Can a single student with $250 change the fate of the Gates Rubber factory?
Eugene Elliott caught his first glimpse of the ravaged Gates Rubber Company complex three years ago. He was driving in Denver one day, and here was this huge, hulking factory, a sprawling labyrinth of brick and concrete stretching across blocks of South Broadway. The empty plant was imposing yet desolate and silent, seemingly from another time and place.
"I don't think I'd ever seen a building so big," he says. "Or so dilapidated, for that matter. It made me curious about what it used to be and why it's still there."
Elliott had recently moved to Boulder from Iowa to study at the University of Colorado. He didn't know much about Denver history, and even less about the Gates company and its lasting impact on the city. But his curiosity became the starting point of a singular education about the Gates plant and its troubled afterlife.
The place had certainly seen better days. When Elliott came across it, what remained of the plant was a warren of broken windows, graffiti, stripped and shuttered machinery and dank pits containing traces of toxic chemicals; many of the smaller structures were already gutted or gone. But in its heyday, more than half a century ago, Gates Rubber was the largest employer in the city, a manufacturing dynamo that occupied 25 square blocks, from the east side of Broadway over to Santa Fe Drive, and produced thousands of products, from tires and fan belts to gaskets and batteries. In the 1980s, the company shifted the bulk of its manufacturing jobs to plants in other states and countries. In 1996, the Gates family sold its interest in the company to a British conglomerate, Tomkins PLC, which moved its administrative headquarters downtown and closed the plant on Broadway for good.
Since that time, redevelopment plans for the site have crept forward in fits and starts. One parcel east of Broadway has been transformed into offices and a parking garage, and construction is now under way on a four-story apartment house. Another parcel south of Mississippi Avenue has also been turned into apartments. But the economic downturn of the past few years has left in limbo efforts to redevelop the main factory and surrounding buildings. Cherokee Denver, which had purchased the property from the Gates Corporation in 2001 with the aim of erecting a "world-class urban village," boasting 3,000 residential units and 1.75 million square feet of office and retail space, ran into financial difficulties five years ago, just as it was about to break ground on the first phase of the project.
Gates took back the forty-acre site from Cherokee and its lenders. Hoping to woo other developers, the company has continued with the environmental cleanup that Cherokee began of the extensive industrial contamination around the factory. It's also beefed up security around the abandoned buildings, which have become a magnet for vandals, copper thieves and urban explorers, despite a series of injuries and the death of one 23-year-old adventurer ("Gone," December 20, 2007). But company officials say they can only do so much to clean up the site as long as the main buildings remain standing.
"The only economically viable way of redeveloping the property and completing the environmental remediation," says Gates executive vice president Tom Reeve, "is to move forward with taking the buildings down."
In late June, Elliott, now a 21-year-old senior at CU, learned that Gates was planning to raze the remaining buildings, including the manufacturing plant itself. A friend e-mailed a picture of a notice posted on the fence along the property stating that the owner was seeking a demolition permit. The notice also said that the property had potential for landmark designation, and that anyone seeking such designation needed to file an application with the city within 21 days.
With the clock ticking, Elliott spent hours at the Denver Public Library and city offices researching the history of Gates, tracking down old blueprints and fire-marshal maps. He spoke to people at Historic Denver, who seemed nonplussed by his interest, and actively solicited donations online to cover the $250 fee for a landmark-designation application. At one point he even stood outside the property with a sign, trying to bum contributions from Broadway motorists.
"That didn't work out very well," he says. "I don't know how the homeless do it. The donations were infrequent and very small. In two or three hours, I made maybe ten bucks."
At the eleventh hour, he presented the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission with the fee and a detailed plea to grant historic protection to the three oldest remaining structures: the manufacturing plant, known as Unit 10, and the power plant and warehouse to the north of it. "The former Gates Rubber Company is a huge piece of Colorado and more relevantly Denver history," Elliott wrote. "By not accepting the landmark-designation application, the owner will proceed to demolish the last remaining physical reminder of what Gates Rubber Company did and was for this city and its citizens."
Elliott didn't consult with Gates management before filing his application; he says he made attempts but couldn't reach anyone in authority. He didn't contact any members of the five neighborhood associations that have worked for years on cleanup and redevelopment plans for the site. His request caught city officials by surprise, too. City councilman Chris Nevitt, who'd spent countless hours in discussions with Gates and Cherokee, community groups and health officials about the property, was particularly outraged about the application — enough to call Elliott and try to persuade him to withdraw it.
"I hate to tell y'all this," Nevitt wrote in an e-mail blast to interested parties, "but someone has filed to designate the old Gates factory buildings as historic, thereby bringing to a screeching halt the process that would have made it possible for them eventually to be demolished...It's particularly disappointing that the application comes from someone who is not even a resident of Denver.
"I had a long and polite, but ultimately fruitless, conversation with Mr. Elliott. He appeared to show no interest in the opinions of the neighborhoods that have been invested in this site for all these years, nor to show much concern for the economic importance of redevelopment of this keystone site for Denver...Ah, the blissful self-confidence of the young."
Elliott recalls the conversation somewhat differently. "Toward the end, it definitely got very heated," he says. "He defends the property like it was his child or something. The way I look at it, if the public wants to preserve it, it will get the designation."
It didn't help Elliott's cause that opponents of his application quickly discovered that his interest in the Gates site was more than that of an armchair historian. Using the handle "geneboy," he's been a frequent poster on the Urban Exploration Resource, an online forum for people keen on prowling abandoned missile silos, underground tunnels and industrial complexes; Gates is considered one of the prime locations for such forays in the region. In one public thread, Elliott admits having been inside the complex himself at least five times. Many of the donations to cover the application fee came from supporters on the UER site, including one who describes herself as a "serial trespasser."
Steve Harley, a member of the Baker Historic Neighborhood Association who's worked extensively on Gates redevelopment issues over the past decade, has mixed feelings about the application. "We put a lot of work into trying to come up with a plan everyone could agree on," he says. "It was kind of insulting to see someone come in from out of the blue — and when I discovered that it was underground explorers, so to speak, it was even more insulting."
But as Harley tracked the discussion between Elliott and his donors online, he developed a grudging respect for the crowd-funding effort. "People have criticism of the 'explorer' aspect, but I think they're being creative about this," he explains. "There's some genuine, gut-level appreciation for the preservation of old buildings. A lot of us would sympathize with that. But they were doing what they thought was best without consulting the community. That bothered me."
Elliott won't comment on his interest in urban exploring, saying that "people will use it to try to invalidate me in some way." He insists that his application is the first step in trying to come up with a way to honor the Gates legacy and repurpose the existing buildings, not leave them vacant.
"I'm not naïve enough to think that this is a good way to delay demolition, so urban explorers can have access to it," he says. "In all honesty, having a presence on that site and seeing pictures people have posted got me curious about these locations. I followed up by doing research on them. I feel like these buildings have a strong importance in the community and that there's a strong case for trying to reuse them."
Last week, Denver's Landmark Preservation Commission found that Elliott's application met the criteria for the landmark-designation process and scheduled a public hearing on the matter for September 4. That's triggered a larger discussion among officials about whether the city's historic-preservation ordinance makes it too easy for people who aren't property owners or even neighborhood "stakeholders" to stymie major redevelopment projects.
Even if Elliott's bid wins approval from the agency — despite what's anticipated to be a barrage of objections from Gates, community residents and others — the measure would then move to Denver City Council for approval. Nevitt is confident that approval will be denied, given the longstanding desire to have a transit-oriented development at the site. But considerable damage will already have been done, he maintains.
"I know Gates has had a number of people express serious interest in the site," he says. "These kinds of barriers are holding them off. It's bad not only for this site, but for sites all over town."
He sighs. "It's not like we're trying to knock down a beautiful old building in the dead of night," he says. "Here's a company trying to do the right thing — and someone living in Boulder can pay $250 and say you're all wrong."
As for Elliott's hope that some portion of the buildings can remain? "He's young, maybe idealistic," Nevitt says. "He's sure the answer's out there. But he doesn't have any recognition of how much time and energy has already been expended trying to find an answer — and coming up empty."
Denver's landmark-designation process allows for buildings or entire districts to be considered worthy of preservation if they meet criteria in at least two of three categories. Wisely, Elliott's claim for the Gates property didn't include any contention that the buildings have architectural significance; although the brickwork has a few interesting features, the buildings have undergone so many modifications and poured-concrete add-ons over the years that they're hardly emblematic of any distinctive style.
Yet the landmark commission staff who reviewed the application readily agreed that the buildings did meet criteria for geographical and historical significance. After all, the factory has been a prominent visual feature — especially its iconic water tower, since disassembled — to motorists along I-25 for decades. And there's no denying that the plant and the family that ran it have a "direct association" with the historical development of Denver going back more than a hundred years.
Last year the Gates Corporation celebrated the centennial anniversary of the day in 1911 when its founder, Charles Gates, shelled out $3,500 for a small Denver company that made leather-studded tire covers. A former mine superintendent, Gates had ideas about improving the product and expanding the line to include other leather goods, such as horse halters. (Buffalo Bill Cody was an early endorser of the halters.) Many of his innovations, though, had to do with replacing leather automobile components, such as fan belts, with superior rubber versions.
By 1919 the company was calling itself Gates Rubber and had broken ground on what is now Unit 10. The product line kept expanding: balloon tires, garden hoses, radiator hoses. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, Gates reported annual sales of $13 million, employed 2,500 people, and was ranked as the nation's sixth-largest rubber company.
During World War II, with rubber shortages spreading across the globe, Gates became one of the pioneers of synthetic rubber. The company's sizable presence in Denver reached its zenith in the late 1950s. It had built up its campus all the way to Broadway and leaped across, acquiring the old Ford building on the east side; it turned out 2,500 tires a day and employed 5,500 workers at the Denver plant, many of whom lived in the bungalows that had sprung up in surrounding neighborhoods; and it boasted its own rooftop garden and health center. Charles Gates and successor Charles Jr. — who took over in 1961, shortly after his father's death — were among the city's best-known moguls and philanthropists.
Yet even in those glory days, Gates management was already diversifying and opening plants elsewhere, seeking to address union pressures and the accelerating pace of global competition. Its Denver manufacturing divisions were closed down in phases in the 1970s and 1980s. The company still maintains some research and development operations in Denver, as well as its corporate headquarters — although, following Charles Sr.'s mantra about "throwing your hat across the creek," Gates moved its executive offices from South Broadway to lower downtown in 2003, after the acquisition by Tomkins.
As with any large manufacturing concern, Gates's legacy in Denver is a complex one. It's not just a matter of jobs created, then lost, or taxes paid or foundations launched; it's also about the mess left behind from seventy-plus years of heavy industry. State assessments of environmental contamination at the site have found a wide array of chemicals and hazardous materials, from asbestos and lead paint to benzene and trichloroethylene (TCE), a solvent that was used extensively at Gates to clean machinery and is now listed by the EPA as a known carcinogen. Groundwater tests have found not only evidence of a pool of TCE under the Gates plant, but two plumes of the chemical that have traveled under homes in the West Washington Park area, leading to extensive cleanup efforts in that neighborhood.
Instead of having the property end up listed as yet another Superfund site, Gates and developers worked with state health officials to complete a voluntary cleanup program. Neighborhood groups say that Cherokee Denver, the local arm of a North Carolina company that specializes in redevelopment of brownfield sites, was particularly responsive and set high standards for the billion-dollar "village" that was going to take root in the ruins.
Cherokee officials met with dozens of local nonprofit organizations and community groups, hammering out a general development plan that limited the size and scale of the development, precluded big-box stores and made various provisions for open space and affordable housing. The company spent millions on environmental remediation efforts and at one point even studied the possibility of preserving some aspects of the remaining buildings — though the prospect of keeping even the shell of the factory was ultimately rejected as too costly.
"Their idea was to excavate down to bedrock and remove the soil to some other site," recalls Harley, a member of the voluntary cleanup advisory board. "Whether they could retain the walls remained to be seen."
Cherokee's financing collapsed before the demolition of Unit 10 could begin. Since reclaiming ownership of the site, Gates has continued to work on remediation of the TCE plume and cleanup of the property itself. But the greatest source of contamination is believed to be under Unit 10, where so many chemicals were used over so many years.
"It's important for people to know that we've been working hard to manage the property," says Gates veep Reeve. But, he adds, crucial aspects of the cleanup "can't practically be implemented until the buildings are down and we can remove the contamination that's under the slab."
"There was never a big push for preservation among the neighborhood groups," Harley notes. "A lot of the buildings are gone already."
Jack Unruh, a member of the Overland Park Neighborhood Association, has fond memories of working for a company that often assisted Gates with trade shows, preparing exhibits that "told the story of V-belts and hoses." He regards part of the true legacy of the company to be the cottages that sprang up in south Denver to house factory workers; while the plant itself is an impressive ghost town, he doesn't expect it will be more than mildly mourned.
"They understand that offering a developer a blank slate on that property, with its proximity to light rail and I-25, is how they're going to get their money back," he says. "The place has been so run down, so gutted and so scavenged, there's not a lot to save. I made the suggestion that the clock on the north doorway be saved — and then I drove by and realized that it had been vandalized beyond recognition."
Months before Elliott filed the application for landmark status, Gates officials had already held meetings with Nevitt, representatives of Historic Denver and others to discuss how best to memorialize the factory after the buildings are gone. Suggestions included an informational kiosk about the Gates legacy at the light-rail station, with historic photos, or possibly incorporating the water tower, if it could be reconstructed, in future development at the site.
"None of this was stuff we could nail down, because we don't have a developer yet," Nevitt says.
Reeve says his company is prepared to commit resources and funding to an appropriate gesture when the time comes. "We are acutely aware of our own history here and want to maintain that history," he says. "There are a lot of ways that story could be told."
Elliott learned about the plan from Reeve shortly after he filed his application. The meeting was a tense one, Elliott says, and the kind of commemorative gesture Reeve described struck him as something far less substantial than actually preserving a piece of the existing plant. "When you don't know what's going to go up there, how can you say you're going to put the water tower back up?" he asks. "I couldn't get an affirmative commitment out of them, just that they were open to the idea."
Reeve says he was disappointed to discover that the application had been filed. "The young man is apparently entitled to file it," he notes. "I think it would be appropriate for him to voluntarily withdraw it, once he's more educated about the process this has gone through and the number of years that the property has stood idle — and all the efforts we've made."
Elliott is studying business and real estate at CU, and his education has proceeded at warp speed since he launched his Gates crusade. His real baptism of fire — and a taste of what he can probably expect when the matter reaches a public hearing next month — came in a recent sitdown with half a dozen neighborhood-group members, some of whom have been wrestling with questions about redevelopment of the plant for more than a decade.
The gathering was a cordial one, although the neighbors' frustration with the lack of action on the Gates site was quickly evident. Elliott expressed regret at not contacting the groups sooner and said he was "extremely curious to hear about your vision for the property." But when he began to speak vaguely about his own interest in the history of the plant, Harley urged him to be more direct.
"It's pretty clear where your interest in Gates comes from," he said. "I'm not here to judge it, but I don't think you should talk around it."
"You've been inside Gates at least five times," added Charlie Busch, a West Washington Park resident. "Can we just be aboveboard here?"
"That isn't the whole reason," Elliott replied. "I don't want to distract everyone from the reason why I filed the application. I didn't file it out of some motive for urban exploring."
Busch had brought with her three thick binders of documents dealing with Cherokee's development plan, environmental assessments of the site and the cleanup of the neighborhood, which had extended to her house and several blocks along Lincoln Street. "Let me summarize what we've learned," she said. "One, this is an extremely polluted space. Two, it cannot be repurposed. There's ten feet of concrete between each floor and no way to get through it. If you want West Washington Park's help to keep it up, you're not going to get it."
Other residents talked about the difficulty of eradicating the contamination under the buildings without taking the buildings apart; the possibility that the brick walls had absorbed decades of toxins; the lack of any structural or chemical analysis to support an argument for preservation of Unit 10. On occasion they referred to Elliott's "group," and he gently corrected them.
"I wish I had a group," he said. "I honestly don't."
"If you have a viable plan, I'd love to hear it," Harley said. "You have no plan. Yet what you've done is put a gear in the works. You've slowed the process."
"I'm not trying to slow it down," Elliott replied. "I just want to take a little bit of time to see what could happen to this site that hasn't already been talked about."
"We've been at it for years," Busch said. "How dare you? I feel like I'm kicking a puppy. I don't want to kill your spirit of getting involved, but when this comes to city council, I will kick you until you're bruised."
Elliott smiled wanly. "I don't doubt it," he said.
"I would love to see you get involved with something you can win," Busch said, "because I will beat you up."
Elliott declined an offer to refund the $250 fee if he would withdraw his application. He disagreed with the assertion that his bid for preservation would delay the demolition process by a year or more, saying the issue could be resolved in a matter of weeks — leaving some in the room wondering if even he regarded his crusade as doomed. As things were winding down, he made a final stab at appeasement.
"I have a lot of thinking to do," he said. "If the neighborhood doesn't want this, that's not something that can be fought."
But the fight moved to the next level last week, when the landmark commission agreed to move Elliott's application forward. Denver's historic-designation process is more permissive than that of some cities, in that it allows people who aren't the property owners or even city residents to seek landmark designation for a property. Applications by non-owners rarely succeed — the rejuvenation of the Mayan Theater in the 1980s is often cited as the exception to the rule — but the process can end up chilling even well-intended redevelopment efforts.
At the same time, many neighborhood advocates would be loath to see new restrictions put on their own ability to intervene when potential landmark structures are threatened. Busch recalls an effort to seek protection for a historic home in her neighborhood that was short-circuited by the new property owner. "He demolished the place over Christmas, and then he went bankrupt," she recalls.
A few years ago, Denver City Council's Jeanne Robb worked with preservation advocates to add a "demolition review" component to the landmark-designation process. Demolition permits now have to be reviewed by the landmark commission staff to see if a building qualifies for protection — which is why Gates posted the notice on the fence, informing the public of an upcoming demolition, that came to Elliott's attention. But of the 2,010 demo permits reviewed since the requirement was put in place in 2006, only 1 percent (including Gates) have been deemed potentially historic, and only five applications for landmark designation have been filed on those properties.
"I think some of the panic over the [landmark] ordinance is overstated," says Robb. "But some of these applicants think they have a power they don't have. Posting misleads the public that something can be saved, and that's not always the case."
In light of the Gates flap and other recent landmark battles, Robb is looking for ways to streamline the city's landmark process — and, perhaps, prevent one person with $250 from managing to shanghai a billion-dollar infill project. Among her proposals: raising the application fee, which hasn't changed since the 1960s; requiring an application to be supported by at least three Denver residents; and addressing landmark designation at the time a developer seeks approval of a general development plan, to avoid unnecessary delay and expense.
Elliott doesn't see how a few more weeks of consideration on the fate of the Gates factory can do much harm.
"Having it redeveloped is the right thing to do," he says. "I'm not suggesting it should remain vacant, a paradise for people to break into. It is time to do something with it. My argument comes in what should be done with it."
He admits that the fallout from getting involved has consumed much more time than he thought it would. But he's in for the long haul.
"I just feel that opening the public dialogue is a good thing to do," he says, "given the importance of the property."
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