Evan Almighty

It took a master plan — and a mastermind — to end the stalemate on downtown's worst block.


Things were changing all along Block 162 during the early twentieth century. In 1911, the corner of 16th and California was adorned with the eye-catching McClintock building. The Colonial, Arena, Angelus and Standish hotels sprung up around the popular Orpheum, a Welton Street playhouse featuring everything from "knock-about comedians" Heeley and Meely to a coin-trick magician from Australia and "Gollman's trained dogs and cats."

In 1922, a four-story, full-service department store called Steel's opened at 16th and Welton, crowned by a large illuminated billboard announcing its name. American flags hung from most of the windows, signs promised "Nothing over $20.00," and electric billboards advertised the "Steel Persian Gardens" cafeteria in the basement. The building was designed by prominent Denver architect Merrill Hoyt (the brother of Burnham Hoyt, who received nationwide acclaim for his work on Red Rocks Amphitheatre). The structure was adorned with copious amounts of colorful terra-cotta detailing, from its Doric pilasters to the floral designs above its windows, and its first-floor entryways were covered by modern glass-and-steel awnings. Long after the short-lived Steel's department store faded from memory, the building in which it resided continued to be a downtown landmark.

Early twentieth-century Denverites, riding first in streetcars and carriages, then in automobiles, were greeted by a plethora of signs and billboards advertising all that Block 162 had to offer: Art Nook, United States Muskrat Ranches, the Ness Music Co., Colorado Food Comfort Station, Busy Bee Lunch Room, Castello's Hair Store, Toupees & Wigs.

The streets were paved and widened, and red and white street lamps were built along 15th Street.

In 1932, the Orpheum was replaced by a newer version, and before long, traffic patterns changed and combustion engines outnumbered horses. On June 3, 1950, Denver's streetcar service came to an end, pushed out by cars and buses. It marked a turning point not just for the thoroughfares, but also for the blocks in between. By 1951, two of Block 162's buildings had been torn down to make room for auto parking.


Word spread quickly through civic circles in March 2004: National developers were on the move to acquire Block 162. Target Corporation was considering the site for one of its new line of urban retail stores, while Lowe Enterprises in California had put some of the block's parking lots under contract and hoped to redevelop them into stores and offices.

Both plans made sense.

"I think that Block 162, after the completion of the convention-center hotel, was the key block in downtown that was holding back investment for blocks around it," says Don Hunt, owner of real-estate development consulting firm Antero Company and former chair of the Downtown Denver Partnership. "The block is right in the middle of the hundred-percent corner of downtown. It's the block, if it is done right, that will knit together the convention-center corridor. It will connect the 16th Street Mall with the emerging cultural corridor on 14th Street, and I think it will be a tremendous visitor asset."

The city's new twenty-year growth strategy, the Denver Downtown Area Plan, calls it one of the major "opportunity sites" in the commercial core (see story, page 18).

But taking control of the block wouldn't be easy, even for operations as powerful as Target or Lowe. Block 162 was split among seven different ownership groups.

"To get them all on the same page at the same time was going to be very challenging," says Tracy Huggins, executive director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, especially because of the nature of these property owners in particular. "You had a number of owners who had very different reasons for how they managed their property."

That's putting it nicely.

The nearly-empty Colonial Hotel on the corner of 15th and California streets was owned by the Dikeous, once one of the most powerful real-estate families in the city.

The family got its start in business in 1905 when George Dikeou opened a meager popcorn stand at a downtown tramway stop. His sons, James and Peter, built that into a popcorn, candy and tobacco distribution center by 1921. Twenty years later, the family began investing in real estate and eventually built a cache of holdings that ranked them as one of the wealthiest families in the country. Their rise had been called a "Greek Horatio Alger tale."

In 1965, a Denver Post magazine article stated, "The name of Dikeou is likely to figure prominently in the inevitable rebuilding of downtown Denver as more and more skyscrapers come looking for a place to sink their foundations."

But most of those skyscrapers never arrived, and many of the Dikeou properties — and the family itself — fell on hard times. In 1977, James Dikeou, then 85, was killed during a robbery attempt in a downtown building he owned. Police said a teenage girl, with whom he reportedly had a relationship, admitted to beating him during the robbery. His son, John, dreamed of owning Denver's first big-league baseball team, but that dream was crushed by financial troubles after the family was levied with nearly two dozen lawsuits claiming they had defaulted on loans totaling more than $40 million. Through it all, the Dikeous held on to their crumbling parking lots and buildings as if they were family heirlooms, waiting for perfect development proposals that never materialized. The family still holds more than 230,000 square feet of surface lots downtown, more than any other owner.

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