Joe's Liquor Store is an institution in the neighborhood, even if it's no longer owned by Joe and now stocks a fashionable Cabernet alongside gallon jugs of Carlo Rossi. Joe's is also at the epicenter of a dispute that's pitted a hardworking Korean immigrant against one of Denver's best-known charities.
Ung Hwa Choi has owned Joe's for eleven years. Even as the neighborhood has changed, Choi's easy laugh and smile have remained a constant. But these days, Choi isn't feeling so neighborly.
All around his tiny store are the sounds of construction as steel beams rise to support the new Volunteers of America headquarters. One of Denver's most respected service organizations, the VOA runs a network of homeless shelters, food banks and group homes that help people in crisis. Its guardian angel is socialite Sharon Magness, who hosts the charity's annual fundraising gala, Western Fantasy. The new building now rising on Larimer Street is named after her late husband, cable television baron Bob Magness, and was funded with a $3 million contribution that was part of the settlement of a bitter legal battle between Sharon Magness and her two stepsons over the $1 billion Magness estate.
To make room, the VOA bought up most of the 2600 block on the south side and now owns the buildings on every side of Joe's Liquors. But it doesn't own Joe's. And that, says Choi, is the root of his problem.
In 1998, the VOA approached him about buying his property. Choi says the group offered him $265,000 -- a figure that included $44,000 for his building and the empty yard behind it, as well as $193,000 for the loss of his business. According to Choi, the VOA paid $201,000 for a building south of Joe's Liquors that's larger than his building but sits on a lot of the same size. Because the lots are nearly the same, Choi thought his building and land should also be valued at $200,000 and he was insulted when the VOA offered him substantially less.
"I said, 'No, I don't want to sell at that price,'" recalls Choi. "I'm not asking for a crazy price. They want to pay a price based on the property-tax assessment -- nobody pays at that price."
Dianna Kunz, the president of the VOA, remembers the negotiations differently. "We thought the $260,000 offer was incredibly generous," she says. "Mr. Choi told us he wanted $620,000. That wasn't possible."
When negotiations came to a standstill, the VOA decided to go ahead and build its new complex around Joe's Liquors. The administrative center is now under construction on one side, while a new service center for the VOA's Meals on Wheels program is planned for the other side in 2002. That means Choi's business will be a small island on a block completely taken up by the VOA.
According to Kunz, hard feelings between Choi and the VOA emerged during the unsuccessful negotiations to buy his building. "Our realtor told him if we built around him it would be difficult for him to sell his property and he took that as a threat," she says.
Choi is adamant that the VOA did threaten him. "They tried to push me around," he insists. "I don't trust these people anymore. I once thought the VOA was nice, but I've changed my mind. They threatened us with lawyers."
The dispute escalated after the VOA broke ground. The charity sent Choi letters asking him to reroute a ventilation fan that faced its new building and to move a backyard fence that had been in place for thirty years, saying the fence was on their side of the property line. When Choi delayed moving the fence, he heard from the law firm of Sherman & Howard, which represents the VOA.
"Please be advised that VOA will be forced to take appropriate legal action against Joe's Liquor Store, including a request for both equitable and monetary relief, if you are unwilling to resolve this matter within five days of receiving this letter," wrote attorney Noel Franklin.
Choi hired Boulder attorneys Lee Hill and Julia Yoo, who began a correspondence with Franklin. "I am of the impression VOA is a charitable organization and not a syndicate of gangsters and thugs," wrote Hill. "My clients are willing to cooperate, but not unless these gestures of harassment and commercial extortion stop immediately."
That brought a tart reply from Franklin. "VOA is a Christian non-profit organization and would never countenance the use of harassment or intimidation," he wrote.
According to Choi, the VOA's architect told him the location of the fence would have no effect on the construction. Kunz says that's not true. "The fence had to be relocated because we're building a courtyard there," she says. "This was a simple request, and it took him months and months to comply." The building that houses Joe's Liquors is in such a fragile state, she adds, that the VOA had to reinforce it. "We've had to spend $50,000 to shore up the side of his building, because it's very, very old," she says. "We've put substantial concrete there."
Kunz admits she would be happier if the liquor store wasn't in the middle of the VOA's property, but she insists that her group wants to be a good neighbor to Choi and patch things up. "I'm very sorry about this, because we are going to be neighbors now and into the future," she says.
But because Choi has been so angry, Kunz has asked her employees to avoid him. "He was coming up with all these allegations of harassment, so I asked my staff not to have any contact with him."
Choi sees this as one more act of retribution. "The big boss told the employees not to buy anything at my liquor store. They used to buy cigarettes and lottery tickets here. Now they have to sneak in so the big boss won't see them."