More than 700 Denver construction-related complaints were filed last year

“As you have more construction being done, you’ll have more complaints,” said Paul Schaffer, chief construction inspector for the city and county of Denver.

The Grateful Gnome in Denver's Berkeley neighborhood has to push back its open date to a scaffolding collapse at an adjacent site, June 13, 2017. (Adrian D. Garcia/Denverite)
The Grateful Gnome in Denver's Berkeley neighborhood has to push back its open date to a scaffolding collapse at an adjacent site, June 13, 2017. (Adrian D. Garcia/Denverite)
The Grateful Gnome in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood has to push back its open date to a scaffolding collapse at an adjacent site, June 13, 2017. (Adrian D. Garcia/Denverite)

Denver’s rapid growth is hard to miss. Even ignoring the many cranes towering over the city, it’s hard to drive from one place to another without passing a construction site. And they’re not always good neighbors.

The Berkeley neighborhood’s Grateful Gnome had issues with the apartment building going up next door even before scaffolding from the project crashed on top of the brewery last month.

In the weeks leading up to the crash, points of contention included the way scrap materials were being handled, parking and other project-related issues. The owner of Grateful Gnome, Daniel Appell, said Thursday that he tried to work out the issues with the developer of Tennyson 47, Michael Mathieson.

But the incident with the scaffolding causing him to push back his brewery’s opening was the last straw. He officially complained to the city officials last week, he said, about workers leaning materials against the exterior of the brewery. And he plans to reach out to them again should he run into other issues.

“I always think the good in people is going to come out eventually. I always treat people the way I want to be treated until you step on my toes enough times,” Appell said. “Once you step on my toes enough times, then you pissed off the wrong New Jersey honky.”

Mathieson said Wednesday he’d made complaints of his own about Appell’s project, and he has maintained the scaffolding crash was an accident due to high wind gusts.

City officials are being called to sort out dozens of development-related complaints as construction projects get underway in many of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods. We break down those complaints and how they’re being handled in our Chart of the Week.

More construction, more complaints

“As you have more construction being done, you’ll have more complaints,” said Paul Schaffer, chief construction inspector for the city and county of Denver.

As is true for most issues in the city of Denver, residents can call 311 or file a complaint online when they are experiencing problems related to construction such as work being done with construction noise before 7 a.m. and after 9 p.m. during the week, streets and alleys being blocked and work being done without a permit.

Work without permits tends to be one of the largest categories of complaints recorded, representing 63 percent of the 717 complaints in 2016, city data show.

“It’s usually about money,” Schaffer said. “They could possibly not know they need a permit, but mostly it’s that they are either trying to avoid the cost of permitting or the contractor or both.”

Complaints about work being done without a permit more than tripled from 2014 to 2016, the data show. The city has a searchable database of licensed contractors and last year Denver Community Planning and Development started classes to tackle the permit problem through educating people on the city’s process.

“The people that are going to attend a permitting workshop are probably the people already interested in doing things the right way,” said Andrea Burns, spokeswoman for the department. “I don’t know that we’ll ever have 100 percent compliance to be realistic about it, but we’re trying to chip away it.”

What the city is doing

The city’s data tracking how complaints are handled is, well, not the best. That’s partly, officials say, because there tends to be a delay in administrative workers entering the information for how inspectors handled calls. And when the information finally does get entered the type of action an inspector took isn’t always captured seamlessly.

“The database is not perfect,” Schaffer said. “It is entered by our administration team based on what the inspector writes. So if he writes ‘posted notice,’ they’ll enter that even though it could be a stop work order or correction notice.”

In 2016, “posted notice” made up the largest type of action inspectors took when responding to complaints and concerns related to development, city data show.

Burns said that category includes any of the following: the posting of an order to complyusually directing someone to get permits before continuing work;  a danger notice, for an unsafe property that needs to be fenced off; a Stop Work Order, or a do not occupy order.

“A good amount of the ‘posted notice’ numbers are Stop Work Orders. So, it’s actually pretty high up there as a percentage,” she said. “All of the posted notices that get posted basically require the property or whoever is doing the work to take some action before they can continue, so they all in that respect have a similar function.”

Aside from a few complaints about graffiti and snow accumulation on the sidewalk, Tennyson 47 received a stop work order in July 2016 because the construction distances from the property lines did not match the plans approved by the city. After the developer submitted and received approval for new plans, the order was lifted about two weeks later, according to Denver Community Planning and Development.

Mathieson said that the Stop Work Order on his project had less to do about issues with the apartment’s construction and more with City Councilman Rafael Espinoza “unlawfully” interfering with the project and essentially getting city officials to issue a Stop Work Order. The Denver Business Journal reported in December that “without conceding the accuracy” of Mathieson’s claims, city officials talked to Espinoza and he his staff agreed to not have any further involvement with the project

A large chunk of complaints are not being filed against developers of big projects in Denver, Schaffer said.

“A lot of it’s homeowners. A lot of it’s fix-and-flippers. A lot of it’s different kinds of contractors,” he said.  “We’re not beholden to the contractors. We’re not beholden to the homeowners or developers. We’re there to verify what’s being built in the interest of the building.”

People that buy a house or other property where unpermitted work is done risk inheriting significant, costly issues.

“It’s always better long term to do it the right way,” he said. “All these rules are there for a reason. There are safety factors like collapses or fires that could happen when you’re not meeting minimum construction standards.”

Grateful Gnome
A wooden board through the roof of The Grateful Gnome in Denver's Berkeley neighborhood, June 13, 2017. (Adrian D. Garcia/Denverite)
A wooden board through the roof of The Grateful Gnome in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood, June 13, 2017. (Adrian D. Garcia/Denverite)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is looking into what caused the scaffolding to crash onto Grateful Gnome on June 12. That investigation is “ongoing and still in the early stages,” an OSHA spokesperson told Denverite last week.

Appell is leasing his building near the southwest corner of West 44th Avenue and Stuart Street from Luanne P. Sager LLC. The landlord has been working to get insurance money to cover repairs.

As of Tuesday, the community raised $5,372 on a GoFundMe page to help Grateful Gnome open its doors. Appell said he’s hoping to do just that around the beginning of September ahead of his alumna mater West Virginia University taking on its rival Virginia Tech on Sept. 3.

“That’s what I told my team, ‘I have to get open by Sept. 1, so I can have my Mountaineers in place and we can watch some football,'” Appell said. “I was supposed to open around the first week of July, and now I’m praying for Sept. 1. That’s in a perfect world.”

This article has been updated from an earlier version to include comments from the developer of Tennyson 47.

Business & data reporter Adrian D. Garcia can be reached via email at agarcia@denverite.com or twitter.com/adriandgarcia.

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Adrian D. Garcia

Author: Adrian D. Garcia

Adrian D. Garcia is on business and trends for Denverite, serves as treasurer for the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and on the board of the Denver Press Club. He can be reached at agarcia@denverite.com.