the process. Soot covers the ivory moldings in dark, streaky clouds. The expanse of stone and plaster molding reeks of wet embers and human excrement. The politicians who made it this way are nowhere around.

Seventy-four years ago, the brick and gypsum building at the corner of Speer and Colfax made its debut as Denver's formal courthouse and city jail. Built in the days when municipal buildings were still intended as lasting monuments to civic pride, it boasted a mosaic tile entrance, arching twenty-foot windows and a circular internal balcony. The "Old Westside Courthouse" later became home to teams of busy city prosecutors and the county jail. Over the years, the city lowered the ceilings and lined them with sound-absorbing tile and even partitioned off some of the larger hearing rooms. But the innate grandeur of the simple structure was never lost. In 1984, when the Denver District Attorney's Office left for more modern digs farther down Colfax, the courthouse stood empty, awaiting another reincarnation worthy of its high ceilings and wide mountain views.

Twelve years later, it's still waiting.
If it weren't for the efforts of councilwoman-turned-U.S. Senate candidate Ramona Martinez, the building by now would have been transformed by a private developer into residential lofts. Instead, in a power play that included an end run around the city's normal bidding process--and a provocation of racial tensions that has sharply divided the city's Hispanic community--Martinez pushed through a plan to turn the courthouse into a Hispanic "cultural center." Since then the building has become a battleground between local police and transients, a magnet for crime and a money pit for the city.

It was in April 1994, after two years of haggling, that the Denver City Council endorsed Martinez's plan to put the building's fate in the hands of National Image, a national Hispanic advocacy group. Ninety percent of its members are federal employees, and until six months before, the group had spent its 22-year history headquartered in Washington, D.C. The idea was to turn the building, which is full of asbestos and far below city code, into state-of-the-art office space for Hispanic nonprofit groups, with common meeting areas devoted to art and history displays.

Today, a sign posted outside the old courthouse proudly declares it the home of the coming Bernie Valdez Hispanic Heritage Center. It heralds the involvement of Brother's Redevelopment Corporation, a local construction company that specializes in urban renewal. And at the bottom, in small print, the sign declares the Coors Brewing Company to be a proud sponsor.

But it's what the sign doesn't say that tells the real story: a tale of broken contracts, missed deadlines, political infighting and mismanagement of a project that--despite repeated warnings that it wasn't economically feasible--Martinez has used taxpayer dollars and her position as a city councilwoman to force into existence.

National Image was given a year to raise the funds needed to turn the building into a heritage center. Now, almost two years later, community support for the idealistic project is dwindling--and corporate sponsors, including Coors, are quickly disappearing. In the face of its failure, National Image has resorted to finger-pointing: blaming the city for not "showing support" when it turned down National Image's request for a $200,000 grant.

In the meantime, the once-shining building sits fallow, serving only as a shelter for those who kick in its windows, break bottles in its hallways and light gasoline fires in its alcoves. And though Mayor Wellington Webb has named Deputy Mayor Butch Montoya to monitor the project--and the city's asset management office has already poured more than $20,000 into upkeep--the city council has chosen to ignore the mess it created.

"It's not our fault the building's in such bad shape," argues Councilwoman Deborah Ortega, who has supported Martinez's push for a cultural center. "National Image doesn't even own it yet."

And thanks to the council, neither do Tom and Rike Wootton, a Denver father and son development team who three years ago were selected through the city's normal bidding process to buy, renovate and redevelop the old building. The Woottons were prepared to pay $410,000 to acquire the building from the city and then invest an additional $2 million of their own money to restore the structure and carve out lofts.

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