UPDATED: DNC protester holding cells weren't fit for voting machines, but people are no problem
If you can’t stand the irony, stay out of Gitmo on the Platte.
That’s a nice little phrase I’m coining to describe the “temporary arrestee processing center” – aka vacant warehouse filled with cages and razor wire – that Denver is preparing in the event that protesters arrested during the Democratic National Convention overfill the city jails.
Another phrase I came up with today: If you can’t stand getting chased by scary black trucks, don’t try to sneak inside Gitmo on the Platte and take pictures. See the slide show here.
CBS4 first reported on the existence of the facility yesterday, capturing footage from the inside. But for some reason it didn’t disclose its exact location, except to say it was a city-owned building in northeast Denver. The same non-disclosure came from the Denver police and sheriff departments, although the mayor’s office said it will offer tours of the facility next week.
Hmmm, I thought. Anyone who follows municipal politics knows there’s one empty warehouse that has been dogging the city for years: the former Denver Elections Commission storage building.
So I drove out to East 38th Avenue and York Street, and pulled into the industrial strip located just north of Schafer Park. I was familiar with the area since the loading docks are a frequent Wetboys skateboard hang-out, and one of the warehouses was previously home to ManiaTV.
I made a few passes around the various warehouses and didn’t see anything of note. I was about to give up when I spotted two Denver sheriff's vans pulling into the lot. After that, it was just a matter of following them to unit 3833 and -– behold! -- Gitmo on the Platte.
Some background: The warehouse park where the building stands was originally a military supply depot that was purchased with a city-backed federal loan in 1998, as part of a sketchy deal to turn the site into offices.
The developer, Bert Weston, began defaulting on the loans in 2005 but was temporarily bailed out by the Hickenlooper administration, which funneled her the lease to house election voting machines and other equipment to offset payments. Weston bailed out completely the next year, turning operations over to another firm, but the elections equipment remained in the building.
Fast forward to 2006, when Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher began looking into financial transactions related to the warehouse. The report, released that October, found the building to be so unsatisfactory for housing heat-sensitive equipment that the auditor’s office questioned if the commission was capable of conducting the upcoming elections. The elections equipment was eventually relocated and the unit has sat empty for a year.
So even though the former military facility wasn’t good enough to store elections equipment, it's good enough to store DNC protesters? I had to get a look inside. I pulled around back and watched two men unloading computers from the trunk of a car into the warehouse. When they failed to close the door behind them, I walked right in to the 50,000-square-foot space.
It immediately reminded me of the so-called Guantanamo on the Hudson, the sprawling bus depot that New York City converted into a holding pen for thousands of protesters arrested during the 2004 DNC. Except instead of one large area, the warehouse is split into dozens of fenced cells topped with razor wire. I snapped photos of the fences, as well as the computers and food-preparation area that workers were setting up.
The odd thing about the city choosing this warehouse as a detainment facility for potentially hundreds of protesters is that the 2006 Auditor's report had already warned about problems. Since the “warehouse has no permanent cooling system and only one of four heaters works properly,” the city looked into installing a 4,000 pound cooling system. But engineers determined the roof was too weak to support such a unit, which “raises concern about whether the roof will support a heavy snow fall.” Instead, the city was bringing in massive cooling trucks to funnel in conditioned air via 18-inch tubes as a temporary solution during the summer when temperatures got extremely hot.
I did not see any cooling trucks parked outside Gitmo on the Platte. (I later called Auditor spokesman Denis Berckefeldt, and he said people in his office were wondering the same thing. “We found that the [warehouse] is totally unsuitable to store heat-sensitive electronic voting machines,” he said. “So how are you going to have hundreds of people in there in the last week of August?”)
In addition, the report pointed out that the “warehouse fire sprinkler system is a wet system and it is unknown if it is a zoned system.” Given the age of the building and the amount of wood in the structure, "if a fire were to occur there is nothing, other than the sprinkler system, that would contain the fire and limit the loss of inventory.” In fact, the huge concrete foundation directly adjacent to the city-owned warehouse once supported an interconnected warehouse that “had burned down at some point and was never rebuilt.” This brought up questions about the “structural strength” of the once-shared, but now exposed, west wall.
“Hey, are you supposed to be in here?” the worker asked me as I snapped photos.
“I’m from the media,” I answered.
“HEY!” he shouted to the sheriff's deputies and other workers on the other end of the warehouse. “THIS GUY IS TAKING PICTURES!”
I snapped a few more: “It’s okay, I’m leaving.” And I hustled out the door as the cops began stepping in my direction. I was driving off in my car when a huge black truck, maybe a Dodge Ram, with tinted windows, came seemingly out of nowhere and pulled in front of me, trying to block my exit. I swerved around it and we did a kind of slow-moving, figure eight pursuit around the warehouse lot until I made it back out to the main street. All the while I was taking pictures of him taking pictures of me, which would have been kind of funny and postmodern if I wasn’t freaking out. After about a mile he slowed his pursuit and eventually turned down a side street, never to be seen again.
I got back to my office and did some more research about the warehouse. A few months ago, it was reported that the city was selling it to an Oregon-based property development company called ScanlanKemperBard for $3.4 million.
It turns out that the contract was finally signed by the city today! The property will be turned over to the new owner on August 29 – the last day of the convention. Coincidence? Strategy? Or scary screw-up?
Just ask the guy in the black truck.-- Jared Jacang Maher
UPDATE: As of August 20, the city has parked large mobile air conditioning trucks outside the facility to pump in cool air. Denver Undersheriff Bill Lovingier says that Fire Department officials did sign off on the warehouse for this use. Jay Featherson with ScanlanKemperBard says that he was made aware a month ago that the warehouse his company has under contract would be temporarily retrofitted for this use, but has no concerns. They are looking at a new closing date of September.