Tom Kreutz fixes cars for a living, and he was just the sort of ordinary fellow the Denver Art Museum was looking for in its ad campaign to promote the museum's working-class appeal. The kind of guy, the award-winning ad said, who'd feel equally happy "collecting rocks, bushwhacking in Mexico, or visiting the Denver Art Museum."
In the ad, Kreutz is all smiles in his mechanic's blue jumpsuit, talking about his favorite museum painting. But he's not smiling anymore, because the art museum that used his common-man image now needs his auto shop demolished to make way for new parking lots.
"I've lost my sense of humor," says Kreutz. "I'm not a very nice person right now. This is, one would say, a very stressful year."
It's been difficult not only for him, but also for his wife. "We've always supported the art museum and the library and all that," says an angry Cathy Kreutz, who was a museum volunteer last year. She remembers the hassle her husband went through to accommodate the museum's ad campaign.
"He did it for free," she says. "They tore his shop apart setting up lights and kept him from working for a whole day."
Kreutz has run Rocky Mountain Import Services a block south of the museum since 1983. The city has owned his building and the surrounding land since 1991. Now it's ready to level both his shop and a neighboring auto shop to build new lots for the Civic Center Cultural Complex, which also includes the Denver Public Library and the Colorado History Museum.
The Kreutzes' shop, which closed in December, is almost empty. Wires hang from the ceiling and old coffee cans pile up on the floor. Few vehicles remain: a Mercedes-Benz, an old racing car and a sky blue '69 Datsun 2000. Kreutz has been scrambling for months to sell off restored cars and clear out on time. He'll have to pay to store those cars and two other vintage automobiles that he didn't have time to sell.
The irony of Kreutz's relationship with the museum is not lost on museum director Lewis Sharp, who nevertheless hasn't talked to the Kreutzes directly about the situation. "It's always frustrating when friends and long-time neighbors have to be displaced," Sharp says. "There's not a lot of options one has in this."
Tom and Cathy Kreutz blame the city for that lack of choices. They point to several last-minute lease extensions that left them guessing whether they were staying or going and to a 1994 letter from the mayor's office promising them a three-year lease extension.
Rocky Mountain Import Services and the neighboring Denver Frame and Alignment, also scheduled to be torn down, stand alone in the desert of cracked asphalt behind the library and art museum. The city purchased the two auto shops, along with most of the two blocks bounded by 12th and 13th streets and Broadway and Bannock, for $7.6 million in 1991. The money came from a late-Eighties bond issue to acquire parking for the developing Civic Center Cultural Complex.
"At the time we negotiated, these buildings were on there with existing leases," says Deputy City Attorney Shaun Sullivan. The city wanted to terminate the leases then, in 1991, Sullivan says, but since the parking project wouldn't be built for years, "it didn't make any sense to kick them out."
Instead, the city negotiated a one-year lease with Kreutz; twelve months later the lease was renewed on a monthly basis with a ninety-day termination notice. Their monthly rate has increased from $560 to $587 since 1983, which is well below market rates, and the city hasn't charged them rent since last September.
Actual preparations for the parking project began last year, when $1.4 million in general funds became available. In August the Kreutzes received notification that they needed to be out by November. But various procedures and delays have pushed the city's construction timetable back. Last month officials said construction would begin in April; the latest projection is June.
Throughout this process, the Kreutzes have seen their lease extended to March 1, then to March 31 and now to June 1. The confusion, they say, has left them uncertain and unable to plan ahead. And earlier this year, the city offered the Kreutzes the option of staying until the end of the year, an offer they rejected.
"They were given an offer, they made threats about lawsuits and they said 'We'll just shut down,'" says Sullivan. "That's their choice. It's unfortunate, but that's the choice they made."
The Kreutzes, however, had been further confused by a December 1994 letter they received from Andrew Wallach, an assistant to Mayor Wellington Webb. That document informed the Kreutzes that Wallach had "instructed agencies in charge of the parking lot reconstruction that your business should not be relocated to accommodate reconstruction." The letter went on to say that a new lease would be negotiated, raising the Kreutzes' rent to market rates but phasing those rates in over three years. The Kreutzes took that to mean they had three years to go ahead with plans to reconvert the business from auto repair to antique restoration.
But a new lease was never negotiated, and after a meeting last August with city officials and members of the Golden Triangle Neighborhood Association--most of whom were not in favor of preserving the shop for an auto-related use--the Kreutzes were told they had ninety days to vacate the premises.
City officials say Wallach's letter was the unfortunate result of having too many agencies involved--from the city attorney's office to the mayor's office to Asset Management to Public Works.
"Sometimes when one person is involved, he might not know all the facts," says Sullivan, speaking of Wallach's letter. "The mayor's office didn't have all the facts in front of them. They didn't realize the property was bought with bond money."
The bond money demands that the city go ahead with the parking project; and as Sharp points out, "We have a responsibility that goes to the whole metropolitan area. If people can't park, then our ability to serve them is radically diminished."
Wallach says the city simply changed its mind in "response to neighborhood concerns." The Kreutzes, he says, "have a right to feel the city changed its mind. But given the amount of lead time they're being given, that's about as much as they could ask for. And they're paying a rent below market."
To which Tom Kreutz says, "If you put a letter in that had as much info as that and then back out without any better response, fuck you."
Susan Martineau, the Kreutzes' lawyer, is not sure whether Wallach's letter will carry any legal weight in court (Sullivan says it will not), but she says, "I'm quite certain the city wishes it had never been written."
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The Kreutzes probably feel the same way. A stroll through the empty shop doesn't bring to mind the optimism of the art-museum ad. The campaign, "Normal People Like Us Too," was developed by McClain-Finlon Advertising, which did the work pro bono. Kreutz was tapped by one of his customers, Marge Peta, an artist with the firm. "We were looking for everyday folk," Peta says, "and I knew he was right behind there, and he seemed like our guy."
Kreutz doesn't regret the afternoon shoot. "It was a public service," he says. "We homesteaded this town. I don't mind trying to help it." The ad went on to win the Best in Show at the Denver Ad Awards last year, beating out more than 200 other entries.
Still, the Kreutzes don't have plans to do much bushwhacking in Mexico. But they might try it in Tucson, Arizona, where they are planning to move, in large part because of their experiences with Denver officials.
"We're pretty disgusted with Denver right now," Cathy Kreutz says.