Englewood sues owner of long-empty 107-year-old train depot

Tom Parson bought Englewood’s historic train depot nine years ago with the promise he’d fix up the old building, turn it into a world-class museum and create a place to celebrate printing presses and lettertype in a digital world quickly forgetting about ink and paper.

But nearly a decade later, the museum has yet to open. The building is uninhabitable; with holes in the ceilings and walls, too-small doors and dangling wires. The dusty depot still sits largely unused, filled with boxes and furniture and metal printing presses, with tools and construction materials.

Now, the city of Englewood is suing to try to either take back the building, force Parson to finish repairs or force Parson to pay market value to keep the depot.

In a lawsuit filed Friday, city officials accused Parson of fraud, saying he and his wife Patti Parson falsely claimed they had enough money to cover the extensive repairs and renovation needed in the historic depot when they narrowly won city council approval to buy the property for $30,000 after a contentious campaign against a competing proposal for a train and history museum.

“We reached the point where action needed to be taken,” Englewood Mayor Othoniel Sierra said Tuesday. “That’s the crux of it. It’s just been something that was promised to the city of Englewood and the citizens of Englewood, to have a community gathering place, and it just hasn’t come to fruition.”

Tom Parson, who said he learned of the lawsuit Monday when reached by the Denver Post, provided a copy of a letter in which city officials told him earlier this year that they wanted to buy back the property and would sue if he did not agree to their terms within 30 days. He responded in late July with a 36-page report on the building and his work there, and when he did not hear a response from the city, he figured the lawsuit threat was a bluff.

So news of the lawsuit, which he said was “full of lies,” took him by surprise.

“It’s a lifetime project,” he said. “It’s not something that has a deadline on it. And they know that. This is going to be a collection of stuff that is going to draw people to Englewood for years.”

The old train depot, built in 1915, is the last-remaining “wood-framed and stuccoed Mission Revival style depot formerly operated by the Santa Fe Railroad” in Colorado, according to the Colorado Register of Historic Properties. The depot sat unused under the city’s control for 15 years, from 1998 to 2013, before the city sold the property to the Parsons, which they eventually donated to Englewood Depot Inc., a nonprofit Parson created.

The $30,000 the Parsons paid for the property in 2013 was well under the city’s $250,000 estimate of fair market value, a deal the city agreed to on the condition that the space be turned into the museum. Tom Parson planned to open Letterpress Depot — a “living museum” that would feature his unique collection of antique printing presses, include exhibit space and host community events.

The couple promised to do repairs in a reasonable time, the city’s lawsuit says, and said in their proposal they expected repairs to take “a year or more.” Parson said he never committed to a particular deadline.

“We never did any such thing,” he said.

Work has been done on the building since Parson took it over, including painting, putting on a new roof, repairing a patio and making improvements to ensure the building is handicap accessible, he said. But the city says he’s sought only five building permits in the last nine years — for roofing, a water line, attic insulation, accessibility renovations and garage doors, and for the framing of two bathrooms and a coffee bar.

Only three of those construction projects have been finished, the city says, with one permit expired and the other underway.

Parson said he has put just over $300,000 toward the building’s renovations, including about $176,000 of his own money, $115,000 in grants from the State Historic Fund, and money from fundraising campaigns and smaller grants. The city says it estimated back in 2013 that repairs would cost at least $475,000.

Work has stalled because of supply chain issues and unforeseen complications, Parson said, adding that the work is complicated by the building’s historic status.

“The problems have just multiplied and costs have gone up,” he said.

Matt Crabtree, president of Historic Englewood, a preservation society, said the group was surprised by the city’s action.

“No matter how this works out, we’re happy the building is historically recognized and is being treated in that manner,” he said. “No matter what, the building is safe.”

Sierra said city officials still want to create a community center in the depot if the city is successful in pulling the property back from Parson. The mayor wasn’t sure whether the city would once again put out a request-for-proposals for a new owner or if the city would fund the endeavor itself. He could not say whether anyone else has expressed interest in the property, and a city spokesman did not respond to a request for more information.

Parson plans to fight the city’s efforts to reclaim the building.

“The city has just been so crummy about this,” Parson said. “…To have them come back and — while we’ve been working on it — make accusations against me and against us is just wrong.”

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