Evan Almighty

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"It was a fun time," remembers Fontius. "When we ran a sale, my God, people would be lined up, and we would have to have police control the crowds. It was huge. It was fantastic."

But the crowds didn't last. In the 1970s and '80s, businesses large and small began moving to Cherry Creek and to the sprawling southeastern suburbs to follow their customers.

"I think real-estate values in central downtown went somewhat downhill as the Aurora Mall and Southlands Mall and some of the bigger suburban centers took over some of the shopping habits," says Fontius, who broke from the family business to pursue separate interests in 1975. "There were fewer and fewer people in office buildings. They went from hour lunch breaks to half-hour lunches. I think walking traffic deteriorated over time."

In 1986, the Fontius Shoe Company was sold to a Phoenix-based firm, and three years later, the flagship store disappeared from Denver phone books. The building became nearly empty save for Los Wigwam Weavers, a wool-necktie company that had rented space on its third floor from property owner Gary Cook. An optometrist moved into the fourth floor, and a handful of businesses rotated in and out of the smaller storefronts on 16th and Welton streets.

In the meantime, inner-city flight had hurt other institutions as well, like the Orpheum Theater. The venue, which had dropped vaudeville acts to focus on film and been renamed RKO International 70, was remodeled in 1955 and again in 1963 — but it still couldn't keep pace with the times. "All the movie theaters moved to the shopping centers and the suburbs, and nobody came downtown to go to the movies anymore," remembers Gene Rock, head of the Bank of Denver, which had purchased the theater and the Standish Hotel across the block from it on California Street, renaming the hotel structure the Bank of Denver Building. In 1967, RKO was torn down and replaced with a half-acre parking lot.

The parking lot grew. A December 1974 Denver Post photo captured a demolition zone at 15th and Welton streets where there had, until then, been a hotel. "The wreckers are expected to finish their job sometime this week," read the caption, "with the cleared corner site to be operated, at least temporarily, as a parking lot."

That temporary use became permanent.

As the 1970s energy boom, which had driven up downtown real-estate prices, bottomed out in the debilitating oil bust of the mid-1980s, parking-lot owners who'd cleared away deteriorating, unoccupied historic downtown buildings waited in vain for great developments that never appeared. The Downtown Denver Partnership estimates that between 20 and 22 percent of all properties in the 120-block Downtown Denver Business Improvement District are parking lots — including much of Block 162.

Even the 1982 opening of the 16th Street Mall pedestrian corridor did little to stop the block's slide. The refurbishment of the McClintock building at 16th and California was a small upswing in an otherwise downward spiral. The backside of the block became home to what the Denver Post referred to as "15th Streeters," a subculture living in the "permanent-transient" hotels on and around Block 162 and congregating at the street's many watering holes. "It's a step below respectability and a step above skid row," explained one bar owner. Some of the locales became local legends, like the 15th St. Tavern, which took over for the old Sportsman bar in the Colonial Hotel building in 1995.

The bar's grungy atmosphere and seedy clientele, shunned by civic boosters, was celebrated by others as the ultimate downtown dive. "It was known for good times and great bands," says co-owner Mykel Martinez, who, along with his two partners, bought the tavern from original owner Andy Artzer three years ago.

In 1991, there was a ray of light when Gene Rock managed to unite neighboring property owners behind a proposal to build a 1,074-room Hilton on the block. But existing hoteliers, who believed their businesses would suffer, protested, and Mayor Wellington Webb torpedoed the plan.

It was a puzzle, one nearly 100,000 square feet in size. That's how Makovsky approached Block 162 in the fall of 2005 when he began planning his attack.

"I looked at the ownership on the block and designed a step-by-step acquisition plan that basically said, if I buy property number one and I cannot buy anything else, what can I do with property number one, and if I can only buy property number one and number two, what can I do with that?" he says. "I made a decision to go forward and close on each of these individual pieces knowing what I could do with it or knowing that I could resell the ground to someone else and they could do something with it."

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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