Evan Almighty

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

Questions directed to Dikeou family members were referred to John Dikeou, who didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story.

While the Colonial Hotel site, which the family purchased in 1978, was one of the few lots with a building on it, the three-story structure was so deteriorated it might as well have been a stretch of asphalt. A fire gutted part of the building in the 1990s, and most of the tenants, save for a bar and a liquor store, fled after its owners put off upkeep.

"Someone will develop the property," John Dikeou told a reporter in 2004. "But it won't be us until the convention center and hotel are done. We want to get as much income as we can, too. When the hotel and convention center come in, the market will finally be prime for development. I think you'll see big deals come out in the next six months."

Developer Evan Makovsky plans to redevelop an entire city block downtown.
Mark Manger
Developer Evan Makovsky plans to redevelop an entire city block downtown.
Steel's department store and the Orpheum playhouse in their heyday on Welton Street.
Mark Manger
Steel's department store and the Orpheum playhouse in their heyday on Welton Street.

Those deals never came.

"I don't believe it is a secret that these property owners have different objectives than many people involved in downtown," Huggins says. "The Dikeou family had held [the Colonial Hotel] in waiting for something economic to happen. What it was they were waiting for, especially in light of the convention-center hotel coming in, is a mystery."

And then there was the Fontius building.

Built originally as Steel's department store, the structure was now known for its most recent major tenant, the Fontius Shoe Company, which had moved out in the late '80s. Although its historic designation meant it couldn't be demolished, its position at the corner of the 16th Street Mall and Welton made it key to the block's success.

The Fontius building was owned by the Cooks — a family whose troubles outdid even the Dikeous'. Their empire was launched in 1925 when Dave Cook made an impulse buy of 144,000 fishing flies. His entrepreneurial instincts evolved into Dave Cook Sporting Goods, a string of 21 Colorado stores. But the Cooks had lately become better known for their bruising family clashes over money and real estate. Ousted family member Max Cook, Dave's brother, would go on to open his own sporting-goods store and dabble in real estate, buying the Steel's building in 1961. By the time Dave Cook Sporting Goods was bought out by a competitor, in 1988, all that was left of the Cook empire was a collection of properties and an imbroglio of family squabbles over them.

The personal disputes reared their ugly countenance in a public way when RedPeak Properties attempted to buy 1616 Glenarm Place in 2004. Cook family members owned part of that land but were too busy suing each other to figure out how to sell it. The quarreling relatives finally agreed to sign the necessary paperwork — though they insisted on doing so in separate rooms so they wouldn't have to see one another.

Mike Zoellner of RedPeak says his company also considered pursuing the Fontius building, but the familial chaos was too daunting. "They were dysfunctional partners, I think. And that really limited their ability to make a decision," he says. "I think in the case of [1616 Glenarm], there was a lot of political will to get the lights turned on. I think the mayor's office and DURA and the Downtown Denver Partnership all helped us to put a lot of political pressure on the Cook family to sell."

So the Fontius building remained largely unoccupied. The Downtown Denver Partnership asked principal owner Gary Cook if it could install posters in the vacant windows advertising the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Zoo and other civic attractions, as the organization had done in many vacant storefronts downtown. While the effort would have cost him nothing, Cook refused.

Like the Dikeous, representatives of the Cook families are loath to speak with the press. Gary Cook did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Whatever their motivations, it's their right as property owners to let their land lie fallow, either by choice or by circumstance, says Downtown Denver's John Desmond. In libertarian Colorado, that idea is close to sacred, making municipal attempts at eminent domain a political gamble. Plus, he adds, there is a rationale — of sorts — for letting Block 162's properties deteriorate. "People can wait for a really large development to come in, and in the meantime the holding costs on the property are relatively low," he says. "We have relatively low property tax in Denver, and the current requirements for upkeep on buildings and parking lots are minimal." While zoning now prohibits the construction of new surface lots downtown, it also requires significant work on existing lots to include infrastructure and environmental improvements, thereby discouraging the lots' owners from doing anything at all to their property.

But letting Block 162's landowners do whatever they want isn't that simple in the heart of downtown, where one property has a direct impact on the next. "There was a tenant who was very close to signing a major deal at an adjacent property that would have netted the city, in sales taxes, between $200,000 to $250,000 a year," Desmond says. "They were ready to go in and chose not to, and cited the condition of the Fontius building and the block and the perceived safety conditions on the mall as their primary reasons."

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