One spring night in 2006, Evan Makovsky and his wife, Evi, walked the 16th Street Mall from the Residence Inn on Champa Street to California Street on their way to a fundraising dinner at the towering new Hyatt Regency Denver at the Colorado Convention Center. The couple, who live in the Hilltop neighborhood, had decided to use the occasion to spend the night downtown.
Completed just months earlier, the Hyatt, at 15th and California, and the newly expanded convention center sparkled — as did most of the area around it. Across California to the northeast, the historic Denver Dry building had been revitalized into a cluster of shops, professional offices and housing. To the southwest across Welton Street, the swanky Denver Pavilions stood as a neon-hued beacon of commerce.
But as they approached the Hyatt, right in the center of it all, the Makovskys stepped into a dead zone: Nearly an entire square block — bordered by California and Welton, 15th and 16th — lay stagnant. Unsavory characters thronged the gum-scarred sidewalks and padlocked, urine-soaked entryways. Decrepit surface parking lots, all shattered asphalt and rusty pay meters, bordered dingy liquor stores, dive bars and nearly vacant buildings.
Fronting it all was the four-story, eighty-year-old Fontius building, partially boarded up and beleaguered by shredded awnings, graffitied windows and broken, long-unlit Fontius signs. The "For Lease" sign in the window wasn't fooling anybody: The phone number on the notice included only seven digits, meaning it was hung before Denver got its second area code, 720, in 1998. The only well-kept structure on the block, the McClintock building, at 16th and California, was all but overwhelmed by its unsightly neighbors.
"If I didn't know Denver, I wouldn't come back," Evi told her husband as she surveyed the street.
Makovsky, a 62-year-old real-estate developer who'd made his fortune downtown, understood. He did know Denver, and he knew this block. In fact, as a boardmember of the Downtown Denver Partnership, a non-profit business-improvement organization, he'd been thinking about its problems for months.
Set in the lucrative epicenter of downtown, Block 162, as it's known on city maps, was the missing link between the 16th Street Mall and the Convention Center, the busy Pavilions and thriving LoDo, and its sad state was hurting downtown's transformation from a business center into a real neighborhood where people could work, shop and live.
"For a long time, people drove into downtown, parked their cars, went to work, then got in their cars and drove home," Makovsky says. "That is not going to be the future."
Instead of commuting an hour to downtown, people who choose to live in or visit Denver's urban core want to walk, bike or take the bus. They want wide sidewalks built for strollers and they want to feel safe, he explains.
But control of the block was divided among seven property owners or ownerships groups, two of whom were the most stubborn in the city, and a unified redevelopment plan had so far proven impossible. Just a few months earlier, two major national developers had given up on separate proposals for the block after facing these frustrations.
Six months before his evening out at the Hyatt, Makovsky had brought up Block 162 at a Downtown Denver Partnership meeting.
"We said, 'We need to do something,'" recalls John Desmond, the partnership's vice president for urban planning and environment. "It's the highest priority of downtown."
They discussed it some more, and then Makovsky made an announcement.
"I'll take it on," he said. "I think I might be able to do it."
For decades, the land beneath Block 162 had been a camping ground for the Arapahoe tribe. But when gold was discovered nearby in 1858, white settlers took over, setting up small settlements and bordering them with streets. California Street ran to the northeast, named in hopes that the new Denver City would become as gold-rich as California. Welton Street lay to the southwest, in honor of N.W. Welton, one of the city's founders. The two perpendicular roads were named F and G streets, though they were later changed to 15th and 16th streets because they were the fifteenth and sixteenth streets east of the Platte River at West Colfax Avenue.
Over time, the tents dotting the land were replaced by rustic cabins, which in turn were replaced by two-story Victorian frame houses with glass windows, Italianate touches on their front porches and widow's walks crowning their shingled Mansford roofs. Trees were planted, interspersed by planks bridging the city ditches running alongside the roads. The thoroughfares were muddy troughs and the night watchmen free-grazed cattle, but the neighborhood was respectable.
"Society accepted Welton Street as its very own. Brilliant social life of early days had its center there," wrote the Rocky Mountain News fifty years later. "They were simple frame structures, but mansions of their day."
As newly built railroads made Denver a boomtown, its population swelled to more than 100,000, and high society migrated from downtown to Capitol Hill to escape the riffraff. There were many eager to take their place on Block 162. In 1871, streetcar rails were laid on 16th Street, making the thoroughfare a natural commercial corridor. A two-story structure eventually known as the El Paso Building was built on 16th and Welton, housing tailors and confectioners, a physician and a "medical electrician." Next door, a one-story building advertised Bauman's Millinery and the Alaska Fur Store. "All seem to want to get on Sixteenth above Larimer and below Glenarm," the Denver Daily Times wrote in 1902. "They hit the right spot.... That is the city promenade. There you can meet everybody you know and see everybody you don't know."
In 1903, traveling vaudeville showmen M. Meyerfield and Colonel Martin Beck built a new theater on Block 162 after a successful run in town. At a reported cost of $250,000, the theater included 2,000 seats, the most in Denver, and hundreds and hundreds of incandescent bulbs. One reporter called it "second to none of its kind in the world."
But not everyone was thrilled about the development. Work was halted when porter Alfred Parks and his family refused to leave the two-story frame house they were leasing at 1531 Welton — right in the middle of the construction zone. The contractor threatened to move the house whether the family was in it or not. "There is not anybody going to move my house and family unless they have my consent," Parks told a reporter.
Parks didn't get his way. His house was removed, and construction resumed. Progress could not be stopped.
Evan Makovsky's crinkly, bespectacled eyes and warm, mustachioed smile are more appropriate for his seven grandchildren than for making hotshot development deals.
He uses a wad of notes stuffed in his shirt pocket to keep track of his phone messages. And he refers to his work with the simple, unassuming pride of a merchant describing his wares. It's how his Russian-born father and grandfather must have talked about the furniture they sold in Pueblo.
"I think what I learned from my father and his business, and from my family, is how to deal with people," he says. "Real estate is so inanimate to most people, but it's not a cold brick to us. We deal with real estate where it is much more important to people's needs. I don't know if I even understand how to do it any other way."
He certainly didn't know any other way when he got into the business with his uncle, Motty Shames, shortly after graduating from the University of Denver's business school in 1969. It was a difficult time to get into real estate.
Denver's redevelopment agency, the Downtown Urban Renewal Authority, was in the midst of the Skyline Urban Renewal Project, a massive downtown facelift, and the marching orders were "Out with the old, in with the new." Building after building was razed in the 113-acre Skyline district in central downtown to make room for potential development. To the southwest, an entire community was being displaced for the Auraria Higher Education Center. The businesses that were being evicted from these areas weren't looking for Makovsky's real-estate deals. They were trying to stay alive.
"I met a lot of people who were scared to death about what was going to happen to them," Makovsky says. "All they knew was that their buildings were going to be torn down and they were going to have to find a new place to move to."
More qualified real-estate brokers had ignored the problem, but Makovsky, not knowing any better, lent a hand. "These people needed help, but they didn't know where to turn to get it," he says. I learned about various programs that the city and state had put in place. I helped them get answers, get new property, and helped them get financing."
These small businesses didn't forget the favor. When they flourished in new digs and needed bigger buildings, they called the Shames-Makovsky Realty Company. When the economy collapsed in the 1980s and the banks wouldn't lend these businesses money to buy more real estate, Makovsky, whose uncle had retired, got into the mortgage industry.
Later, Shames-Makovsky began buying and leasing real estate as a way for the firm's investors to earn long-term returns. Finally, Makovsky started building his own projects.
By that point, he knew so much about Denver real estate and had so many downtown connections that he was able to score major developments, like the deteriorating Colorado Business Bank building, at 821 17th Street, which he saved from further decay in 1999 by slowly acquiring most of the land leases under the property and spearheading its renovation. Instead of broadcasting his success to the newspapers, however, he just quietly leveraged his enhanced reputation and new connections into his next deal.
"I think Evan is so genuine, and he's very good at finding a balance between an economic transaction and doing what's the right thing for the city and the neighbors around him," says Mike Zoellner, managing partner of RedPeak Properties, a Denver apartment building developer. "When you have strong roots here, you oftentimes make decisions about projects based on future projects. If you are reinvesting in the city, you are trying to make your overall portfolio and reputation better so you can make your next transaction easier to do. And I think Evan is a master of that. He genuinely wants to do the right thing, and he really puts all his years of experience into problem-solving."
For inspiration on how to do the right thing, there's a black-and-white aerial photo of mid-century downtown Denver hanging in Makovsky's conference room. It captures a bustling urban core, where every corner on every block is occupied by a building. Many of those same corners are now blanketed by unattractive surface parking lots, a remnant of the urban upheaval that launched his career. "There were whole series of buildings that looked like that," says Makovsky of the photo. "A lot of people looking back may have some regret that some of the gorgeous buildings in downtown were torn down and we'll never see anything like it again." Somewhere in the photo, right near the center, is Block 162.
Things were changing all along Block 162 during the early twentieth century. In 1911, the corner of 16th and California was adorned with the eye-catching McClintock building. The Colonial, Arena, Angelus and Standish hotels sprung up around the popular Orpheum, a Welton Street playhouse featuring everything from "knock-about comedians" Heeley and Meely to a coin-trick magician from Australia and "Gollman's trained dogs and cats."
In 1922, a four-story, full-service department store called Steel's opened at 16th and Welton, crowned by a large illuminated billboard announcing its name. American flags hung from most of the windows, signs promised "Nothing over $20.00," and electric billboards advertised the "Steel Persian Gardens" cafeteria in the basement. The building was designed by prominent Denver architect Merrill Hoyt (the brother of Burnham Hoyt, who received nationwide acclaim for his work on Red Rocks Amphitheatre). The structure was adorned with copious amounts of colorful terra-cotta detailing, from its Doric pilasters to the floral designs above its windows, and its first-floor entryways were covered by modern glass-and-steel awnings. Long after the short-lived Steel's department store faded from memory, the building in which it resided continued to be a downtown landmark.
Early twentieth-century Denverites, riding first in streetcars and carriages, then in automobiles, were greeted by a plethora of signs and billboards advertising all that Block 162 had to offer: Art Nook, United States Muskrat Ranches, the Ness Music Co., Colorado Food Comfort Station, Busy Bee Lunch Room, Castello's Hair Store, Toupees & Wigs.
The streets were paved and widened, and red and white street lamps were built along 15th Street.
In 1932, the Orpheum was replaced by a newer version, and before long, traffic patterns changed and combustion engines outnumbered horses. On June 3, 1950, Denver's streetcar service came to an end, pushed out by cars and buses. It marked a turning point not just for the thoroughfares, but also for the blocks in between. By 1951, two of Block 162's buildings had been torn down to make room for auto parking.
Word spread quickly through civic circles in March 2004: National developers were on the move to acquire Block 162. Target Corporation was considering the site for one of its new line of urban retail stores, while Lowe Enterprises in California had put some of the block's parking lots under contract and hoped to redevelop them into stores and offices.
Both plans made sense.
"I think that Block 162, after the completion of the convention-center hotel, was the key block in downtown that was holding back investment for blocks around it," says Don Hunt, owner of real-estate development consulting firm Antero Company and former chair of the Downtown Denver Partnership. "The block is right in the middle of the hundred-percent corner of downtown. It's the block, if it is done right, that will knit together the convention-center corridor. It will connect the 16th Street Mall with the emerging cultural corridor on 14th Street, and I think it will be a tremendous visitor asset."
The city's new twenty-year growth strategy, the Denver Downtown Area Plan, calls it one of the major "opportunity sites" in the commercial core (see story, page 18).
But taking control of the block wouldn't be easy, even for operations as powerful as Target or Lowe. Block 162 was split among seven different ownership groups.
"To get them all on the same page at the same time was going to be very challenging," says Tracy Huggins, executive director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, especially because of the nature of these property owners in particular. "You had a number of owners who had very different reasons for how they managed their property."
That's putting it nicely.
The nearly-empty Colonial Hotel on the corner of 15th and California streets was owned by the Dikeous, once one of the most powerful real-estate families in the city.
The family got its start in business in 1905 when George Dikeou opened a meager popcorn stand at a downtown tramway stop. His sons, James and Peter, built that into a popcorn, candy and tobacco distribution center by 1921. Twenty years later, the family began investing in real estate and eventually built a cache of holdings that ranked them as one of the wealthiest families in the country. Their rise had been called a "Greek Horatio Alger tale."
In 1965, a Denver Post magazine article stated, "The name of Dikeou is likely to figure prominently in the inevitable rebuilding of downtown Denver as more and more skyscrapers come looking for a place to sink their foundations."
But most of those skyscrapers never arrived, and many of the Dikeou properties — and the family itself — fell on hard times. In 1977, James Dikeou, then 85, was killed during a robbery attempt in a downtown building he owned. Police said a teenage girl, with whom he reportedly had a relationship, admitted to beating him during the robbery. His son, John, dreamed of owning Denver's first big-league baseball team, but that dream was crushed by financial troubles after the family was levied with nearly two dozen lawsuits claiming they had defaulted on loans totaling more than $40 million. Through it all, the Dikeous held on to their crumbling parking lots and buildings as if they were family heirlooms, waiting for perfect development proposals that never materialized. The family still holds more than 230,000 square feet of surface lots downtown, more than any other owner.
Questions directed to Dikeou family members were referred to John Dikeou, who didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story.
While the Colonial Hotel site, which the family purchased in 1978, was one of the few lots with a building on it, the three-story structure was so deteriorated it might as well have been a stretch of asphalt. A fire gutted part of the building in the 1990s, and most of the tenants, save for a bar and a liquor store, fled after its owners put off upkeep.
"Someone will develop the property," John Dikeou told a reporter in 2004. "But it won't be us until the convention center and hotel are done. We want to get as much income as we can, too. When the hotel and convention center come in, the market will finally be prime for development. I think you'll see big deals come out in the next six months."
Those deals never came.
"I don't believe it is a secret that these property owners have different objectives than many people involved in downtown," Huggins says. "The Dikeou family had held [the Colonial Hotel] in waiting for something economic to happen. What it was they were waiting for, especially in light of the convention-center hotel coming in, is a mystery."
And then there was the Fontius building.
Built originally as Steel's department store, the structure was now known for its most recent major tenant, the Fontius Shoe Company, which had moved out in the late '80s. Although its historic designation meant it couldn't be demolished, its position at the corner of the 16th Street Mall and Welton made it key to the block's success.
The Fontius building was owned by the Cooks — a family whose troubles outdid even the Dikeous'. Their empire was launched in 1925 when Dave Cook made an impulse buy of 144,000 fishing flies. His entrepreneurial instincts evolved into Dave Cook Sporting Goods, a string of 21 Colorado stores. But the Cooks had lately become better known for their bruising family clashes over money and real estate. Ousted family member Max Cook, Dave's brother, would go on to open his own sporting-goods store and dabble in real estate, buying the Steel's building in 1961. By the time Dave Cook Sporting Goods was bought out by a competitor, in 1988, all that was left of the Cook empire was a collection of properties and an imbroglio of family squabbles over them.
The personal disputes reared their ugly countenance in a public way when RedPeak Properties attempted to buy 1616 Glenarm Place in 2004. Cook family members owned part of that land but were too busy suing each other to figure out how to sell it. The quarreling relatives finally agreed to sign the necessary paperwork — though they insisted on doing so in separate rooms so they wouldn't have to see one another.
Mike Zoellner of RedPeak says his company also considered pursuing the Fontius building, but the familial chaos was too daunting. "They were dysfunctional partners, I think. And that really limited their ability to make a decision," he says. "I think in the case of [1616 Glenarm], there was a lot of political will to get the lights turned on. I think the mayor's office and DURA and the Downtown Denver Partnership all helped us to put a lot of political pressure on the Cook family to sell."
So the Fontius building remained largely unoccupied. The Downtown Denver Partnership asked principal owner Gary Cook if it could install posters in the vacant windows advertising the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Zoo and other civic attractions, as the organization had done in many vacant storefronts downtown. While the effort would have cost him nothing, Cook refused.
Like the Dikeous, representatives of the Cook families are loath to speak with the press. Gary Cook did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Whatever their motivations, it's their right as property owners to let their land lie fallow, either by choice or by circumstance, says Downtown Denver's John Desmond. In libertarian Colorado, that idea is close to sacred, making municipal attempts at eminent domain a political gamble. Plus, he adds, there is a rationale — of sorts — for letting Block 162's properties deteriorate. "People can wait for a really large development to come in, and in the meantime the holding costs on the property are relatively low," he says. "We have relatively low property tax in Denver, and the current requirements for upkeep on buildings and parking lots are minimal." While zoning now prohibits the construction of new surface lots downtown, it also requires significant work on existing lots to include infrastructure and environmental improvements, thereby discouraging the lots' owners from doing anything at all to their property.
But letting Block 162's landowners do whatever they want isn't that simple in the heart of downtown, where one property has a direct impact on the next. "There was a tenant who was very close to signing a major deal at an adjacent property that would have netted the city, in sales taxes, between $200,000 to $250,000 a year," Desmond says. "They were ready to go in and chose not to, and cited the condition of the Fontius building and the block and the perceived safety conditions on the mall as their primary reasons."
Block 162's impact on the urban core was surely felt in the summer of 2004. Four months after announcing its intent to acquire much of the block, Lowe Enterprises called it quits. Soon after, Target pulled out, too. "We were unable to successfully complete an important part of the assemblage we were trying to put together, and as a consequence, we dropped our contract," a Lowe representative said at the time.
Most of Block 162 continued to gather dust.
Shoes. Thousands of them. Maybe millions, spread over four floors. The first floor would be the grand entryway, packed with men's shoes, women's shoes and hard-to-find sizes. The second would be the repair center, staffed with top-of-the-line cobblers, and the third would be the place for deals on factory closeouts. The fourth floor, on top of it all, would be corporate headquarters, charged with keeping track of all that fresh-smelling leather and rubber. That was the plan behind the flagship Fontius Shoe Company moving into the building on the corner of Welton and 16th in 1966.
"It was a very large operation," says Harry Fontius III. "That's what Fontius was known for: a great variety of sizes and the very best brands imaginable."
It was a reputation begun when his great-grandfather, John Jacob Fontius, traveled the Colorado gold fields selling shoes in the late nineteenth century, and nurtured as the store outgrew one downtown location after another and opened a chain of stores in the suburbs.
"It was a fun time," remembers Fontius. "When we ran a sale, my God, people would be lined up, and we would have to have police control the crowds. It was huge. It was fantastic."
But the crowds didn't last. In the 1970s and '80s, businesses large and small began moving to Cherry Creek and to the sprawling southeastern suburbs to follow their customers.
"I think real-estate values in central downtown went somewhat downhill as the Aurora Mall and Southlands Mall and some of the bigger suburban centers took over some of the shopping habits," says Fontius, who broke from the family business to pursue separate interests in 1975. "There were fewer and fewer people in office buildings. They went from hour lunch breaks to half-hour lunches. I think walking traffic deteriorated over time."
In 1986, the Fontius Shoe Company was sold to a Phoenix-based firm, and three years later, the flagship store disappeared from Denver phone books. The building became nearly empty save for Los Wigwam Weavers, a wool-necktie company that had rented space on its third floor from property owner Gary Cook. An optometrist moved into the fourth floor, and a handful of businesses rotated in and out of the smaller storefronts on 16th and Welton streets.
In the meantime, inner-city flight had hurt other institutions as well, like the Orpheum Theater. The venue, which had dropped vaudeville acts to focus on film and been renamed RKO International 70, was remodeled in 1955 and again in 1963 — but it still couldn't keep pace with the times. "All the movie theaters moved to the shopping centers and the suburbs, and nobody came downtown to go to the movies anymore," remembers Gene Rock, head of the Bank of Denver, which had purchased the theater and the Standish Hotel across the block from it on California Street, renaming the hotel structure the Bank of Denver Building. In 1967, RKO was torn down and replaced with a half-acre parking lot.
The parking lot grew. A December 1974 Denver Post photo captured a demolition zone at 15th and Welton streets where there had, until then, been a hotel. "The wreckers are expected to finish their job sometime this week," read the caption, "with the cleared corner site to be operated, at least temporarily, as a parking lot."
That temporary use became permanent.
As the 1970s energy boom, which had driven up downtown real-estate prices, bottomed out in the debilitating oil bust of the mid-1980s, parking-lot owners who'd cleared away deteriorating, unoccupied historic downtown buildings waited in vain for great developments that never appeared. The Downtown Denver Partnership estimates that between 20 and 22 percent of all properties in the 120-block Downtown Denver Business Improvement District are parking lots — including much of Block 162.
Even the 1982 opening of the 16th Street Mall pedestrian corridor did little to stop the block's slide. The refurbishment of the McClintock building at 16th and California was a small upswing in an otherwise downward spiral. The backside of the block became home to what the Denver Post referred to as "15th Streeters," a subculture living in the "permanent-transient" hotels on and around Block 162 and congregating at the street's many watering holes. "It's a step below respectability and a step above skid row," explained one bar owner. Some of the locales became local legends, like the 15th St. Tavern, which took over for the old Sportsman bar in the Colonial Hotel building in 1995.
The bar's grungy atmosphere and seedy clientele, shunned by civic boosters, was celebrated by others as the ultimate downtown dive. "It was known for good times and great bands," says co-owner Mykel Martinez, who, along with his two partners, bought the tavern from original owner Andy Artzer three years ago.
In 1991, there was a ray of light when Gene Rock managed to unite neighboring property owners behind a proposal to build a 1,074-room Hilton on the block. But existing hoteliers, who believed their businesses would suffer, protested, and Mayor Wellington Webb torpedoed the plan.
It was a puzzle, one nearly 100,000 square feet in size. That's how Makovsky approached Block 162 in the fall of 2005 when he began planning his attack.
"I looked at the ownership on the block and designed a step-by-step acquisition plan that basically said, if I buy property number one and I cannot buy anything else, what can I do with property number one, and if I can only buy property number one and number two, what can I do with that?" he says. "I made a decision to go forward and close on each of these individual pieces knowing what I could do with it or knowing that I could resell the ground to someone else and they could do something with it."
It was an unorthodox strategy. Most financiers refuse to back a development deal piece by piece; they'll provide the money only after every property owner has agreed to sell. But Makovsky's investors, whom he declines to name, were willing to take a risk, confident that he knew what he was doing.
Still, Makovsky says, they had an informal bet going as to whether he'd actually pull it off.
The first piece was easy. The Bank of Denver was already trying to sell its property along Welton Street, where much of the Orpheum Theater once stood. If he couldn't get anything else, Makovsky had a plan for the land. "That parcel was the same square footage as what I had acquired at the corner of 18th and Champa, where I built a parking lot and hotel, the Marriott Residence Inn," he says. "So I knew if I didn't buy anything else, I could at least duplicate a garage and hotel on it."
And dealing with the Bank of Denver's Rock turned out to be refreshingly straightforward. "He was very clear on what he wanted, and it wasn't going to be any different than that. He stuck absolutely to his word on everything he said," Makovsky says.
The admiration was mutual, says Rock: "Evan was fairly straightforward and didn't try to pull all the development tricks that most people try to pull."
"I wish every deal I made was like that," says Makovsky. In the case of Block 162, it wouldn't be.
The next step was the Standish Hotel building on California Street, which the Bank of Denver had used as its headquarters until 2004, when it was sold to Mercy Housing. The non-profit affordable-housing developer had hoped to convert much of the structure into low-income units, but construction costs had skyrocketed and funding had fallen through. The owners were interested in selling, but only if the deal somehow contributed to the organization's mission. Such elements weren't usually the stuff of downtown real-estate transactions, but Makovsky was willing to consider it.
While neither side will reveal the details of their negotiations, RedPeak's Zoellner, who is on Mercy's board of directors, notes that "Evan was creative in structuring a deal to assist the mission of Mercy and at the same time make an economic deal for himself."
And so, in the end, Evan got the building under contract in spring 2006.
With the land he had now, Makovsky could have built a hotel and parking garage on the vacant Orpheum lot and redeveloped the Standish into offices or stores. But he kept going. This was exactly the sort of risky, extended timeline that had scared off developers like Target and Lowe — but Makovsky was willing to be patient.
He next purchased the parking lot between the Standish and the McClintock building from Paradise Cleaners owner Buzz Geller. Like the Dikeous, Geller is a major parking-lot owner, but unlike them, he's always been eager to have his lots redeveloped. "It's a real eyesore," says Geller, who sold his portion of the land for $1.7 million.
Then, to deal with the corner property on California and 15th streets, where a hotel had been torn down to make room for a "temporary" parking lot, Makovsky purchased a third of the land's undivided-interest ownership from a real-estate investor; the other two investors assured Makovsky they wouldn't stand in the way of his plans.
The McClintock building, held by the seventh property ownership group on Block 162, was not needed for Makovsky's redevelopment plan.
That left the Dikeous and the Cooks.
Makovsky can't talk about what happened next, because he signed an agreement swearing not to. He's not allowed to discuss the multi-year negotiations with the Dikeous, for example, or how he tackled the family feud behind the Fontius building. He's also forbidden from revealing the sums of money bandied about, but he admits that the Dikeou holding was the linchpin of his plan all along: "Once all the other pieces fell together, this was the one property that became very important to me.
"There is such a thing as being at the right place at the right time," he adds with a wink. On June 19, the Downtown Denver Partnership publicly trumpeted the news in a press release: "75,000 Square Feet of Contiguous Property in Downtown's Core Changes Hands." Makovsky had acquired nearly every property on the block, including the Colonial. Less than a month later, the partnership announced Makovsky's acquisition of the Fontius building as well.
Not everyone was happy, however. "Our landlord pretty much gave us thirty days to move out, because the guy who bought it wanted immediate possession of the property," says 15th St. Tavern owner Martinez. "The place was our heart and soul. It screwed us financially, and most of our employees are out of a job. We are trying to find a new place right now, but there's a lot of paperwork and red tape.
"It kind of hurts the little people," says Martinez. "But that's just the way city development works."
After all, progress cannot be stopped.
Perhaps the time had finally come for the Dikeou and Cook families to make a deal. As Rock points out, it was only recently that any downtown Denver property owners had considered redeveloping their land: "What has been built in downtown Denver in twenty years? The convention center and its new hotel. The market was not there."
The City of Denver may also have flexed its muscles behind the scenes. "I think the mayor personally talked to the Dikeous to make the pitch that it's time to sell the property," says Elbra Wedgeworth, a city councilwoman at the time who says she had a similar conversation with Gary Cook.
There was also public pressure, in the form of Ken Schroeppel. A Denver urban planner with the Matrix Design Group, Schroeppel is the author of DenverInfill.com, a widely read website and blog devoted to new downtown development and the neglected properties that need it most. His June 2006 posting about the Fontius building triggered several newspaper reports on the subject. Then, in March 2007, he detailed the neglect and decay of the building and demanded a call to action. "The time has come," he wrote, "for the people of Denver to stand up and say 'Enough is enough!'"
But there was another factor involved, one other key strategy, suggests the man who faced the families at the negotiating table. "Most people have pressing in their mind how much it is going to cost. They keep chasing a number. In this situation, that wasn't the case. There were many more issues here that didn't have to do with economics," says Makovsky, who'd learned that real estate wasn't just about dollars and bricks when he started knocking on frightened business owners' doors forty years ago. "In most cases, the blood, sweat and tears that went into a property is difficult to understand. But this guy isn't selling you the property. He's selling you the forty years he spent trying to acquire it."
So when he approached these two families, he didn't just have cold, hard property values in mind. He'd factored in the endless hours spent toiling at a popcorn stand, the maneuverings needed to sell an unexpected windfall of fishing lures. He came with respect for family empires that had publicly imploded in the worst possible way.
Evan Makovsky walks the length of Block 162. Welton Street to 16th, 16th to California, California to 15th and then back to Welton. He passes the parking lots and what's left of the partially demolished Standish Hotel — a steel staircase emerging from a mountain of brick and girders. Soon that will be torn down, too. He turns the corner at the Colonial Hotel, where the 15th St. Tavern's windows have been plastered with newspapers. A notice promises that this edifice will soon meet the same fate as the Standish.
He walks past the Fontius building, pausing to shake the hand of the shoe repairman who's worked a storefront here for years. The smiling cobbler has been fixing Makovsky's shoes for sixteen years; he had no idea his patron had been working diligently for the last few of those years to acquire the building in which he worked. Soon the repairman will have to leave, just like the other tenants in the Fontius and Colonial Hotel buildings: Denver Wigs, Kenmark Shaw's Jewelers.
Surveying Block 162, Makovsky no longer sees it as a problem for downtown, or the challenges that threatened his bid to acquire it. He sees new challenges, the ones that lie ahead. He wonders what to rename the Fontius building and how to restore its former glory. He ponders whether he should install lighting on the facade to illuminate the terra-cotta detailing or re-create the historic "Steel's" sign on the roof.
He struggles with how to acquiesce to the Landmark Preservation Commission's demand to preserve many of the building's windows while still making the property energy-efficient. Down the street, he thinks about how to best deal with the oversized light-rail platform on the corner of 16th and California.
And he wonders what to do with the huge swath of land on Block 162, a property of a size and potential not often seen downtown (see story, page 20). "I think this has taken on a bit more importance than I realized when I started it," Makovsky says. "We took over this block to make it economically viable. We took it over to clean up the block. But now we feel we would be making a mistake if we did not engage other people and other visions who have been involved with other cities that are evolving in the way Denver is evolving."
To that end, Makovsky has arranged for a panel from the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit development think tank, to come to Denver on November 4 and make suggestions about what to do with an infill development of this magnitude. He won't divulge his own ideas for the block, and he has rescinded his initial construction estimate of $350 million, pending the results of the ULI panel. "I wouldn't want anything simple," he says with a chuckle. "That would be boring!"
But Makovsky's friends and colleagues say it will be the centerpiece of his career.
"What we are looking for is a marker on the skyline that announces this is a center of downtown," says prominent Denver architect Brian Klipp, who's helping Makovsky develop a master plan for the site. "I see this as an opportunity to invent something new. I think Evan's vision is perfectly aligned for that."
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Tentatively, Makovsky slips into the side entrance of the Fontius building. He doesn't yet have full access to the structure; he promised its old tenants they could have until the end of the week to move out. Inside, the building reeks of age, a mixture of long-accumulated dust and gradual decay. Ceilings are flaking away, wallpaper is slowly disintegrating, and faded rugs are littered with cigarette butts. A red, white and blue mural of a bald eagle spreads its wings on the wall of a dimly lit stairwell. The remnants of a small indoor running track are spotted through the window of a locked door on the second floor, no doubt once used to try out early Nike running shoes. There's not much left on the floor above the Los Wigwam Weavers necktie factory, its owner having closed shop and put the operation's trappings — eighteen floor looms, 1,100 yards of hand-woven fabric and 1,300 pounds of wool yarn — up for sale online.
Makovsky takes the rumbling elevator to the fourth floor. The door opens into an optometrist's office whose decor doesn't seem to have been updated since the 1980s. "Hi. I'm Evan Makovsky. I own this building. Is this a bad time?" he asks the receptionist, hoping to take a look around.
"Yes, we're really busy," she stammers. It's the last day for patients; the operation has to be out by Saturday.
There's no need to say another word. Makovsky bows his head in understanding and quietly lets himself out.