Edifice Wreck

The run-down Evans School towers over the so-called Golden Triangle, surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking lots and empty, weed-strewn fields on the south edge of downtown Denver.

The century-old school at 1115 Acoma has sat untouched and vacant for 22 years.

But now that the Golden Triangle is emerging as a potential hot spot for developers who envision transforming the area into an "urban village," those who work in the area are looking again at the tarnished school. They're asking what will happen to the historic building, which is both a "crown jewel" and the neighborhood's worst eyesore.

It's not a new question, and the answer is not new, either. The school's owners, Dick and Alan Eber, say they plan to put apartments into the school, to add to the more than 200 new residential units that are being planned or are under construction in the Triangle, an area bounded by Speer, Colfax and Broadway.

Not surprisingly, the Ebers are vague about a time frame, and so the development of the school remains a mystery--as it has been for more than twenty years. Dick Eber has suggested the project could be complete eighteen months from now; his brother, Alan, says the renovation might not get started for two more years.

"They keep claiming they're going to do something, and there's no evidence they're doing anything," says developer Mickey Zeppelin. "Everybody is frustrated. Everybody is hoping they'll take the initiative. It's just inertia, frankly."

Meanwhile, as the neighborhood begins to take shape, the former elementary school sits, its blackened tower and leafless trees looking postapocalyptic. Built in 1904, Evans hasn't educated children since the early Seventies; today it's a portrait in dirty red brick, barbed wire, scarred asphalt, peeling paint and boarded-up windows. Neighbors have long been annoyed.

Rochelle Young has run a collection agency across the street from the school for more than a decade. Evans, she always felt, "was a big, old-fashioned eyesore. Many of us are just sore. Tear it down or use it, but don't just let it sit there."

"Sure, you gotta shake your head," says developer Wally Hultin. "As a developer I say, 'Jeez, that's too bad,' and as a neighbor I say, 'Why don't they do something?' But I have to feel as much or more that it belongs to them, and they can do what they want."

The Ebers are primarily property managers--they manage an apartment complex near the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and an office building in Grand Junction. The school, which they bought in 1974 for $650,000, would represent their first development project. But Dick Eber, describing himself and his brother as "historians/preservationists," says they bought the school to save it from demolition. In 1980 the school was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dick Eber says economics is a big reason the brothers have sat on the school for so long. He points to downturns in 1977 and 1982; to controversy surrounding the downtown convention center in the late 1980s, during which the school was talked about as a potential site; and to the paucity of activity in the Golden Triangle in recent decades.

"We were just conservative and being cautious," he says. "While it didn't accomplish anything at the time for the building, the main thing was, it preserved the building. Finding the right use for it was the goal, rather than tearing it down." They continue to pay about $14,000 in property taxes per year, and they keep the school tightly wrapped up to ward off the elements and the homeless.

But while the Ebers take their time, other developers wonder if they're best suited for the job. "My personal experience is that [Dick] is not a risk-taker to the extent that would be required to make that a real viable project," says Brent Snyder, who's developing a sixty-unit project in the neighborhood and who owns land across from the school. "You have to find someone who has knowledge and financial wherewithal and vision. I think they have a look-and-see attitude."

In February Dick Eber said he expected to start the process of putting together a development team by the end of that month; Alan Eber now says that won't happen until the end of April at the earliest.

"By their nature, they're not developers," adds Dennis Humphries, an architect whose offices are across the street from the school. "They don't have quite the entrepreneurial spirit that other developers might."

But Alan Eber doesn't think that matters. "Anyone can develop if they have the right team behind them," he says. "I don't think it makes any difference who leads the team. To say we're not capable is a misstatement."

While the school looks like hell on the outside, the inside remains in good shape, because boarded-up windows have protected it from the elements. Most observers agree, though, that the school can only deteriorate the longer it sits unused.

The spacious, airy classrooms--more than 800 square feet apiece--are old and musty but reusable. And there's certainly a precedent for turning schools into homes. Developer Charles Nash has bought four DPS schools over the years and has turned three of them into condominiums; his latest project, Stevens School in Congress Park, was finished a few months ago.

(Since it sold the Evans school, DPS has sold fifteen other schools for a combined $7,618,000; the most recent was Ellsworth School, sold in October 1994.)

Nash says he appreciates the difficulty of turning a school building into a viable project. The Stevens project took him thirty months instead of his estimated eighteen.

"This is the last one I'll ever do," Nash says. "This one was extensive, and there were a great many changes in the plans that we hadn't counted on. We're gonna break even on this school."

Dick Eber estimates the Evans project could cost from $3 million to $5 million. This is consistent with Nash's estimate on his Stevens project of $100 a square foot. And Stevens, Nash says, was in better shape than Evans.

Such ancient buildings often require extensive and costly work such as asbestos removal. Even pigeon droppings incur a price. "That's been going on for 100 years," Nash says. "It has toxic material."

What's more, the Evans school has huge common areas like hallways and stairwells whose renovation costs can't be passed on to individual residents. "My guess is you'd have to get some pretty hefty rents," Snyder says. "I haven't heard of anybody who's really been retained to go in there and do some real work. So how do you know what's going to work? I don't know how you tell what's going on. Therein lies the credibility gap."

Making the future of the school even more uncertain is the fact that not everyone wants apartments in what could become the urban village's "town center."

As Snyder says, "Since it is the center of the triangle--a very prominent, historical building--it lends itself more toward mixed use, where you have retail-type services at ground levels and office or residential in the upper floors."

Adds developer Larry Fullerton, "Condos would be okay, but we can do better than that.

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