Gates Factory

The Gates building was once home to the Colorado Tire and Leather Company. In 1911, Charles Gates, Sr. purchased the company. It would later become one of the world’s largest manufacturers of power transmission belts. In 1917, the company phased out leather for rubber and renamed the company the International Rubber Company.  The company continued to expand and became a well know leader in the rubber industry.


The new owners of 50 acres, Cherokee Investment Partners want to build a neighborhood to benefit many people; they call it a mixed-use development area. The area is perfect; it has parks nearby, multiple transportation modes with in close vicinity, and affluent neighborhoods surrounding it. Unfortunately, the clean up due to the contamination from the rubber factory is stalling the plans.


The area where the rubber company was at is located near the west Washington Park area, particularly around Mississippi and Logan. This area is zoned as a commercial/residential/industrial area. Now however, the old rubber company building is also a superfund site, and is a large TCE plume area located around Mississippi and Logan. TCE is a solvent that is commonly used to remove grease from metal parts; it can seep in to the groundwater and can also be in a vapor form. TCE was found in the groundwater near and around the old building. The company, Cherokee Investment Partners, which now owns 50 acres of the old Gates property, has drilled their own wells to establish the extent of the contamination.  The EPA and Cherokee have been drilling wells and testing the air quality in people’s homes.





Affects of TCE

TCE or Trichloroethylene is a nonflammable, colorless liquid. It evaporates easily from surface water, but less easily from soil. TCE sticks to particles causing it to stay potentially for a long time. People can come in contact with TCE by breathing in air around a contaminated house, drinking, swimming and showering in water contaminated with it.

TCE can affect your health, causing headaches, dizziness, lung irritation, poor coordination; it sounds like lots of other things that cause these symptoms. However, it can also cause kidney and liver damage and impaired heart functions. There is a potential for it to increase the likelihood of cancer, and is considered to be a likely carcinogen to humans.

TCE sounds like great stuff to have leaching into your water and home. The Cherokee company that now owns 50 acres of the old Gates property wants to turn the area into a thriving neighborhood, but I am a little skeptical on their abilities (with the help of the EPA), to clean the site up, and eliminate traces of the TCE.

Apartment Building Across from Gates

Of course there are supposed expectable levels of the toxin. But is that really going to be a good selling point to potential buyers? They appear to be beautiful apartments, but I don’t think they would be worth the actual price.

Regardless, of what they manage to make the old Gates rubber company buildings into, I would suspect it will look better than the current buildings do. 


“Trichloroethylene (TCE).” Agency for Toxic Substanes and Disease Registry. CDC, July 2003. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <;.

“Urban Design Standards and Guidelines.” Cherokee Redevelopment of the Former Gates Rubber Factory. 2 Dec. 2005. Web. 1 May 2012. <;.

Dickinson, Christina, and Matt Flener. “Teens Cited for Trespassing at Gates Factory after Girl Falls through Roof.” 14 Feb. 2011. Web. 1 May 2012. <;.

“Mississippi & Logan TCE Plume.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 1 May 2012. <;.

“Powering Progress in Belts, Hoses & Hydraulics | Gates Corporation.” Powering Progress in Belts, Hoses & Hydraulics. Gates. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <;.




Urban Explorers Love the Gates Building

The Gates building has a certain appeal to some people. Similar to those that seek out adventure rock climbing or searching for ghosts, urban explorers are drawn to the abandoned building. The building however, is closed to the public and has signs all around saying ‘No Trespassing’.  This doesn’t stop very many, neither does the likely possibility of getting arrested by the police officers that make regular rounds of the building.

There have been people that just will not heed the signs and find ways into the building. Unfortunately, for some people, this decision has either been fatal, or extremely close to it. In February 2011, there was a girl that fell through the roof and fell 45 feet to the floor; the fire department had to break in to get to her. She as well as the people she was with all were cited for trespassing. In 2007, there was a boy that went to go exploring and fell through an open elevator shaft.  Regrettably, he was not as fortunate as the girl and died a month later due to his injuries. In 2008, there was a lawsuit filed against developers and contractors charging them as liable for the boy’s death; even though he was trespassing and it clearly states that in multiple locations around the buildings. So why would the property owners be responsible for his death? Why would you have to make a building safe for trespassers? I think it’s more of an “enter at your own risk”.


Maher, Jared J. “Lawsuit over Urban Explorer Death at Abandoned Gates Rubber Factory Going to Trial.” – Denver News. 11 Dec. 2008. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. <;.

Dickinson, Christina, and Matt Flener. “Teens Cited for Trespassing at Gates Factory after Girl Falls through Roof.” 14 Feb. 2011. Web. 1 May 2012. <;.


More suburban emptiness

Colfax/Kipling shopping area, Google Earth

This area of Colfax and Kipling has also experienced building vacancy for long periods of time. There are many successful stores in this area too. New growth has been happening in the Belmar location which is not too far from this area.

former World Savings Bank, Colfax and Kipling

former Target, Colfax just west past Kipling

former Target, Colfax and Kipling area

This abandoned Target has been empty for over eight years. There was also another Target on 44th and Sheridan (in Lakeside) that sat empty for over six years. (It is recently being re-developed; some strip malls are already looking for tenants. These two Target stores were both closed while the new one was constructed across from Sloan’s Lake. Another failed Fazzoli’s which raises another concern:

  • Sometimes buildings are constructed in their details to be ‘brand’ specific. Fazzoli’s  for example has a certain layout, most likely a drive through and a textured, stucco exterior that is unique and necessary for their brand. Old Taco Bell Restaurants were designed in the same way and are now being (very creatively, I might add) painted and redeveloped into new businesses. This is probably a negative quality as these buildings are recognizable as the brand it was built to portray and harder to then transform as being a different yet well-known business. There are other brands that come to mind in this scenario: Circuit City, Ultimate Electronics, Macys, McDonalds, Burger King, (Most fast food places really), World Savings Banks.
  • On the contrary, Blockbuster locations have seen a rapid transformation (in a lot of cases) as the recognizable piece was the signage which is more easily changed. The layout and architectural plan is more adaptable to a variety of uses as opposed to a fast food building or bank.

    random retail space, Colfax and Kipling

    former Circuit City

    Former Fazzoli’s, Colfax and Kipling area

    Fazzoli’s former Drive-Thru

Another key concern for these abandoned retail places is safety. Especially in Colorado, some amount of energy is being wasted keeping these buildings warm (or just warm enough not to freeze) in the winters. There is also the maintenance of the parking lots or the grounds which has to be done, not to mention the upkeep of the graffiti, broken glass and the cost it keeps to provide security to ensure that no trespassers are squatting at these locations. These areas then need to remain bright and use lights to divert potential danger.

Also homeless people might be sleeping inside or “Urban camping” within the walls!

OH NO! Wait; maybe this could be a solution:

Urban Camping but with a roof and walls 🙂

  • These abandoned grocery stores would make a good place for a shelter in most cases.
  • There are locations in every suburb that would be ideal for a housing system of this sort
  • You could develop more urban gardens near these facilities
  • All work, maintenance, cleaning and general upkeep could be generated by the people that use it. (Minimal management of course)
  • Little facility work would probably have to be done to make this a possibility, with the exception of larger bathrooms and basic equipment for kitchens and beds.
  • Maybe there could even be some government dollars for a mental health professional on site, job placement services, day labor pick-ups etc.

If that would not realistically work in some locations here are some more proposed, more productive uses for these large spaces. Even if there was a parking lot it instead of a building it would be more productive in most of these cases. Maybe a park and ride system for bus users and not just catered to light rail drivers.

  • Recreation centers
  • Community centers
  • Indoor urban gardens (greenhouses)
  • Indoor playgrounds
  • Libraries
  • Schools
  • daycare
  • Indoor dog parks
  • Gyms
  • Open space, outside park

    Old racing track behind Lakeside Amusement Park, has been vacant for over 25 years!

    empty retail space 44th and Wadsworth, Lakeside

another abandoned World Savings Bank in Littleton, Broadway and Bellview

 Many things could be done with these “abandoned” spaces that are currently just sitting there boarded up or being vandalized in many cases. Karen Auge wrote an article in the Denver Post, May 9, 2010 titled “Abandoned stores leave grocery graveyards in Denver area” that speaks to this ongoing issue in the Denver metro area. In the article, Jill Litt from the University of Colorado School of Public Health, explains that there are food desert issues for many of these low-income areas which is ironic considering there is space available, even if it was a smaller market rather than a large grocer. The article also mentions that Sav-A-Lot is a flexible grocer that has a smaller space but can also use buildings that are empty and rejuvenate a neighborhoods food access situation. In other areas like the intersection of I-25 and I-70 there just simply isn’t space to build a big retail grocer.

Recently, there has been talk of a Sunflower Market opening on East Colfax and also a Trader Joes on Colorado Blvd & 8th avenue in Denver. This is great news for those neighborhoods as both areas are in need of a neighborhood market. While my area still houses a King Soopers across from Sloan’s lake, there aren’t many other options unless you travel for about a ten minute car ride in any direction. Personally, I am not picky as to what is going to take the place of these locations mentioned, I just wish something would as they are useless as they stand. Before we build more new buildings, can we save any of these old dinosaurs that have been waiting patiently for years? I think there also should be some responsibility in leaving these properties empty, especially if they were uniquely built for your brand.

Suburban Decay

Neighborhood Abandonment, Google Earth image

West Colfax is the main street that runs diagonally through this image. Sloan’s Lake is at the top of the map and Sheridan is the street that runs across this side of the lake. Technically in this picture there are parts of Edgewater, Edgewood, Lakewood and Denver. This is the neighborhood that I have called home for the last nine years and although it is an “alright” part of town, it’s not what it could be, or what it once was. This area had apparently been booming at some point because there is development everywhere although it is inconsistent and spotty.  There is a halfway house on my street, but also a giant daycare. There are trailer parks only a couple blocks away, but there are also brand new townhomes close by and the long-standing historical small town (in the middle of a big city) kind of feel in Edgewater. The “Casa Bonita” strip mall (left corner of pins) is more than half empty and has been for a long time. There is an abandoned Albertsons in this strip mall as well as most of the strip itself. The only anchors in this center are the famous Casa Bonita, the Dollar tree and a Save-a-lot. There are a couple other smaller businesses, but even these vendors don’t seem to stick around for too long. The ironic thing is that even with all of these available properties, KeyBank just erected an entirely new branch in the middle of the parking lot.

Abandoned Albertsons (in the Casa Bonita strip mall)

misc. building, abandoned for over 9 years

The area directly across from Sloan’s Lake has recently been re-developed and retail is once again thriving, thanks to a brand new Target and a re-developed strip that has almost completed the fine tuning of vendors and eateries (patios overlook the beautiful lake, well, just on the other side of Sheridan traffic).The abandoned Fazoli’s across from the lake attempted to be a Mexican restaurant for a very short 6 month timespan but now again sits empty. The Target was freshly built after the old abandoned for five years Cub Foods was torn down. It seems to attract a fresh new bunch of retail as the strip mall is one of the few that are relatively full in the area (and that is only recently). A Blockbuster video closed and was converted into a dentist and a T-mobile outlet. About two years ago there was a Payless shoe store that was torn down and a fresh bank built in its’ place. The old Table Stakes pool hall was converted into a Rainbow clothing store and the rest of the spaces between King Soopers and Ace Hardware remain full…for now.  This is one of the most occupied shopping areas and there are still three units that remain vacant.

Tucked behind the lake just a block west is an abandoned Safeway. For nine years I have driven by this huge warehouse of a store and wondered if it would ever see life again. The surrounding strip mall houses a Pudge Brother’s pizza and a Mexican restaurant on the corner lot but even the majority of the strip is empty. The real reason people even drive in this gigantic parking lot is the liquor store. There used to be recycling dumpsters in the corner of this lot but they were taken out because people would constantly leave furniture and trash everywhere. We consume things so fast that we have a hard time dealing with all of the garbage. There are also boxes still for the donation of clothes and shoes. This is also a comment on our consumerism as there is clearly a surplus in material goods if we are attempting to collect extra goods on the corners.

Abandoned Safeway

B&W Abandoned Safeway

Mostly abandoned strip next to Abandoned Safeway

At the corner of Colfax and Wadsworth a brand new Walmart was built about seven years ago. It is open 24 hours and is a “Super” Walmart and the other Walmart that is maybe a mile away (at 6th and Wadsworth) was rubbish compared to this retail monster. It briefly closed for about a year and then opened again as apparently there was a demand. The parking lot is always full and Christmas shopping is crazy at both locations which clearly illustrates our need for things and our consumerist lifestyle.

This Walgreens (pictured below) on the corner of Colfax and Kendall has been vacant for about five years now. The replacement Walgreens was built one stop light away at Colfax and Sheridan where there was another building torn down on the corner to accommodate. We keep tearing down buildings to build new buildings. We need to refocus energies into transforming and remodeling the buildings that we already have.

Abandoned Walgreens, Colfax and Kendall

B&W Empty old Walgreens

New Orleans, Louisiana: The Lower 9th Ward

A Personal Account:

In the winter of 2009 I took off for New Orleans to do relief work for three months. While I had never seen this city pre-Katrina, it was immediately obvious that some communities were struggling with great difficulty to rebuild. Three and a half years after one of the worst disasters the United States had ever seen, great numbers of buildings throughout New Orleans remained abandoned. The neighborhood I stayed in, the Lower 9th Ward, was greatly devoid of people having only one operating school and minimal amenities. My block consisted of only 2 rebuilt homes (appart from my own), probably 15 abandoned homes but mostly overgrown lots where houses had been demolished.  Prior to Hurricane Katrina 15,000 people made the Lower 9th their home. Today 5,500 live there. Hundreds lost their lives and many families choose not yet to return to this scared neighborhood. As I walked through crumbling streets I was hit was a deep sense of apprehension, seeing the remnants of a once vibrant community now in ruins. As I began my exploration of this still hurting city, this feeling would only grow revealing to me the depth and complexity of issues in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The Human Impact:

The obvious impact of a disaster such as hurricane Katrina was the destruction of entire communities and livelihoods. A major question today is why families are choosing not to come back and rebuild. The Lower 9th, a neighborhood below sealevel, was hard hit when the levee broke along the industrial canal. Many families were forced to hide in attics during the storm and then wait on their rooftops for days for help to arrive. Many of the community members I spoke with told me terrible stories of dispair during that time. In addition to seeing thier home destroyed, stories of exposure, trying to survive on little food and water, and witnessing family members and neighbors die revealed a great deal of post-tramatic stress.

One man, Smitty, whose house I worked on said while giving us a tour of L9: “A lot of people think, what for? What do we have to come back to? So I can be the only person on my block? So I can deal with filling out all the paper work and getting the insurance company to approve every little detail while I rebuild? There’s no community here, no security. No, a lot of people think it’s better just to tear it down and move on in life. Start somewhere new that wont just get flooded again. Those people who are moving back are mostly old people like me who don’t know any other way. Those people are coming back to die in the community they grew up in.”

Environmental and Health Concerns:

The major problem with rebuilding homes that were flooded is black mold. All houses are considered toxic until they have been gutted down to the siding and studs.

Here are some photos of the gutting process:

Another problem is the quality of soil in L9. Most of these homes were built using asbestos. As they flooded, this asbestos got into the water and then leeched into the soil. Given the magnitude of this flood, it is likely the soil is contaminated with a multitude of other chemicals as well. One man told me his body broke out in lesions after swimming in flood water. Soil quality is so bad that residents cannot even have gardens as it is considered toxic. This undoubtedly has concerning implications to the surrounding ecosystems.

The Future:

While the outlook appears bleak for this community, reconstruction is happening. While a slow process New Orleans has seen a surge of grass roots organizing inorder to reconstruct not only the homes families but also the community that once existed there. Organizations such as Common Ground Relief, Lower 9, and NOLA Urban Farmers Coalition work directly with community members to provide sustainable support socially, economically, environmentally and even provide legal advise. When I returned to the L9th last summer I could see their efforts had in fact caused change for the better. More people were returning to reconstruct their homes, businesses were reopening, and even the reclamation of a community park. I even got to see some progress on homes I did work on.

February 2009

June 2011

Ventura, California. The Blighted Petrochem Refinery

A Personal Account:

While traveling with a friend during the summer of 2011 we found our way to Los Angeles, where my brother Kyle lives. He said that one of his friends had told him of an enormous abandoned oil refinery 65 miles north west of LA out side a town called Ventura. Knowing my passion for blighted landscapes, we piled in the car to go check it out. Minutes before we arrived we passed through a small town called Ojai. This streets of this desolate town were empty and the number of boarded up homes suggested that this was a place very few people called home. The hillsides of this valley were littered with oil well pumps, many of which were frozen, no longer extracting valuable fossil fuels. Such an image led me to believe that perhaps this town developed  during its heyday of oil extraction but then faded as the number of barrels dwindled. Minutes later we found ourselves parked next to the decaying Petrochem Refinery. For then next several hours we would explore its landscape, contemplating its history, searching for hidden secrets and marveling at the artists who had made the rusting metal their canvas.

Here is an arial view of the Petrochem Refinery. The diversity of equipment number of storage tanks (bottom right) hints at the scale of production once maintained by this facility.

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While I originally assumed this facility was closed due to the tapping of oil reserves, I discovered in my research that Petrochem Refinery actually ceased operations due to environmental concerns and the outcry of the surrounding community.

Petrochem Refinery was constructed by Shell Oil Company and began operation in 1950’s. Its original function was to manufacture and refine urea fertilizer. A number of tanks in the field we labeled “AMONIA” which upon reflection, were most likely of the oldest artifacts on the property. In 1972 the plant was sold to USA Petroleum who developed the property to refine crude oil extracted from the surrounding landscape. During it’s heyday, this facility refined 20,000 barrels of oil a day (900,000 gallons) with the capability of storing 850,000  barrels (380,250,000 gallons) in reserve tanks. In 1980, USA Petroleum laid plans for a $100,000,000 expansion however the community organization Citizens to Preserve the Ojai (CPO), experiencing the impacts of such massive production, were able to stop the expansion claiming the facility was an environmental hazard. With the inability to expand, profits dwindled and operations ceased in 1984. While numerous proposals have risen to redevelop the property, either into another manufacturing industry or shockingly residential land, these projects have been turned down. This is likely do to the great cost the developer would have to pay to remediate the property as various contaminants are believed to have leeched into the soil underneath it, a potential threat to human health. As of this time no study has been performed to determine the extent this contamination has occurred.

Environmental and Human Impact: 

Oil refineries emit numerous gases which are toxic to humans and the environment including  sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine, and benzene. As these gases are emitted they pollute air but also have the potential to contaminate ground water as they fallout into water bodies or leech into soil.  In addition, particulate matter (PM), leads to the formation of smog. This smog was the main argument the Citizens to Preserve Ojai used to stop the expansion of USA Petroleum. When the expansion was proposed the Citizens to Preserve Ojai demanded an Environmental Impact Report which later found that the expansion would be in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.

This image, from GOOGLE maps, shows the location of Petrochem Refinery between Ventura, to the south, and Ojai, to the north. Given this context it is unsurprising that most complaints came from citizens of Ojai as opposed to Ventura. Citizens would report that coastal winds would bring smog from the refinery through the valley and to Ojai. It is likely that much of this smog was avoided by Ventura given its coastal location. 

It is also interesting to note the aesthetic impact that this refinery had in sculpting the landscape. A careful examination of the image above shows a series of tan spots spreading out horizontally just south of the refinery. The image below shows greater revealing that each tan spot is in fact a crude oil well pump.

Today Petrochem Refinery remains undeveloped, undemolished, and for sale. At one time this facility produced mass amounts of refined oil and other petroleum based chemicals, the side affects of which negatively impacted its surrounding community and eventually let to its closure. The question of why Ojai today remains very much a derelict town still remains unanswered, however my research reveled that at one time Ojai was a tightly knit and determined community. A community that took action against a multi-million dollar business to protect their air, land and water.  While the future of Petrochem Refinery is unwritten, for now it silently waits and welcomes the occasional vistior ranging from researchers to artists and those few curious individuals who marvel in the beautiful decay of industrial landscapes.

The California Environmental Quality Act. CITIZENS TO PRESERVE THE OJAI, an Organization, Appellant, v. The COUNTY OF VENTURA By and Through Its BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, Respondents, USA PETROCHEM COMPANY, a Corporation, Real Party in Interest. Rep. no. 176 Cal.App.3d 42 Civ. B-011716. Ventura: CEQA, 1985. Print.
Fulton, Bill. Mayor Fulton Explains Stalemate at North Avenue. Publication. City of Ventura, 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <>.-
Soltz, Kit. “Tar on Your Foot. The down and Dirty on the City of Venturas Oil Legacy.” Ventura County Reporter. Southland Publishing, 16 Apr. 2009. Web. 02 May 2012.
Sommer, Constance. “Ventura Council to Weigh Plan for Homes on Ex-Refinery Site : Development: Decision Bypasses Environmentalists Concerns over Land at North End of Avenue.” 11 Jan. 1995. Web. 29 Apr. 2012.


Abandonments can be found throughout our world. Some rest in the form of derelict factories, other times as forgotten homes dotting the countryside. While some may consider these relics of the past as eyesores that should be demolished, it is important to recognize that these ruins contain a deep and often complex history. As we document this history we attempt to uncover the intrinsic relationship between these forgotten buildings and the environment that surrounds them. How did they affect their environment and community during their operation? Why were they abandoned and what is their environmental impact now as they decay back into the earth?