Tortillas Mexico’s owner may sell a Santa Fe Drive building to a developer

But first, Denver must decide if the structure should be preserved.

1042-1048 Santa Fe Drive. Oct. 21, 2021.

1042-1048 Santa Fe Drive. Oct. 21, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
kyle harris

At 16, Jose Rangel took a job at a tortilla factory at 11th Avenue just off Santa Fe Drive. He never imagined that one day he’d run a family business out of the warehouse and own other properties on the block. Even more unlikely: For the past few years, developers have been calling — and maybe it’s time to sell.

More than five decades since the owner of Tortillas Mexico got his start, the block is coveted real estate in La Alma-Lincoln Park — just outside the neighborhood’s recently formed historic district. It sits a block north of the Aztlan Theatre, near the new Colorado Ballet and Bonfils-Stanton Foundation buildings.

Having moved Tortillas Mexico’s operations to a new factory in Englewood, the Rangels are weighing a deal on their Denver property with Washington-based real-estate investment company the Holland Partner Group. The company is developing a five-story building on Santa Fe and a six-story development on Inca and over the summer submitted plans to the City for turning property Jose currently owns into retail and apartments.

But there’s a hitch: One of Jose’s buildings on the block, at 1042 to 1048 Santa Fe Drive, may be eligible for historic landmark status.

That’s news to the Rangles — and they’ve been in the neighborhood a long time.

The old Tortillas Mexico factory on 11th Avenue at Santa Fe Drive. Oct. 21, 2021.

The old Tortillas Mexico factory on 11th Avenue at Santa Fe Drive. Oct. 21, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Jose was still in high school when he started working for El Molino Foods’ tortilla factory, in the late 1960s.

The gig at 11th Avenue off Santa Fe Drive was a second job for the teenager, who was also a custodian at neighborhood schools.

“Talk about work ethic,” said Elizabeth, who explained that her husband declined to be interviewed for this story and asked her to speak on his behalf.

After high school, he was promoted to be a driver for the factory, delivering tortillas to stores and restaurants throughout the city. He and Elizabeth married when they were 21. Not long after, he became a salesman for the company.

Over the decades, the factory changed owners a couple times. “The people who had the place, they didn’t know how to make tortillas,” Elizabeth said. “They distributed well, but they didn’t have that love for baking. It was like a drudgery.”

In the mid-’80s, Jose learned the owners were planning to sell, and he offered to buy the factory. He loved every aspect of the business, from working the line to delivering and selling the product. Still, Elizabeth was nervous when he signed the paperwork.

He opened Tortillas Mexico in 1986, according to the company’s website, and turned it into a family-run business boasting simple ingredients, no preservatives, and a daily run of fresh tortillas. Running the factory wasn’t easy, but it was ultimately a success.

The Rangels had six children, and all the boys worked at the factory. Jose had loved boxing since he was a child and watched the sport with his grandfather; as a father, Jose passed his love of boxing — and also martial arts — down to his children.

Most of the kids took up martial arts. James became a boxer, to Elizabeth’s chagrin. She tried to be supportive, but remembers going to his matches and crying.

But that didn’t stop Jose from feeding his son’s passion. After buying the factory, Jose opened up Touch ‘Em Up Boxing behind Tortillas Mexico, after the studio where James was training closed. The aspiring boxer was joined by DaVarryl “Touch of Sleep” Williamson — tortilla salesman by day and heavyweight contender by night — who trained at the humble gym along with other pro fighters.

Tortillas Mexico even served as a major location in the 1992 schlocky martial arts film My Samurai, which Jose co-produced. The movie, a coming-of-age story, is set in gritty Denver: pre-Coors Field, pre-RiNo, pre-polish. The city’s buildings in the film are gutted, covered in graffiti, sites of grisly violence. Gangs, including the bizarre group of wigged punks in outlandish outfits known as the Birds of Paradise, threaten a teen, his dad’s assistant, and his spiritually grounded, butt-kicking martial arts teacher. The whole block at Santa Fe is portrayed as a dangerous setting where villains — in cahoots with corrupt cops in the Denver Police Department — bring people to murder them.

Yet Elizabeth remembers Tortillas Mexico as a generous player in the neighborhood. Jose would hand out free, still-warm tortillas to people who couldn’t afford to eat, shelters, nonprofits and more. He donated to schools, the fire department, the National Latino Peace Officers Association and food banks. He taught his children: “You don’t know when you’ll be hungry,” recalled Elizabeth. “You don’t know when you’ll need to ask for help.

“I mean, he was so nice. There was a man who lived in the dumpster,” she said “And that just blew me away. I said, I think it’s overkill to have a man sleeping in the dumpster. But he had nowhere to go, and it was a snowy day. And I think the man just figured, hey. He was even fixing bicycles, running a business from the dumpster. You can get a little emboldened when you’ve been given a hand.”

Running the business took dedication. When workers were sick, Jose would step in to do their jobs. And by the early 2000s, the company was ready to grow and considered opening a second factory — one that would make corn and flour tortillas. By 2018, the Rangels had purchased the machinery to open a new factory in Englewood and were ready to launch.

Denver firefighters work on an incident in Tortillas Mexico on 11th Avenue at Santa Fe Drive, May 10, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  denver; colorado; denverite; lincoln park; fire; firefighting; kevinjbeaty;

Denver firefighters work on an incident in Tortillas Mexico on 11th Avenue at Santa Fe Drive, May 10, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; lincoln park; fire; firefighting; kevinjbeaty;

Then in 2018, their factory went up in smoke.

“There was that fire that changed the world for all of us,” said Elizabeth.

When Tortillas Mexico went up in flames, Jose ensured his workers got out before he left the building. The last one to leave, he suffered burns and was sent to the ER.

“He could have died,” Elizabeth recalled. “It could have been bad.”

The company was closed around twelve weeks and then opened up the factory in Englewood. The family considered reopening the La Alma-Lincoln Park spot, but doing so proved too expensive.

After the fire, developers started calling Jose, and he couldn’t believe the interest in the burned-out building, remembered James. “Instead of sympathy calls, they asked, ‘Do you want to sell the property?'”

So the Rangels focused their energy on running the Englewood store, and the old factory fell into deeper disrepair as the neighborhood began to turn over to developers.

“The homeless moved in, and the police would be calling at all hours,” Elizabeth recalled.

Keeping the sidewalks clean and graffiti off the walls of the empty buildings just wasn’t worth it.

So the family started talks with the Holland Partner Group and was impressed by the company’s ideas.

When the developer submitted a proposal to the city to demolish the building at 1042 to 1048 Santa Fe Drive and Denver Landmark Preservation responded with a report about how it was eligible for historic preservation, Elizabeth was stunned.

Now the Rangels are waiting out a three-week window, which ends on October 28, for the public to petition to preserve the building’s status; she doubts anyone will. Thus far, Amanda Weston, a spokesperson for Community Planning and Development, says nobody has indicated they would be trying to preserve it.

Elizabeth isn’t surprised.

“Nobody wanted it,” she said. “So for it to now be historic — I don’t really get it.”

The old Tortillas Mexico factory on 11th Avenue at Santa Fe Drive. Oct. 21, 2021.

The old Tortillas Mexico factory on 11th Avenue at Santa Fe Drive. Oct. 21, 2021.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Here’s what the city says about the building.

The rectangular building at 1042 to 1048 Santa Fe Drive, which has been largely neglected, was built in the late 1890s by the obscure architect L.M. Betts, Denver Landmark Preservation notes. The plot’s owner was Mary Arnold, who was related to grocer Frederick Arnold, who ran a store from a smaller building on the land. By 1888, Arnold was ready to tear down his smaller home and store and open a hay and feed shop and build a more opulent Italianate building to house his operation. His family lived and worked there until 1927, when the building was sold to the Mile High Realty Association. In the years that followed, the building was used to sell hay, feed and coal.

By 1937, the structure housed William S. McClymonds’s Western Research Laboratory, which sold medical supplies and diet pills. Though the lab moved, the pills were sold until the 1960s, when McClymonds was taken to task for being a snake-oil salesman by the Federal Trade Commission and for running a monopoly by Congress.

From 1945 through 1961, various painting contractors worked out of the space, and in 1967, the building was turned into the West Side Action Center, funded by President Lyndon Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 — a part of the War on Poverty. The Action Center, run by members of the community, housed anti-poverty campaigns, hosted educational programs, offered legal services, helped people find jobs, and handed out emergency supplies to neighbors

Eventually, the facility became a hub for the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, and its leaders worked alongside Corky Gonzales, the Crusade for Justice and other major movement players. The West Side Action Council, which ran the center, protested police violence and fought against the demolition of the Auraria neighborhood and the destruction of its Latino community. In June of 1970, the West Side Action Center moved to 13th and Santa Fe Drive, where King Soopers now sits and in 1972 moved to 1100 Santa Fe Drive. Despite the Nixon administration slashing federal funding, the center kept going until 1976.

After the West Side Action Center moved on, the building at 1042-1048 Santa Fe Drive housed a sporting goods manufacturer and a graphic design shop before being purchased, in part, by El Molino Foods in 1973  — which occupied the structure until Rangel bought it in the late ’80s.

Denver Landmark Preservation argues the building meets three criteria of ten to justify landmark preservation — just enough to make it eligible: It has a distinct architectural style; it represents an established and familiar feature of the neighborhood, community or contemporary city; and it’s associated with social movements, institutions or patterns of growth that changed the neighborhood and beyond.

But the next question is whether anybody in the public cares enough to fight for the structure. The Rangels would be surprised if anybody does.

Elizabeth, who grew up on the west side, is stunned that anybody would want to save the building. She has no memories, after 60 years in the neighborhood, of it being significant.

“A lot of people want to keep that historic look, the façade look of the buildings,” said James. “Maybe that’s what it is. I have no clue…”

The Union Denver on Chestnut Place. Dec. 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Union Denver on Chestnut Place. Dec. 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

So what’s coming to the block if the building isn’t saved?

If the property at 1042 to 1048  Santa Fe Drive isn’t preserved, Holland Partner Group plans to buy the buildings from the Rangels and build new apartments and retail. And the family’s ready for that.

“The time comes,” said James, “how long do you hold onto a property for? How do you control the movement of Denver right now?”

The Holland Partner Group, worth more than $2 billion, has built projects all over the West, from Vancouver to Washington to Los Angeles to Seattle. With 750 employees, 64 properties and 16,800-plus units under its management, the investor is a major player — and it’s increasing its presence in Denver.

Holland Partner Group, which declined to comment for this story, built the 10-story luxury apartment building Bromwell in Washington Park and the 13-story Union Denver in the Union Station neighborhood, with three residential towers and stores — including a Whole Foods — on the bottom. The company also developed the three-story Neon Local, a mix of 28 multifamily units and street-level retail at 99 South Broadway.

The two Santa Fe Drive mixed-use buildings would bring retail and hundreds of new apartments to La Alma-Lincoln Park.

“I’ve talked to neighbors there,” James said. “There were some people that want to see that area developed. Some people don’t want to see that area developed. It’s a little 50-50 what’s going on with the gentrification of the older neighborhoods.”

Painter Arlette Lucero, the education director at the Chicano Humanities and Arts Center, laments the development boom on Santa Fe Drive in recent years. Her organization was instrumental in the creation of the Arts District on Santa Fe before being priced out of the neighborhood.

“Someone asked me how can we stop gentrification,” she recalled in an email. “All I could say is, you can’t. They are going to come in and take what they want like they always do. Like they always have.”

Lucero is not the only person who’s fatalistic about the area’s future.

Veronica Barela headed up NEWSED, an offshoot of the West Side Action Center, since 1977. She spent decades working on housing and community-based economic development. Now, she’s weary of the new housing going up on Santa Fe and is skeptical about the newly proposed project, hoping — and doubtful — it will include affordable housing.

“All the development on Santa Fe has been overwhelming to me,” she said. “I was hoping Santa Fe would maintain some of its character and all the different types of architectural buildings we have down there. Housing is going up everywhere, and Santa Fe is a target for it. There’s no local control over it at all. It’s just become so gentrified, and it feels like there’s no turning back on it.”

She said that as somebody who spent much of her life trying to bring new life to the neighborhood.

“We worked so hard to redevelop it and bring in some retail and stuff like that,” Veronica said. “I never thought it would be taken over by housing; it’s such a heavy, commercial street.”

Barela and her daughter Andrea are considering whether to write a letter of intent to preserve the buildings or to ask City Council members to do so. Thus far, Amanda Weston, a spokesperson for Community Planning and Development, said no letters of intent have been received. “If we don’t [receive a letter], we will issue a certificate of demolition eligibility the following day and remove this posting,” Weston explained.

The Rangels, who no longer live in Denver, are eager to see Santa Fe Drive boom.

“I grew up in that area all my life, and I saw nobody wanted to be around there,” Elizabeth said. “You were there because economically that’s all you could afford.”

When she saw the plans for housing and retail from Holland Partner Group, she was eager for the family to sell.

“We got a glimpse of what the future would be,” she said. “I was excited, because it’s beautiful. It looks like the future.”

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