In the early 1990s, residents of the 1600 block of Humboldt Street--a mix of retirees, young professionals and middle-class families--fought to save the block from crime and drug traffic.
Today the neighborhood, situated between downtown Denver and City Park, is flush with activity fueled by the massive redevelopment that is turning the old St. Luke's Hospital into a four-block center of apartments, offices and stores. At 17th and Humboldt, a bulldozer is noisily dismantling a car wash to make room for a small retail project. At the other end of the block, brownstones (one is rumored to be the Denver home of silent film star Douglas Fairbanks) are being reinvented as townhomes and condos. A dental office from the 1940s is still open for business, while several brick bungalows nearby are being rehabbed.
And now the 1600 block of Humboldt Street has become ground zero for a new battle, this one between residents and developer William S. Lyons, who is planning a large townhome project on an empty lot at the north end of the block.
"What we're building there is a quality building--brick and stucco," promises Lyons, who runs Triton Development. "The values are higher than the homes in the neighborhood, and they say I'm bringing the neighborhood down."
Neighbors say they've long wanted someone to develop the weed-filled lot, but Lyons's project isn't what they had in mind. A rendering of the project indicates that it would cast an expansive shadow over the smaller homes nearby. Lyons's project is ninety feet long and four stories tall; garages would be built at ground level, facing the street, leaving no room for front porches. To the residents on the rest of the block--who are used to hanging out on their porches--Lyons's project is too big and too impersonal.
"He really thinks he does wonderful work, but he doesn't get it," says Hilleary Waters, who lives across the street at 1630 Humboldt. "His design is a suburban-mentality design. A sensitive infill design is not what he's about."
Others say quality work is also not what Lyons is about. Lyons has a history of problem projects stretching back to the early 1990s in Southern California, where he short-shrifted subcontractors and left a large apartment project half-finished. And homeowners have criticized two of Lyons's recent projects in suburban Denver, saying they were poorly built. Commerce City homeowners have already filed one lawsuit in Adams County; another was filed recently by the City of Westminster. A third may be on the way.
Welby Hills, the condominium development in Commerce City, sits atop a hill a few miles north of Interstate 76. These are economy models, priced in the low $100,000 range and clad in yellowish siding. The first five buildings of the project's current eighteen were built in the 1980s, before a failing economy put the other units on hold. By the mid-1990s, with the land already zoned and the infrastructure in place, construction resumed on what would be the remaining units. Three were built by Triton, all after 1996.
The problem, according to Welby Hills Homeowners Association president Brett Reitmair, is that the buildings are slowly shifting downhill. Reitmair suspects Triton workers didn't properly compact the soil underneath the homes.
The results are obvious. Lee Sailas bought the corner Triton unit a year and a half ago. It was the show model, she said, and "had all the upgrades: nicer cabinets, air conditioning, recessed lighting."
Now the property is shifting. An exterior and an interior wall are bowed (the one inside a good twelve inches). Molding on a nearby door had to removed. "The doors are all crooked," she says. "Plants are dying; everything is cracked." She doesn't know if the five bushes on the side of her unit are turning brown because of the shifting soil, but it's one more thing that makes her feel as if she'll wind up losing money.
Sailas's next-door neighbor, Troy Hager, moved in just a few months ago. So far, his problems have been restricted to the garage. The floor there is slanting--the right side is an inch or two lower than the left side. His garage door is also starting to stick, and the trim is pulling away. "The quality of the work is very thrown-together," Hager says. "The cement work--the foundation work--is pretty shitty."
Out of all the units in the development, the three built by Triton are the only ones with major problems. A suit against Triton was filed four weeks ago on behalf of homeowners by the law firm Burdman & Benson, which specializes in construction defects.
Reitmair estimates repair damages are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. "They're modern-day carpetbaggers," he says of Triton. "They never said they wouldn't take care of it. They just never take care of it."
Reitmair says he met with Lyons and Triton officials once. "You'd think you were talking to people from a different world," Reitmair says. "They have the idea that 'Everybody builds this way; it's industry-wide standards.' Not from where we're sitting."
But the problems in Commerce City pale next to the poor fit and finish at the Wild Ridge development in Westminster. The 55 split-level and ranch homes, all built by Triton, enjoy a commanding view of the Flatirons. But in the middle of the property sits a huge, ripped-up chunk of asphalt. Soffits, ordinarily used to brace roofs, are detached. Roofs are beveled; gutters and roofs don't come together. Cable boxes are exposed. One sump pump sends water onto a grade, back toward the house. A huge green relay station--five feet tall and resembling an old Army foot locker stood on end--rests on one homeowner's front lawn, sporting a sign that reads: "Hazardous voltage inside can shock, burn or cause death."
Two homes are in particularly bad shape. The roofs hanging over the front porches are supported by two brick columns, and one column on each unit has collapsed and been replaced by wood beams. According to one former resident, the columns fell in the summer of 1996. What's more, the concrete porches themselves were torn out months ago, leaving behind trash, gravel and weeds that grow so tall they look like shrubbery.
Column problems plague other units. One column can literally be moved with a gentle shake. Others are not built flush against the roofs they're supposed to hold up. One column is not completely vertical.
In a letter last year to the city of Westminster, one homeowner complained of inadequate drainage: "The asphalt paving, or apron, that leads up to my garage floor is higher than the garage floor, and the asphalt is sloped toward the garage instead of away from it," he writes. "Therefore, when it rains or when the snow melts, a considerable amount of water runs into my garage floor. Since the asphalt is higher than the garage floor, no water on the garage floor is allowed to drain out of the garage."
One couple, who requested anonymity, moved into the project in July 1995. They say their bathtub, a step-up whirlpool job, was not built flush against the wall, and when workers returned to insert a piece of wood in the gap, the gap was still not sealed. "We paid extra for it. They didn't know how to put it in," says the husband.
They also had two television outlets. But if one television was on, the other would be fuzzy. Cable workers came out to have a look and told them that the line splitter had been installed backward.
The couple recalls other problems. They say workers removed a concrete basement floor--and within a week after it was replaced, the floor cracked. The alleyway behind their house did not drain, resulting in a big lake in the concrete. Gutters in the house were installed backward and had to be replaced at the homeowners' expense.
They say Lyons looked over the property in March 1997. The husband says Lyons told them: "I'm embarrassed this project got away from me. We will take care of everything that needs fixing in the next two months." They moved out in February 1998.
But according to the husband, nothing happened. "Lyons is the nicest guy you'll ever meet. He'll promise you the world but won't deliver. I would not want one of his projects in a neighborhood I bought a home in." The couple moved out in February 1998.
The City of Westminster has a thick file regarding this project. Triton gave the city a $28,000 warranty bond issued through Amwest Surety, which acts like a security deposit on an apartment: The city keeps it as insurance that the developer will maintain the property a year after it's completed, which in this case was August 30, 1996. By August 1997, Greg Savage, an inspector in Westminster's planning department, thought that landscaping improvements the city had requested were not complete. The statute of limitations expired on August 30 of this year, and the city filed a lawsuit in Jefferson County days prior to the deadline. But City Attorney Marty McCullough says he has not served Triton or Amwest yet and is still hoping to resolve things before they go to court.
"We're trying to get Triton's attention," he says. "I think we got it. We don't care too much who completes the work. If Triton is not gonna do it, we want Amwest to give us the money so we can."
Savage says Triton's Wild Ridge project is one of the most problematic he's seen. "They promise you something to get the thing approved," Savage says. "Then they do what they can to get away with it."
The lawyers of Burdman & Benson are also investigating this property to see if a lawsuit is feasible. "We're in the preliminary stages of finding what sort of defects are going on out there," says attorney Milo Miller.
Miller says the law firm invited Triton to observe and participate in that investigation. "I don't know whether they've in fact been out there with their team," says Miller.
According to the Better Business Bureau, since July 1996 Triton "has been the subject of three complaints which have generally alleged extended delays in and/or failure to complete warranty repair items." The bureau's report goes on to say that "after delays, the firm has been responsive to complaints by generally citing its views on the matter. However, two complainants reported continued dissatisfaction and the need to retain an attorney."
A higher-end Triton project, consisting of 107 units in Wheat Ridge, appears to be in much better shape. Still, one Cambridge Park resident, Allen Spelman, says he's had a problem with his unfinished basement, which is laid with a wafer-board wood floor and has water underneath due to poor drainage.
Although Triton is moving slowly, Spelman says, the company "has acted to correct things they're not happy with. It takes them a while to get to it. It's unfair to say Triton doesn't perform."
Don Colaiano, president of the Cambridge Park Homeowners Association, says some structures have heaving problems and cracks in their foundations. "We're sitting on some expansive soil. We've got some drainage problems," says Colaiano, who has met with Lyons and says the Triton chief will remedy them. "I think they're trying to make a good effort to get it done, and overall, I think they will take care of things."
But Lyons has a history of similar problems. Before he came to Colorado, he ran Lycon Development, one of the largest development and construction companies in Southern California. Glenn Mitchell, office manager for Tim Mitchell Construction, says that in the Seventies, his firm did structural concrete work for Lyons-run projects in the Los Angeles area. An apartment complex in Woodland Hills, California, he says, was "left half-done. It sat for years with stucco and no windows. Everybody was looking for him, and he took the money and screwed all the lesser subcontractors."
In 1992, attorney Mark Baker represented Mitchell in a suit against Lyons, whom he describes as "somewhat of a deadbeat." Baker won a default judgment for the amount owed, about $35,000.
But Lyons left for Colorado and Mitchell didn't get paid. Now Baker is attempting to obtain a registered judgment in Arapahoe County. Baker says Lyons "let his corporations go defunct" and then resettled in Colorado. According to the California Contractors State License Board, Lyons's Lycon Construction Corporation had its license suspended in 1993. "Lyons took whatever money Lycon might have had in the bank and took off for Colorado. When the dust settled, you realized you had trusted the guy to take care of you, and you realized he just left," Baker says.
Though Lyons declines comment about his properties around Denver, he disputes Baker's comments. Lyons says his company was building 1,200 to 1,500 units a year in Southern California before recession hit and the value of his developments dropped, which he says is why he left the state. Of the Mitchell suit, he says, "Everything Mitchell is saying is accurate, but it's still a claim that is being disputed. There's a problem with the quality of the work." Lyons says the remaining money is being held back because of what he calls "pick-up work, correction work."
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As for Humboldt Street, the residents fighting Lyons's proposed project have been buoyed by a little-known zoning stipulation requiring that projects be compatible with adjacent and similarly zoned land. Neighbors are trying to get the Denver City Council to pass a moratorium that would block construction of Lyons's building.
Lyons says he has compromised as much as he could. "We want to build sixteen or seventeen units," he says. "They want us to build six. That's not fair, either. I tried to play the good guy, but I'm in a position that they don't want to yield."
The initial city council bill was narrowly tailored to exclude construction of buildings more than 35 feet tall on the 1600 block of Humboldt. That bill was killed September 14, and in its place was a bill that extended the moratorium to the blocks surrounding Humboldt. The new bill would also extend the moratorium's time frame from the end of this year to March 31, 1999.
A public hearing for both sides to weigh in on the new bill is scheduled for the October 12 council meeting.