After the Fall

The Evans school has seen a lot over the past century -- including a death last spring. But does this building have a future?

The assessment took six months, cost more than $40,000 and produced some surprisingly good news when it was completed in January 2003: The building was sound, its mechanical, architectural and structural systems intact. But it needed a major facelift of both its interior and exterior, and that would be costly. Andrews & Anderson estimated that it would run more than $9 million. That figure represents more than half of the State Historical Fund's annual grant allotments. The Colorado Historical Society typically disburses about $14 million among dozens of non-profit organizations each year; its largest grant, $8.2 million for safety upgrades at the State Capitol, was awarded in January.

"It wasn't as bad as it could have been, and that's a testament to the quality of the building itself," Anderson says of the repair estimate. "But, as with all vacant buildings, you get to the point where the roof starts leaking, things start to decay and deteriorate -- then you're getting to that point where it gets steeply more expensive. I think that the money, as far as Dick's hope of getting a return on an investment, just does not pencil out."

And Eber agrees, to a point. "It's endless, the number of facets you have to go into," he says. "Finding the ultimate right use is a challenge, because it has to be financially possible. There are a lot of things about that building that are valuable that are not necessarily financial: It's something to love when you know it and understand it. But it takes money. It has to make some kind of practical sense. It's a tremendous financial undertaking, but we're going to give it a try."

The Evans school in all its decay today. Tracy Rollert 
fell from the second-floor ledge at the right.
Anthony Camera
The Evans school in all its decay today. Tracy Rollert fell from the second-floor ledge at the right.
The Evans school in all its historic glory.
The Evans school in all its historic glory.

Nassi, whose BCN Development controls roughly half of the residential real estate in the Golden Triangle, thinks that the economics of renovating the Evans school would be tricky, even for a seasoned developer. The market is pretty good -- the going rate is $70 per square foot -- but opportunities are still limited to those with deep pockets, or a high tolerance for risk. "Not all developers have the capacity to develop a property into a financial success, and no investor is going to hand over $10 million to someone who doesn't have experience turning a property around," he says. "I think that it takes three things: financial responsibility, possibilities of the market -- will it bear selling another hundred condos, for example -- and having the guts to do it. Most developers are risk-takers; some people are not. I would say Dick Eber, who I respect a lot and think is a sweet man, is not a risk-taker."

After the death of Tracy Rollert, discussion over the building's future intensified. If anyone blamed the Ebers for the accident, they didn't do so out loud. Rollert and Farley had clearly been trespassing on private property, and the Evans school has a good record with the police and fire departments. The building is fenced, well-boarded and armed with a security system -- but standing there empty, it still poses a dangerous temptation.

Hicks once called the fire department when a tree on the property caught fire. "There was this little circle lined up around it, and you could tell there were some street people having a little campfire," she remembers. "It was late; I just happened upon it. It could have easily burned." As for Rollert's death, it was "very sad but not surprising," Hicks says. "It's actually a miracle it hadn't happened to that point."

"The city was very concerned about the fact that this young woman died on this property, which had been the center of so much discussion for many years," recalls former Denver councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who, along with then-councilman Ed Thomas, met with the Ebers and representatives of the Denver Community Planning and Development Agency to discuss the fate of the building. "The feeling was that we needed to be more vigilant in making sure that something happened with the school, and that as long as things continued as they were, nothing was going to happen. We started taking a look at some of the ordinances that related to neglected and derelict buildings and putting some pressure on."

On May 27, the agency's Neighborhood Inspection Services division, which oversees 128 vacant properties in Denver, cited A&R Investments for violating a rarely invoked building ordinance that prohibits owners from leaving a property unoccupied for three months without "evidence of substantial construction activity." Although the city had fielded a smattering of complaints about the building over the years -- for things like graffiti and illegal use of barbed wire -- this was the property's first formal infraction.

"It is not unlawful to own a vacant building," says Julius Zsako, an administrator with the planning department. "But people in the Golden Triangle are getting a little tired of the property, and so were some members of the council. The neighborhood is changing, and the patience of the neighbors is changing, so that what might have been acceptable a few years ago is no longer acceptable. I think we've raised the bar a bit."

In June, the Ebers agreed to make core improvements to the property within six months. Many of the requirements were superficial -- for instance, they were to do a thorough site cleanup, replace broken windows and paint the exterior. But the agreement also called for the owners to hire an engineer and architect to assess what steps were needed to turn the building into an office -- the Ebers' most recent projected use of the school. The Ebers were given a deadline of January 31 to complete the first phase of the plans.

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