The Hill Gets Steeper

Art is in the eye of the title holder for Triton Properties.

In many ways, the three-story apartment building at 1234 East Colfax Avenue in Capitol Hill is unremarkable -- the majority of the tenants are artists or musicians, both young and old, who pay little rent (average price for a large one-bedroom unit: $300) in exchange for keeping mum about the temperamental radiator or the lack of weather stripping.

Pascal Humbert, the bassist for local band 16 Horsepower lives here. So does Gene Bass, an aging jazz drummer who still plays gigs around town. On the third floor, in a large studio, is sculptor and photographer David Zimmer's home. Steel artist and photographer Jeff Ball lives down the hall. The first floor is filled with several locally owned retail shops: a bookstore that specializes in rare reads, a design studio, a print shop, and a photography studio/gift shop owned by Walter Wedgeworth, father of Denver City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth.

But in many other ways, 1234 East Colfax is remarkable: "I haven't locked my door in two and half years," Ball says. "We all have keys to each other's places. We borrow each other's tools, watch each other's pets when we go on vacation." Adds Linda Lebsack, who has managed the building for twenty years and owns Lebsack's Books below, "Everything here is done on sort of a gentleman's agreement. If you're late with a month's rent, we're not coming after you; we work with you. We're not in it to squeeze the last nickel out of everybody. We're not that kind of landlord."

Not that it matters anymore.

Late last year, a rumor hit the apartment building like a wrecking ball: Triton Investment Company was interested in buying the property from its longtime out-of-state owners, John and Marilyn Weiker. The name Triton shot fear into the tenants, who have watched the company consume aging buildings in Capitol Hill, force the occupants to leave, and turn the units into high-priced condos or slick business centers.

Last January, for instance, a company owned by Triton purchased the well-worn building directly across the street, at 1245 East Colfax, and quickly served notice to several nonprofit agencies, many of them serving homeless and economically disadvantaged people who shuffle through the Hill ("No Lease on Life," February 25, 1999). The building is now called the Upper Colfax Business Centre. Other recent purchases include the buildings on either side of 1234 East Colfax, now called the Colonnade Lofts and the Alta Court offices, respectively, and Bourbon Square, a row of retail shops and one restaurant next door to the Upper Colfax Business Centre.

The spruce-up has pleased some business owners and residents who want East Colfax to grow out of its gritty reputation, but it has angered others who believe that Triton's efforts are white-washing the character and diversity right out of the neighborhood. "They're creating a suburbia in the city," Ball says. "All of the artists are being pushed out. Everyone who made Capitol Hill what it is is being forced to leave it."

So when they heard about Triton's interest in their homes, Ball and the other ten or so tenants talked about raising money to buy the building themselves. After all, Ball alone had put more than two years' worth of sweat equity into it; using his talent as an artist, he'd refurbished all of the building's woodwork, including everyone's doors and floors and the banister that corkscrews up three flights of stairs. Even his bear-claw bathtub is decorated in a meticulous mosaic that he tiled himself.

But by the time the residents rallied, negotiations between Roenstock Place LLC, which is owned by Triton, and the Weikers, who live in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, were too far along to stop. As a last resort, manager Lebsack relayed her tenants' fears to the owners, whom she describes as great landlords. The Weikers responded with a generous offer, she says: They agreed to insert a special clause into the contract that would forbid Triton from evicting any of the tenants for six months.

On June 15, the deal closed for $870,000. But animosity between at least one tenant and the new landlord peaked immediately. The day after the purchase was announced, a brass logo for Triton Properties (Triton Investment's management arm) was drilled into the wall above the mailboxes in the lobby. By the following afternoon, the logo had been stolen. The new owners also locked an access door to the roof and hallway closet doors that stored tools, Ball says. Tenants who wanted to fetch a drill on the fly or climb outside for a summertime smoke in the evening, as they always had, were shut out, denied, angered.

Hoping to ease the tension, Ball scheduled a meeting with Triton property director B.J. Diggs. But according to the artist, at the June 30 meeting he became the first person to get his notice to vacate the premises. He had sixty days to get out. Ball says he didn't mention the six-month clause, but he did make a case for the building, explaining that the tenants loved their home and wanted to work with their new landlords. "She just said, 'I don't know where you're coming from, but this is the way business is done.'"

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