An Urban Explorer Gone

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

After three and a half weeks in the hospital, he underwent a seventh surgery to repair another abscess. The procedure was only supposed to last an hour, but something went wrong. Johnny stopped breathing.

The doctors were sobbing when they came out to tell the family that he was gone.


It won't be long before Gates, too, is gone.

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.

In late spring or early summer, Cherokee Denver will begin demolition on the remaining Gates buildings, the ones that everyone recognizes, the ones that fascinate explorers. Ferd Belz says the company hopes to preserve some of the facades and integrate them into future projects. "We're working with the state and historic folks at the city in terms of analyzing what we'll physically be able to save and what we can't," he notes.

But first the company has to figure out how to remove the stuff lurking beneath those buildings. "The challenge is that the site is pretty significantly environmentally contaminated," Belz says, "and a lot of it is in the soil and the groundwater under the buildings."

Some of it has even flowed off-site. In 2002, two employees of a drilling subcontractor working on a section of T-Rex directly north of the site became ill when they struck groundwater contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent that's considered toxic to humans and was used to clean machinery in several Gates buildings over the years. Subsequent groundwater tests by the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that two underground plumes of the stuff had traveled below homes in West Washington Park. With heavy oversight by neighborhood groups and such organizations as the Campaign for Responsible Development, Cherokee Denver and the Gates Corporation embarked on a program of testing and mitigation that eventually reduced TCE in the area to allowable standards.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has more than 300 files relating to the Gates site, some going back to 1988. That was when the company discovered that a storage tank in the partially finished basement of Unit 29 had been leaking. Gates installed draining wells, and over the next seven years, the company reported it had to sucked up some 70,000 gallons of the sludge from the soil beneath the building. Cherokee has enrolled in the Voluntary Clean Up Program, which provides property owners with a state-supervised framework for remediating environmental contamination. Colorado started the program in 1994; since then, it has received 600 applications covering 400 sites across the state ranging from former laundromats to abandoned mines. Once state officials sign off on a site as clean, property owners like Cherokee can use that seal of approval to entice investors and secure other financial backing. In the meantime, Cherokee Denver has received $2 million in loans through the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, according to Mark O'Grady of the state health department, which administers the cleanup credits. Ten VCUP applications for parcels on the Gates site have already been approved. Three others, including one for the parcel encompassing units 10 and 41, are still under review.

Unit 10 was originally built in 1917 and underwent major additions over the next four decades, until the last in 1961. It was in this building that the vast majority of the rubber-product manufacturing work was done, everything from mixing to milling, fabricating, curing and finishing. These procedures required the use of many hazardous and non-hazardous materials, including "latex, paraffinic process oils, plasticing compounds, chlorinated and non-chlorinated solvent cleaning solutions, formaldehyde, toluene, lead and chromium," according to health department files.

Beneath the foundations lies a huge mess of oil and solvents "with a high viscosity, i.e., equivalent to that of maple syrup," environmental investigators noted in a cleanup application submitted to the state. Cherokee plans to haul all of the dirt away and replace it with clean backfill before actual construction begins. Even so, any sub-grade parking structures must be built to allow ventilation not only for automotive exhaust but any chemical vapors that might float up from below. And any buildings constructed on the site will have a "sub-slab depressurization system" to ensure that any volatile organic fumes rising above state standards are not allowed to collect inside.

Such fumes could be deadly.


Word spread quickly that Johnny had died. It didn't make the papers this time, but everyone found out. People who knew him or knew of him. He was a friend, or a friend of a friend. He was family.

The Polzins scattered his ashes in Puget Sound and had a memorial bench installed in his honor at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Two months after Johnny's death, they are trying to find their way through their own labyrinth of grief. They wonder why it was that his life stalled in such a putrid place, deep in the dark where nothing could grow.

"He and I used to love going to the Gardens," says Johnny's mother, Donna. "He'd go with his friends from school. We bought a bench where we could just go and sit, in the Alpine Garden. It's better than some cemetery. He would have liked that."

They're taking another action on Johnny's behalf, too. They've hired an attorney, Jessica Allen of Isaacson & Rosenbaum, who's notified Cherokee Denver and Misers Asbestos that the family plans to sue the companies for failing to secure the area. (Misers Asbestos did not return calls; Cherokee Denver declined to comment on the accident.)

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