Evan Almighty

Page 8 of 9

"It kind of hurts the little people," says Martinez. "But that's just the way city development works."

After all, progress cannot be stopped.

Perhaps the time had finally come for the Dikeou and Cook families to make a deal. As Rock points out, it was only recently that any downtown Denver property owners had considered redeveloping their land: "What has been built in downtown Denver in twenty years? The convention center and its new hotel. The market was not there."

The City of Denver may also have flexed its muscles behind the scenes. "I think the mayor personally talked to the Dikeous to make the pitch that it's time to sell the property," says Elbra Wedgeworth, a city councilwoman at the time who says she had a similar conversation with Gary Cook.

There was also public pressure, in the form of Ken Schroeppel. A Denver urban planner with the Matrix Design Group, Schroeppel is the author of DenverInfill.com, a widely read website and blog devoted to new downtown development and the neglected properties that need it most. His June 2006 posting about the Fontius building triggered several newspaper reports on the subject. Then, in March 2007, he detailed the neglect and decay of the building and demanded a call to action. "The time has come," he wrote, "for the people of Denver to stand up and say 'Enough is enough!'"

But there was another factor involved, one other key strategy, suggests the man who faced the families at the negotiating table. "Most people have pressing in their mind how much it is going to cost. They keep chasing a number. In this situation, that wasn't the case. There were many more issues here that didn't have to do with economics," says Makovsky, who'd learned that real estate wasn't just about dollars and bricks when he started knocking on frightened business owners' doors forty years ago. "In most cases, the blood, sweat and tears that went into a property is difficult to understand. But this guy isn't selling you the property. He's selling you the forty years he spent trying to acquire it."

So when he approached these two families, he didn't just have cold, hard property values in mind. He'd factored in the endless hours spent toiling at a popcorn stand, the maneuverings needed to sell an unexpected windfall of fishing lures. He came with respect for family empires that had publicly imploded in the worst possible way.

Evan Makovsky walks the length of Block 162. Welton Street to 16th, 16th to California, California to 15th and then back to Welton. He passes the parking lots and what's left of the partially demolished Standish Hotel — a steel staircase emerging from a mountain of brick and girders. Soon that will be torn down, too. He turns the corner at the Colonial Hotel, where the 15th St. Tavern's windows have been plastered with newspapers. A notice promises that this edifice will soon meet the same fate as the Standish.

He walks past the Fontius building, pausing to shake the hand of the shoe repairman who's worked a storefront here for years. The smiling cobbler has been fixing Makovsky's shoes for sixteen years; he had no idea his patron had been working diligently for the last few of those years to acquire the building in which he worked. Soon the repairman will have to leave, just like the other tenants in the Fontius and Colonial Hotel buildings: Denver Wigs, Kenmark Shaw's Jewelers.

Surveying Block 162, Makovsky no longer sees it as a problem for downtown, or the challenges that threatened his bid to acquire it. He sees new challenges, the ones that lie ahead. He wonders what to rename the Fontius building and how to restore its former glory. He ponders whether he should install lighting on the facade to illuminate the terra-cotta detailing or re-create the historic "Steel's" sign on the roof.

He struggles with how to acquiesce to the Landmark Preservation Commission's demand to preserve many of the building's windows while still making the property energy-efficient. Down the street, he thinks about how to best deal with the oversized light-rail platform on the corner of 16th and California.

And he wonders what to do with the huge swath of land on Block 162, a property of a size and potential not often seen downtown (see story, page 20). "I think this has taken on a bit more importance than I realized when I started it," Makovsky says. "We took over this block to make it economically viable. We took it over to clean up the block. But now we feel we would be making a mistake if we did not engage other people and other visions who have been involved with other cities that are evolving in the way Denver is evolving."

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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