Evan Almighty

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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.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner