An Urban Explorer Gone

For some, the lure of the old Gates factory is undeniable. And it was deadly for one.

Gochis told Adams that units 10 and 41 were not Alpine job sites and were undergoing asbestos abatement by Misers Asbestos. While neither he nor any of his employees could legally enter that part of the property to secure the shaft, Gochis told Adams that he'd send some of his workers to lock the gate. Adams considered boarding up the shaft himself, but thought it was too dangerous and decided to leave it to professionals.

On September 4, Gochis met with John Allen, Misers' owner, and relayed Adams's concerns about the shaft.

Five days later, Adams was at home when a TV newscast reported that there'd been an accident at the old Gates plant and that someone had fallen into a hole in one of the buildings.

The former Gates factory.
The former Gates factory.
Johnny Polzin cultivated friends and flowers. His family can't understand how he met his fate in a dark place where nothing grows.
Mark Manger
Johnny Polzin cultivated friends and flowers. His family can't understand how he met his fate in a dark place where nothing grows.

"Isn't that the elevator shaft you were always talking about?" his wife asked.

Adams ran out the door, headed for Denver Health Medical Center.

Until 2001, the Gates Corporation owned the entire 85-acre campus straddling two busy roads and a swath of heavy and light rail tracks. That December, the company sold fifty acres of the property west of Broadway to Cherokee Denver, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cherokee Investment Partners. The North Carolina company is the world's largest equity firm specializing in cleaning up and developing so-called brownfields, or sites with high levels of contamination, including former power plants, Superfund sites and landfills. The deal indemnified Gates from any future responsibility for the significant soil contamination caused by eight decades of industrial use, as well as for the buildings it left behind on the site.

For a time, Gates retained ownership of the 35 acres east of Broadway, which had housed the company's headquarters and also a Samsonite factory, but in 2005 it sold the majority of that land to the Lionstone Group. The Texas-based real-estate firm demolished the 300,000 square feet of existing buildings and did some environmental cleanup; it plans to construct 2.7 million square feet of apartments and offices.

Cherokee Denver's plans are even more ambitious. Its property lies at the intersection of three light-rail lines and a major RTD bus station, and a successful buildout has the potential to emerge as one of the most important Transit-Oriented Developments in the region. A TOD is a dense, anti-sprawl development centered around a mass-transit hub, a style that re-emerged out of the new-urbanist push for walkable, urban neighborhoods with a mix of residential, retail and work space. With the passage of FasTracks, TOD has become the new buzzword for developers and real-estate companies that want to cash in on the fifty light-rail stations slated to be built through the metro area. But few of those stations are surrounded by so much open, if pre-used, space.

Cherokee Denver estimates that the environmental cleanup of the entire site will cost $24.5 million, with demolition running about $10.5 million. But then it envisions creating a $1 billion development that will function as a new mini-downtown. To accomplish this, it was granted a special "Transit Mixed-Use" zoning by the Denver City Council in 2003. According to design guidelines published for the site, this zoning designation allows for multiple buildings as tall as twelve stories surrounded by public walkways and parks. To finance the project, including necessary remediation work and then installation of the infrastructure, Cherokee was also granted $126 million in tax-increment financing subsidies by the city: The Denver Urban Renewal Authority is issuing bonds that it will repay from sales and property taxes generated by the development in future years.

Cherokee is functioning as the master developer of the project, dubbed Metropolitan Gardens. After it remediates the site and installs the infrastructure, it will hand off parcels to "vertical developers" that will actually design and construct the buildings. The Chicago firm of Joseph Freed and Associates will develop the majority of the property, Trammel Crow Residential the rest.

But first, the site must be cleared and cleaned. This fall, everything west of the rail tracks — including former warehouse buildings and bulk oil-storage tanks — was knocked apart and hauled off by demolition subcontractor Fiore & Sons. Units 10 and 41 are still undergoing asbestos abatement. Cherokee has yet to file demolition permits on those structures.

Johnny could squeeze your hand. He could give kisses. He could smile. But that was all. The tracheotomy prevented him from talking. His spine was broken, and he had sustained significant internal injuries, including a lacerated liver.

During visiting hours, his room in the ICU was always packed with friends, family and the random people Johnny had befriended. The same guy who'd given all these people bone-crushing bear hugs — in what became known as a "Johnny hug," he'd lift you off the floor and squeeze you with abandon — might never sit up again. His sisters plastered the walls and ceiling with pictures of flowers. They played songs by Johnny Cash. His mother, Donna, a registered nurse, could barely stand seeing her boy in that condition. He tried to cheer her up by making faces.

Johnny developed an infection and underwent several surgeries to fix liver abscesses and other procedures to repair his spine. They were planning to move him from Denver Health to Craig, where he'd start the long process of rehabilitation. One day, Johnny's parents noted with glee that a Stargazer Lily had suddenly sprouted and flowered in the family garden. It was unheard of this late in the season; it seemed like a sign. Johnny smiled when he heard the news.

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