By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
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Packham had worked for the national chain of fashionable furnishings on and off for fifteen years. He was a true company man, traveling to cities in California, Tennessee and Florida to open new stores and help remodel old ones. When he arrived in Denver two years ago, he took a job as the assistant manager at the Capitol Hill location (there are twelve outlets in metro Denver), just across the street from his apartment.
The quaint two-level store was situated in the historic Bourbon Square building, next to a bookstore and a flower shop. "It's the only Pier 1 I've ever seen that isn't in a gigantic shopping mall or in a strip mall," Packham says. "It's right in the middle of a neighborhood. The customer relations were excellent; customers would come in and ask for you by name. It's certainly the only Pier 1 that let dogs in the store, but that's just the way the neighborhood is."
Yet after fourteen years on the Hill, and after what store managers say were record-setting sales the past two years, Pier 1 suddenly closed. Just three weeks before the locksmiths arrived, Packham says, he and ten other employees were shocked when store manager Tami Smith called a meeting and told them to start boxing goods and preparing for a fire sale. Oh, and there was one more thing: Don't allow employees from Triton Properties, Pier 1's landlord, inside the store.
"The instructions were explicit," recalls Smith, who was as surprised as the rest of the employees. She says the terse verbal instructions came down from Pier 1 regional property manager Emily Gross: "You are not to give [Triton] a key or let them set foot in the building. Under no circumstances are you to talk to Triton employees. Let them deal with the home office." Smith also says Gross described the parting between the two companies as "the ugliest [she'd] ever seen."
More confounding to Packham and Smith was that Pier 1's lease wasn't scheduled to expire until May 2001 -- and that Pier 1 is continuing to pay $13,000 per month in rent. To change the locks and not allow Triton employees to show the property for more than a year was a symbolic middle finger on the way out of town, Packham believes. But that's how bad things had become between landlord and tenant.
Complaints from residents about Triton's growing presence on Capitol Hill are nothing new. In just the past few years, the company has purchased and remodeled several buildings in the city's funkiest neighborhood. The sites include the Colonnade Lofts and the Alta Court offices across the street from Bourbon Square, as well the building adjacent to it, the Upper Colfax Business Center. Before it was a sleek, rehabbed business center, the outmoded building housed a number of nonprofit agencies -- many of them serving homeless or other disadvantaged people -- at discounted rents. After purchasing the building, Triton issued eviction notices to several of those agencies. The unceremonious boot angered many residents who believed Triton's redevelopment tactics were forcing the economic and social diversity out of their neighborhood ("No Lease on Life," February 25, 1999).
Until 1998, Bourbon Square had been run by a single owner. That year, however, the building was purchased by a small company named Upper Colfax Investment. According to records at the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, Upper Colfax Investment is owned by Triton Investment Company. When Triton first took over Bourbon Square, Smith says, the company was a welcome landlord.
"They were doing more than the guy who owned it before, that's for sure," she says. Triton workers immediately fixed a leaky roof that had allowed water to drip onto merchandise and repainted the aging building white with blue trim to match Pier 1's corporate color scheme. Triton didn't even raise the rent.
But Packham says the work on the roof was shoddy and the floor was still littered with pots and pans to catch leaks on rainy days; he says Pier 1 asked Triton several times to redo the roof, but the requests were ignored. Packham also says Triton disregarded terms in the lease that called for the company to keep the building's restrooms clean. And, he adds, Triton was slow to remove snow from the storefront -- if it removed snow at all. "We were always getting the runaround," he says. All of these complaints were forwarded to Pier 1's home office in Fort Worth, Texas, and by mid-February, when Pier 1 corporate officers told Triton it was closing the store because of an "internal decision," the lovefest had been over for a while.
Lisa Ratliff, a company spokeswoman at Pier 1 headquarters in Forth Worth, disputes the claims made by the store's ex-employees, saying that the company had decided to close the location well before Triton took over. "The store was not profitable, so we decided to move it. I have no indication that we were upset with the landlord," she says, adding that paying more than a year's worth of rent for a vacant store and changing the locks was a "very normal procedure." (Indeed, Smith concedes that the change-the-locks rule was listed in the manual she followed to close the store.)