Longform

A Lot of Trouble

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."

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T.R. Witcher