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One spring night in 2006, Evan Makovsky and his wife, Evi, walked the 16th Street Mall from the Residence Inn on Champa Street to California Street on their way to a fundraising dinner at the towering new Hyatt Regency Denver at the Colorado Convention Center. The couple, who live in the Hilltop neighborhood, had decided to use the occasion to spend the night downtown.
Completed just months earlier, the Hyatt, at 15th and California, and the newly expanded convention center sparkled — as did most of the area around it. Across California to the northeast, the historic Denver Dry building had been revitalized into a cluster of shops, professional offices and housing. To the southwest across Welton Street, the swanky Denver Pavilions stood as a neon-hued beacon of commerce.
But as they approached the Hyatt, right in the center of it all, the Makovskys stepped into a dead zone: Nearly an entire square block — bordered by California and Welton, 15th and 16th — lay stagnant. Unsavory characters thronged the gum-scarred sidewalks and padlocked, urine-soaked entryways. Decrepit surface parking lots, all shattered asphalt and rusty pay meters, bordered dingy liquor stores, dive bars and nearly vacant buildings.
Fronting it all was the four-story, eighty-year-old Fontius building, partially boarded up and beleaguered by shredded awnings, graffitied windows and broken, long-unlit Fontius signs. The "For Lease" sign in the window wasn't fooling anybody: The phone number on the notice included only seven digits, meaning it was hung before Denver got its second area code, 720, in 1998. The only well-kept structure on the block, the McClintock building, at 16th and California, was all but overwhelmed by its unsightly neighbors.
"If I didn't know Denver, I wouldn't come back," Evi told her husband as she surveyed the street.
Makovsky, a 62-year-old real-estate developer who'd made his fortune downtown, understood. He did know Denver, and he knew this block. In fact, as a boardmember of the Downtown Denver Partnership, a non-profit business-improvement organization, he'd been thinking about its problems for months.
Set in the lucrative epicenter of downtown, Block 162, as it's known on city maps, was the missing link between the 16th Street Mall and the Convention Center, the busy Pavilions and thriving LoDo, and its sad state was hurting downtown's transformation from a business center into a real neighborhood where people could work, shop and live.
"For a long time, people drove into downtown, parked their cars, went to work, then got in their cars and drove home," Makovsky says. "That is not going to be the future."
Instead of commuting an hour to downtown, people who choose to live in or visit Denver's urban core want to walk, bike or take the bus. They want wide sidewalks built for strollers and they want to feel safe, he explains.
But control of the block was divided among seven property owners or ownerships groups, two of whom were the most stubborn in the city, and a unified redevelopment plan had so far proven impossible. Just a few months earlier, two major national developers had given up on separate proposals for the block after facing these frustrations.
Six months before his evening out at the Hyatt, Makovsky had brought up Block 162 at a Downtown Denver Partnership meeting.
"We said, 'We need to do something,'" recalls John Desmond, the partnership's vice president for urban planning and environment. "It's the highest priority of downtown."
They discussed it some more, and then Makovsky made an announcement.
"I'll take it on," he said. "I think I might be able to do it."
For decades, the land beneath Block 162 had been a camping ground for the Arapahoe tribe. But when gold was discovered nearby in 1858, white settlers took over, setting up small settlements and bordering them with streets. California Street ran to the northeast, named in hopes that the new Denver City would become as gold-rich as California. Welton Street lay to the southwest, in honor of N.W. Welton, one of the city's founders. The two perpendicular roads were named F and G streets, though they were later changed to 15th and 16th streets because they were the fifteenth and sixteenth streets east of the Platte River at West Colfax Avenue.
Over time, the tents dotting the land were replaced by rustic cabins, which in turn were replaced by two-story Victorian frame houses with glass windows, Italianate touches on their front porches and widow's walks crowning their shingled Mansford roofs. Trees were planted, interspersed by planks bridging the city ditches running alongside the roads. The thoroughfares were muddy troughs and the night watchmen free-grazed cattle, but the neighborhood was respectable.
"Society accepted Welton Street as its very own. Brilliant social life of early days had its center there," wrote the Rocky Mountain News fifty years later. "They were simple frame structures, but mansions of their day."
As newly built railroads made Denver a boomtown, its population swelled to more than 100,000, and high society migrated from downtown to Capitol Hill to escape the riffraff. There were many eager to take their place on Block 162. In 1871, streetcar rails were laid on 16th Street, making the thoroughfare a natural commercial corridor. A two-story structure eventually known as the El Paso Building was built on 16th and Welton, housing tailors and confectioners, a physician and a "medical electrician." Next door, a one-story building advertised Bauman's Millinery and the Alaska Fur Store. "All seem to want to get on Sixteenth above Larimer and below Glenarm," the Denver Daily Times wrote in 1902. "They hit the right spot.... That is the city promenade. There you can meet everybody you know and see everybody you don't know."