Born and Razed

When Nick Mystrom points out the various features of the duplex he's building on South Pennsylvania Avenue, his pride is obvious -- and why not? The project is the first this 28-year-old has done by himself: He bought the land, sketched out the preliminary design on which an architect based his blueprint and, as a licensed general contractor, was hands-on during construction. "It's different from a developer who just farms things out," he says. "I actually built it."

But there's one little problem with Mystrom's unfinished dream project. Even before the job is done, the whole thing is slated for demolition.

The reason? The duplex, priced at $369,000 for the 1061 South Pennsylvania half and $349,000 for the 1065 South Pennsylvania section, sits on a chunk of land that the Colorado Department of Transportation says it needs in order to expand I-25. CDOT reps have already appraised the property, and Mystrom says they've promised him an offer by March 1. After that, no one knows (or no one's saying) how long it will be before the place is pounded into the dust.

Despite the death sentence that hangs over his pride and joy, Mystrom hasn't stopped working, although his heart's no longer in the chore: "If this whole thing hadn't come up, I'd probably be finished by now, but I lack a little motivation building something I know is going to be torn down," he admits.

Nevertheless, he's taking the advice of several lawyers he's consulted. "They've all told me that until I have an acceptable offer in my hands, the building and the lot are mine, and I should keep developing them as I see fit -- and if I don't, it could affect how much I get from them. So even though it seems wasteful, that's what I'm doing."

Mystrom's road to destruction began back in 1998, when he first spotted what he describes as "the only undeveloped property in Washington Park." The parcel's odd triangular shape and proximity to the freeway had stopped anyone from building on it in the past, but Mystrom thought it had potential. To that end, he contacted CDOT to make certain that the land wasn't in a danger zone regarding possible I-25 expansion. "They sent me a plan showing the impacted areas," he recalls, "and mine wasn't one of them."

Reassured, Mystrom and his financial partner, Mike Foster (a college buddy who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming) bought the land under the auspices of their professional handle, Alco Equities, in November 1998. By the following July, all the funding and permits were in place, and construction began.

Things moved along swimmingly until December, when Mystrom received a phone call from a staffer working for District 7 city councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie. "Someone in her office wanted to know my reaction to my property being condemned," Mystrom says. "And I had no idea what she was talking about."

(Actually, the property hasn't been condemned yet; rather, it's been earmarked for CDOT purchase. But if a deal can't be struck for it, CDOT can begin condemnation proceedings.)

The manner by which Mystrom was clued into CDOT's plans was more common than he realized. According to MacKenzie, she learned late last year about several properties in her district that were on the CDOT goodbye roster, and in following up on this information, she or her assistants wound up breaking the news to several land and business owners. "There's a little coffee kiosk called Jimi's Java [at 888 South Broadway], and one day when I stopped in for coffee, I asked the owner, 'What do you think about being on CDOT's list?'" she says. "And he didn't know a thing about it."

CDOT isn't taking the blame for such surprises. Department spokesman Dan Hopkins says that a register of properties in progress's way had been available at public meetings about I-25 for several months, and CDOT reps were following up by contacting the owners individually. But they hadn't reached each and every concerned party by the time MacKenzie and her associates took on the task themselves.

For Mystrom, the timing of this bombshell could hardly have been worse. He was completely finished with the exterior, and was well into work on the inside -- "the mechanicals, the plumbing, the electrical, that kind of thing," he says.

In addition, he'd already committed to some pricey accoutrements usually expected by buyers with more than 300 grand to spend for a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom duplex, including expensive windows designed to block out racket from the nearby freeway, ash hardwood floors, granite slab countertops, high-end appliances and, in the 1061 portion, a deck to be covered with a small patch of lawn. "I got the idea from some places I've seen in New York," Mystrom notes.

After sitting down with MacKenzie and having his fate confirmed by CDOT several days later, Mystrom realized how unlikely it was that these touches would ever be enjoyed by anyone. But, he concedes, "I was a little confused about what I should be doing. I didn't know if I should continue to push and get it done, or call off the dogs. But everyone I talked to said I should keep going."

Sound advice, says Don Ostrander, a partner in the law firm of Duncan, Ostrander & Dingess, regarded as experts in the field of condemnation. Ostrander is among the few attorneys who have been involved in a case similar to Mystrom's: In 1996 he represented Tom Jirkovsky, whose ten-acre plot was condemned by the City of Boulder after he'd moved a house to the land but before the home had been placed on its foundation. Ostrander believes that it would be "highly unusual for the government to take the position that they should pay less than the completed value of a project that's in the middle of being built," since developers expend time, energy and overhead in addition to construction costs. But, he adds, that doesn't mean it's impossible.

"Pretend that you've got half a car," he says. "Half a car's not worth 50 percent of a completed car, because it doesn't work and it can't be used. But a completed car is worth 100 percent of that car -- just as a completed property is worth 100 percent of that property and an uncompleted property isn't."

Hopkins won't give his opinion since the department is "in negotiation" with Mystrom. However, he points out that CDOT has received numerous public comments about the I-25 expansion that could potentially lead to changes in the plan. If engineers adopt MacKenzie's suggestions and move the expansion west into largely unused property owned by the Gates Rubber Company, Mystrom's property and that of several businesses would be spared. Hopkins says the project team won't be done considering such options until the end of February at the earliest.

All of which leaves Mystrom in the same limbo in which he's lingered since December. He's had a lot of people tour the property since he started construction and remains in the habit of discussing it in the present tense, pointing out, for instance, that he's planting a row of noise-dampening trees "so you won't feel like you're that close to the traffic." But if anyone's interested in talking dollars and cents, he tells them not to bother.

"This would have been a good showpiece for me, not only with buyers, but with lenders," he says. "It would have shown them that I could take a project from start to finish. I was looking forward to being able to drive by it for years and years -- but now I won't be able to do that, which kind of bums me out."

Still, Mystrom's trying not to let his melancholy get the best of him (especially if the state pays him what he's asking). He visits the construction site regularly, overseeing the electricians and others in his employ, and he's also developing a loft project in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was raised. "I made sure it wasn't by a highway," he says. And when the duplex is done? He knows just what he's going to do.

"I want to throw a big party," he announces. "And I'll take some videotape of the building -- so I'll have something to remember it by after it's torn down."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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