Evan Almighty

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

Block 162's impact on the urban core was surely felt in the summer of 2004. Four months after announcing its intent to acquire much of the block, Lowe Enterprises called it quits. Soon after, Target pulled out, too. "We were unable to successfully complete an important part of the assemblage we were trying to put together, and as a consequence, we dropped our contract," a Lowe representative said at the time.

Most of Block 162 continued to gather dust.

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.

Shoes. Thousands of them. Maybe millions, spread over four floors. The first floor would be the grand entryway, packed with men's shoes, women's shoes and hard-to-find sizes. The second would be the repair center, staffed with top-of-the-line cobblers, and the third would be the place for deals on factory closeouts. The fourth floor, on top of it all, would be corporate headquarters, charged with keeping track of all that fresh-smelling leather and rubber. That was the plan behind the flagship Fontius Shoe Company moving into the building on the corner of Welton and 16th in 1966.

"It was a very large operation," says Harry Fontius III. "That's what Fontius was known for: a great variety of sizes and the very best brands imaginable."

It was a reputation begun when his great-grandfather, John Jacob Fontius, traveled the Colorado gold fields selling shoes in the late nineteenth century, and nurtured as the store outgrew one downtown location after another and opened a chain of stores in the suburbs.

"It was a fun time," remembers Fontius. "When we ran a sale, my God, people would be lined up, and we would have to have police control the crowds. It was huge. It was fantastic."

But the crowds didn't last. In the 1970s and '80s, businesses large and small began moving to Cherry Creek and to the sprawling southeastern suburbs to follow their customers.

"I think real-estate values in central downtown went somewhat downhill as the Aurora Mall and Southlands Mall and some of the bigger suburban centers took over some of the shopping habits," says Fontius, who broke from the family business to pursue separate interests in 1975. "There were fewer and fewer people in office buildings. They went from hour lunch breaks to half-hour lunches. I think walking traffic deteriorated over time."

In 1986, the Fontius Shoe Company was sold to a Phoenix-based firm, and three years later, the flagship store disappeared from Denver phone books. The building became nearly empty save for Los Wigwam Weavers, a wool-necktie company that had rented space on its third floor from property owner Gary Cook. An optometrist moved into the fourth floor, and a handful of businesses rotated in and out of the smaller storefronts on 16th and Welton streets.

In the meantime, inner-city flight had hurt other institutions as well, like the Orpheum Theater. The venue, which had dropped vaudeville acts to focus on film and been renamed RKO International 70, was remodeled in 1955 and again in 1963 — but it still couldn't keep pace with the times. "All the movie theaters moved to the shopping centers and the suburbs, and nobody came downtown to go to the movies anymore," remembers Gene Rock, head of the Bank of Denver, which had purchased the theater and the Standish Hotel across the block from it on California Street, renaming the hotel structure the Bank of Denver Building. In 1967, RKO was torn down and replaced with a half-acre parking lot.

The parking lot grew. A December 1974 Denver Post photo captured a demolition zone at 15th and Welton streets where there had, until then, been a hotel. "The wreckers are expected to finish their job sometime this week," read the caption, "with the cleared corner site to be operated, at least temporarily, as a parking lot."

That temporary use became permanent.

As the 1970s energy boom, which had driven up downtown real-estate prices, bottomed out in the debilitating oil bust of the mid-1980s, parking-lot owners who'd cleared away deteriorating, unoccupied historic downtown buildings waited in vain for great developments that never appeared. The Downtown Denver Partnership estimates that between 20 and 22 percent of all properties in the 120-block Downtown Denver Business Improvement District are parking lots — including much of Block 162.

Even the 1982 opening of the 16th Street Mall pedestrian corridor did little to stop the block's slide. The refurbishment of the McClintock building at 16th and California was a small upswing in an otherwise downward spiral. The backside of the block became home to what the Denver Post referred to as "15th Streeters," a subculture living in the "permanent-transient" hotels on and around Block 162 and congregating at the street's many watering holes. "It's a step below respectability and a step above skid row," explained one bar owner. Some of the locales became local legends, like the 15th St. Tavern, which took over for the old Sportsman bar in the Colonial Hotel building in 1995.

The bar's grungy atmosphere and seedy clientele, shunned by civic boosters, was celebrated by others as the ultimate downtown dive. "It was known for good times and great bands," says co-owner Mykel Martinez, who, along with his two partners, bought the tavern from original owner Andy Artzer three years ago.

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