Trials and Tribulations

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

"We envisioned a grand residential building sitting on a prominent corner directly across from the Convention Center," says Tom Wootton. "Our intent was to take advantage of the way the building was originally designed, reusing all the plaster-cast moldings, the arches, the great construction."

That dream would have taken twelve months at the outside to realize, says Wootton, if it had been allowed to proceed.

It wasn't.

Unknown to Wootton, at the time he and his son bid on the property, the courthouse had a history of botched plans and political broadsides.

In 1985, a year after the Denver DA moved out of the building because an inspector had deemed it "unsafe," the administration of former mayor Federico Pea put it up for sale, reasoning that it would cost far too much to convert it to a city office building. The move caused a storm of protest and sparked a "save our building" effort. Lane Ittelson, the former president of Historic Denver, Inc., led the fight to preserve the structure, which he feared would be demolished by a developer. Eventually, the city was forced to promise that it would sell the building only to someone who pledged not to level it.

That same year, the city's Commission on Cultural Affairs (now the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film) asked the asset management office to study the feasibility of converting the building into a cultural center. In March 1986 the commission got its answer: Given the estimated costs of renovation and the trickle of revenue likely to result from such a venture, it amounted to economic suicide.

Ever since, ideas about what to do with the building have been raised only to be quickly squelched. For a while the courthouse and its diminutive jail starred in a series of made-for-TV Perry Mason movies. After the stage lights and sound system were removed, the city decided to try to sell the building again. The loft boom sweeping Denver in the early 1990s made it likely a developer could be found who would agree to preserve the structure. But Martinez had other plans for it--plans brought to her by National Image.

It isn't quite clear why National Image approached Martinez and not Ortega: After all, the building falls within Ortega's council district. But after Martinez picked up the fight, Ortega chose to support the effort, one she thought would help heal wounds created when predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods were bulldozed in the early 1970s to make way for college classrooms.

"It symbolizes so much," says Ortega. "The Auraria campus wiped out a wide segment of the community. [The DA's building] is the entry way to a long-term solid community, right here in west Denver."

Other Hispanic groups also liked the idea of a cultural center but claim they were forced out of the process. Ken Sandoval, a consultant with SEDCO, a Denver economic development consulting company, was president of the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council (CHAC) back in 1992, when he says the city council was first asked to consider reserving the old DA's building for a nonprofit use.

"CHAC, El Centro Su Teatro and the Museo de las Americas had all been discussing using the building as a cultural heritage center," says Sandoval. "We thought of it as a place where we could display the works of [Denver activist] Corky Gonzales, the whole collection, writings, original documentation, that sort of thing, about the Crusade for Justice in the Sixties. It would have tied into the Chicano studies department at Metro. But we met with Ramona, and she said that the city and county's Hispanic population wouldn't support such a center. We were all ostracized by that comment."

According to Sandoval, Martinez knew exactly whom she wanted to get the project: National Image. And in October 1992, Martinez first intervened in the city's plan to sell the building, asking Webb to hold up the request-for-proposal process "for a few weeks" so she and National Image could tour the place. After the initial tour, the asset management office conducted six months of meetings with Martinez and groups including National Image, trying to help them draw up a workable plan for a cultural center. But the cultural center didn't make any more financial sense in 1993 than it had seven years earlier. A memo to the city council from former city asset manager Myrtle-Rose Greene noted that the series of meetings "produced no tangible results." The city put the building up for sale in June 1993, and the deadline for bids passed that August without a proposal from National Image or Brother's Redevelopment.

But Martinez wasn't about to let the matter go. She wheedled Webb into reopening the bidding in September in order for Brother's to submit its own proposal (which, when finally completed, offered a purchase price of $10). But the city's Development Review Committee found the Wootton plan far superior and gave the father-son team the nod in November. In a letter to Webb, Martinez called the selection of the Woottons' offer unfair and warned that she would hold up the council's approval of the sale unless the mayor agreed to a meeting. Martinez then wrote to Greene requesting that the sale to the Woottons not be finalized prior to January 14, 1994, the day she was scheduled to meet with Webb.

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