Douglas Bruce is always ready for a fight.
In recent weeks, the father of the TABOR amendment offered a spirited defense of the controversial law, which he sees as a boon to taxpayers but critics blame for handcuffing Colorado's education system, among other things. And now he's threatening legal action over a recently demolished property in the Cole neighborhood that he says was illegally seized by the City of Denver and is slated for development as low-income housing.
"Now I just need to find an attorney who recognizes what a gross injustice this is," he says.
According to Denver City Council member Albus Brooks, who represents Cole residents, that's nonsense. Brooks says the property, located at 3701 York Street, "has been a community blight for twenty years. Mr. Bruce has been completely disrespectful of the community in his upkeep of the property, or lack thereof."
Brooks stresses that he stands behind the fairness of the process, which is finally set to conclude with a sale to TYL Foundation, an entity connected to billionaire Ed McVaney acting on behalf of the nonprofit Mile High Ministries, that is expected to be finalized on February 14.
The completion of the deal won't silence Bruce, a Colorado Springs resident who didn't learn that the buildings on the York plot had been scraped until yours truly sent him a link to a January 30 Denverite post on the subject. Predictably, he found the item to be filled with inaccuracies, with the most egregious of them, in his view, being the passage that identified him as the property's owner.
"About 25 years ago, I owned the property — two acres with eight fourplexes," he says. "But I sold it in 2004 to a limited liability company whose general partner is in Idaho. I carried a first deed of trust, so I was acting as a bank by carrying the first mortgage and transferred ownership. It's all perfectly legal. But holding the mortgage is not ownership."
He adds: "For three or four years, they've been trying to sell the property illegally without paying off the first deed of trust — because when you sell a property that has a mortgage, the buyer has to pay the mortgage off to clear the title. But they've gotten three judges to refuse."
These determinations are emblematic of Bruce's combative relationship with any governmental entity that deigns to tell him what to do with his properties, as well as a reputation for allowing them to fall into dilapidation that dates back well into the last century.
For evidence, look no further than Patricia Calhoun's February 1995 Westword article "Another Slum Dunk for Douglas Bruce," which dubbed him "Colorado's most lackadaisical land baron." As an example, the piece describes what happened to a crumbling structure at 3700 Humboldt that Bruce purchased for the bargain price of $2,000, largely because of a previously existing city order that it either be fixed or flattened. But Bruce allegedly stalled necessary repairs so long that he was ultimately found guilty in September 1993 of owning an unsafe structure — a verdict that he proceeded to refute by way of claims that he had been targeted for persecution because of his work as an anti-tax warrior. Today, he says "the conviction was reversed on appeal, the wall was repaired, the empty fourplex sold at a profit, and it now houses tenants, which Denver piously claims to want to help."
Also in 1993, a Colorado Springs Gazette brief stated that the City of Denver made peace with Bruce in regard to structures at 601 Lipan Street, near a Sixth Avenue overpass, that he was accused of neglecting after he pledged to make the necessary repairs. This piece is off-base, too, he allows. His remedial plan for the property, he says, was to sell it, which he eventually did.
As with the 37th and York spread, Bruce says he held the first deed of trust on the Lipan parcel and accuses Denver of seizing it without proper compensation, too. The property also wound up in the portfolio of the TYL Foundation, he notes, after being sold without his knowledge or consent late last year. Because he didn't know if the Lipan buildings had been demolished, too, he asked me to drive by and check. As of this morning, the structures, located a short distance from scattered homeless encampments, are still standing.
Between Lipan, York and a third place on Gaylord that, by his telling, received much the same treatment as the other two, Bruce estimates that he's lost around $6 million — a sizable chunk of his net worth that wound up in Denver's coffers, leaving him with "zero." To him, "it's a ripoff, and I'm not going to stand for it."
He'll have to in the case of the 37th and York property, Brooks argues, because "there are over $1 million of liens on the property." And, yes, Bruce thinks they were unfair, too.
"In 2010, after I was no longer the owner, the city said that because the building had been empty for more than ninety days and wasn't being fixed up to be occupied, they were going to fine it $999 a day in perpetuity," Bruce maintains. "But that's not a crime. The crime is what was inflicted on the building by the city, and its failure to protect property owners and mortgage holders from vandalism and break-ins and graffiti and dumping and all kinds of other stuff. They turned the building into a criminal so they could punish the building by bulldozing it."
These charges don't persuade Brooks. "Property rights are some of the most strongly protected rights in the state," he says. "But when you disrespect the community like this, there are avenues for the city and other property owners in the community to take action, and that's what happened."
The buildings at 37th and York "have been pretty much a hole in the community," Brooks continues. "When you have a blight like that, it attracts a lot of activity you don't want. There have been murders near there, a lot of violence near there. It's unacceptable."
In contrast, he predicts that the new project, which he hopes will be completed sometime next year, "is going to be a vibrant property. It will be mixed use — 50 percent market rate units and 50 percent affordable units, for low-income and workforce housing."
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As for Bruce's complaints, he says, "This process has been held up in the court of law, and we've been going by the procedures laid out for us by the judge. So I'd tell him to take it up with the courts."
That's precisely what Bruce would like to do — and he's got plenty of other complaints about how he's allegedly been done dirty. He'll eagerly deliver a jeremiad about his 2011 indictment and subsequent conviction on tax-evasion charges, which he characterizes as a twisted revenge fantasy against his beneficent decision to donate his pay as a county commissioner to "educate the public on its constitutional rights." The state's theory about his motivations, he asserts "was that I gave away $190,000 gross salary over three years to save $129 in state taxes. Brilliant."
For now, though, Bruce is focused on the assorted parties involved in what he sees as the wholesale theft of the land in question, who he jointly dubs "evil, evil, evil." He's particularly insistent that the word be used three times.
"They seem to think, 'It's only Doug Bruce we're crucifying. We disagree with him, so screw him,'" he contends. "It's utterly immoral."