The Jet Set

The go-go years of the 1980s resurface in a bid for the old Stapleton Airport.

Webb administration officials and SDC boardmembers aren't eager to characterize the tenor of their relationship. Both Webb spokesman Andrew Hudson and city public works director Bruce Baumgartner, the mayor's point man on Stapleton, failed to return phone calls from Westword, and SDC chairman Lewis declines to criticize the city, noting, "We're really their agent." However, sources say SDC boardmembers have grown increasingly frustrated by the city's foot-dragging on the question of when and how to transfer the Stapleton property title to the SDC.

"They have been pulling their hair out for two years because the city won't let them do anything," says one person close to the situation. "Harry Lewis and some of the other boardmembers almost walked a couple of times." According to this source, the Webb administration, in particular City Attorney Dan Muse, just can't bring itself to cut the cord and give the SDC the land--partly because the city doesn't want to be seen as handing over control to an outside entity, and partly because of a simple turf war.

Other observers blame the delays on the SDC's citizens' advisory board, a group set up at the city's insistence to represent the concerns of the nearby Park Hill neighborhood--even though the SDC's board of directors already includes such community leaders as the Reverend Paul Martin of the Macedonia Baptist Church. "To me, they've been unable to make decisions because of constantly bringing neighborhood concerns in," complains Hackworth. "The neighborhoods they seem to be representing are constantly demanding more."

If those neighbors are demanding, however, they come by it honestly. It was Park Hill's constant complaints about airplane noise that provided Pena with one of the key political pretexts for shutting down Stapleton in the first place. And once that decision was made, the city bent over backward to ensure that residents would have a say in what happened to the old airfield. Scores of public meetings were held before the Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation in 1995 unveiled an ambitious--some would say utopian--master plan that calls for the establishment of eight "mixed-use villages" and up to 1,600 acres of parks and open space.

The city says it has reached a "conceptual outline" with the SDC on how and when Denver would hand Stapleton over to the nonprofit corporation. Under that tentative arrangement, which the city admits could be thrown out if a majority of airlines object, Denver would transfer title but retain veto power over specific sales. The idea is to preserve city oversight--but it would also enable politicians to nix deals the SDC's paid staff had spent months or years putting together.

It took a battle-tested survivor of the turbulent 1980s to recognize the opportunity created by such a two-headed monster. Deutsch's solution: Scrap the whole concept of the SDC and just sell the land in one big hunk. Let Harvey sort it out.

"It's brilliant," says one Denver real estate lawyer. "The city created this situation, and he saw the opening."

In military terms, Deutsch's tactic--to exploit the friction between the city and the SDC for his own benefit--might be known as divide and conquer. He has handled it more like a banzai charge.

Harvey Deutsch, who started out as a small-time labor lawyer and went on to build one of the city's biggest real estate law practices, has emerged from the crazy Eighties with few visible scars. At 57, he remains ebullient, energetic and prone to the wisecrack, even when it comes to his days as right-hand man to Walters, one of the few Denver developers ever to conclusively disprove the old real estate maxim that "you can't get hurt in dirt."

"If I was an estate lawyer, it would have been a nice, quiet life," says Deutsch of his sometimes stormy past. "I didn't choose that, and if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't choose it, either."

Hooking up with Walters at the peak of Denver's boom, Deutsch served as the developer's general counsel for two years in the early Eighties, a position from which he coordinated all of Walters's business. Even after leaving that in-house post, he continued to work for Walters until the developer's house of cards toppled along with the notorious Silverado in 1988.

"I did represent him and others in their attempts to fend off the FDIC and the RTC foreclosures, to hold on to these properties until the economy improved," Deutsch says. "In Bill's case, it just turned out to be too long to have to hold on."

Even coming from an old friend like Deutsch, that assessment is almost comically charitable. In fact, William Lester Walters single-handedly burned up more taxpayer money than nearly any other figure in the thrift crisis. Largely because of the huge loans he took out from Silverado and never paid back, the federal government wound up seizing the local institution, whose blue neon sign still adorns the old headquarters building at I-25 and Colorado Boulevard. The public paid handsomely for the privilege.

Deutsch, however, says he has nothing to apologize for. "I was not Bill's financial advisor, I did not make decisions on the economics of projects, and I did not make decisions on whether banks would lend money to him," he says. "I was a lawyer engaged to make sure the legal work was done correctly."

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