The Curious Evolution of the RiNo Art District

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Tracy Weil co-founded the RiNo Art District. Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Denver's RiNo Art District is in the midst of one of the biggest construction booms the city has ever seen. How will local leaders preserve its creative roots as quirky and industrial morphs into chic and mixed-use?

River North, late 1990s. On Brighton Boulevard, nobody knew the area by that name, but they soon will. A new era was about to dawn on this patchwork of urban oblivion.

The frayed industrial environment, one part tumbleweeds and two parts railroad tracks, spoke to the creatives who start turning old garages and abandoned buildings into workspaces. Mickey Zeppelin launched his mixed-use TAXI project at the dilapidated old Yellow Cab depot in 2000 and graphic designers and tech startups started populating River North, a moniker soon shortened to RiNo.  As it bloomed, artists established the RiNo Art District in 2005.

The vast area provided a frowzy counterpoint to the redbrick majesty of the city's other disyllabic comeback neighborhood, LoDo. It was gritty and interesting, with the South Platte River running through it, full of vacant lots and vast swaths of junkyard -- and just a couple miles northeast of downtown Denver. RiNo was both a perfect environment for artists and other creatives, and a massive real-estate opportunity.

The possibilities were endless. Now, they're less so, or at least they're different. The blank slate is quickly filling in with hundreds of millions of dollars in new development.

But the creatives who kickstarted the boom a decade ago continue to shape the vision for the area, and that vision emphasizes building on the neighborhood's artistic foundation. The big question: How do you sustain the arts in RiNo as it transmutes into something new?

One answer: tax yourself. The RiNo Art District was the force behind the campaign for a business improvement district (BID) and complementary general improvement district (GID), complete with the tagline, "Keep RiNo Wild." Both districts were officially established in late 2015.

Since RiNo's certification as a Creative District by Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) in 2014, change has come fast and furious. Jamie Licko, president of the RiNo Art District, says CCI certification served as a "huge catalyst" at a crucial time. "A big push has been to take advantage of the opportunity we had by being organized early in the development of the neighborhood," she says. 

Resources are coming to bear: The combined budget of the BID, GID, and RiNo Art District was about $1.3 million in 2016, and Licko expects that number to increase to about $1.9 million in 2017 followed by a "bigger jump" in 2018.

Mural by Pher01, MPek and Brian Scott Hampton at 1360 27th St.

A moving target

The plan is to use the money to support sustainable growth in RiNo, says Licko. She describes a unique package of zoning changes, design guidelines and requirements aimed at maintaining character, improving infrastructure and incentivizing development of affordable studios and creative spaces. "One of the most critical things we are looking at is affordability, particularly as it relates to artists," says Licko.

The issue is whether it will be enough. Affordability for artists "is a moving target," says Lisa Gedgaudas, program administrator for Denver Arts & Venues' Create Denver initiative. "It's pretty difficult to get in front of it."

Negotiating solutions "really is a lot of civics and a lot of listening," she adds. "It's a change in perspective that [artists] can be at the table and they should be at the table."

Gedgaudas says RiNo stands out in this regard. "I haven't seen a district like RiNo in Denver or across the nation," she explains. "You get a lot out of drawing those boundaries and saying, 'This is who we are and we're going to mobilize.' All the things they are willing to tackle are ambitious, but I've never seen this much development happen so rapidly in my own town."

But she says most developers are engaged and willing to prioritize arts and culture. "That public-private partnership is a very important first step," says Gedgaudas. "You can't control them. You have to go talk to them."

And the developers in RiNo are more receptive to zany ideas then most. "Folks are being more thoughtful of how arts and culture are integrated into development," says Gedgaudas. "Everybody wants to live in the urban core and live near cool things. As you start taking away the cool things -- a.k.a. arts and culture -- you're in trouble."

As part of the push for affordability, national nonprofit Artspace is working with the city to develop a project with about 100 live/work units and studio space. Denver officials engaged the Minneapolis-based organization before the economic crash of 2008, but restarted the plan to develop affordable artist housing in RiNo circa 2014.

The project is currently in pre-development at a site near 40th Avenue and Brighton Boulevard. Westfield Development owns the land and is Artspace's development partner on the project. "We're working to assemble the financing and the funding it will take to close on the project," says Wendy Holmes, Artspace's senior VP of consulting and strategic partnerships. The target is in the $35 million ballpark, with groundbreaking tentatively slated for the second half of 2018.

Artspace conducted two separate studies of the need for affordable artist spaces in 2006 and 2015. In 2006, about 300 of 850 Denver artists surveyed said they'd be interested in an Artspace unit. "The number of spaces we're creating will only begin to satisfy the demand for affordable units in Denver," says Holmes."The demand is equal if not higher than 2006, but there was more of a demand for music facilities."

RiNo and Denver aren't alone in the struggle for artist affordability. Holmes points to a recent Artspace project in Harlem that drew 53,000 applications for 89 units. "Denver won't be quite like that, but there will be thousands of applications for 100 to 110 units," she adds.

Holmes likens it to Artspace's work in Seattle, where one project snowballed into three. "I think the stars are aligned in Denver in that the city is aware you need to keep the creatives that make a place special. I think this is just the beginning of our adventure in Denver.

She echoes Gedgaudas on the unique nature of the artists being the force behind the BID and GID. "That is an unusual thing we've never seen across the country. We've never seen a business improvement district that supports the arts."

Art at GRACe.

Another big challenge in RiNo relates to the shutdown of DIY spaces Rhinoceropolis and Glob after 2016 inspections by the Denver Fire Department found unsafe living conditions. Just north of RiNo in Globeville, city inspectors visited Globeville Riverfront Arts Center (GRACe) in March 2016 and required owners Neil Adams and Zeppelin Development to make costly improvements.

Denver's zoning and permitting policies can make it difficult to change an old industrial building into studios or live/work spaces without a sizable investment. "A lot of it boils down to one really simple challenge," says Licko. When a change of use is triggered pulling a permit for construction, the entire space "has to come up to 2017 code," she explains.

RiNo leaders are working with city officials on a solution. "We believe that everyone deserves a safe place to live and work in Denver," explains Andrea Burns, communications director for Denver Community Planning and Development. "We're trying to take a more holistic approach to supporting unpermitted creative spaces in terms of their building, zoning and fire safety issues. The holistic approach is adding some time to this code and policy work, but it will result in better and clearer solutions for the community."

Licko advocates for some "middle ground" in the construction code for galleries and other creative spaces. She points to the dirt parking lot at GRACe as something that's fitting for the use, but not up to spec for new construction.

"It's a complicated conversation," says Licko. "Other cities have found creative ways to navigate it."

RiNo in chrysalis

Brighton Boulevard is under construction. So are numerous projects on both sides of the street.

New and better parks are coming to the riverfront. A promenade and several pedestrian bridges are in the works, as are bike lanes. The 38th & Blake commuter-rail station is surrounded by big projects.

RiNo began as a loosely defined place, then it evolved into a state of mind, centered on the arts and craft-minded industry. Now it's both, as well as an image of cool that's quickly being commodified.

A billboard for new apartments on Brighton Boulevard offers a Marcel Duchamp quote.

The mix of businesses has changed markedly in the last 20 years. In the midst of manufacturers and distributors, artists found enough room to operate. Forward-thinking offices emerged at places like TAXI and Industry as the craft beer craze took root, and there are now about 15 breweries, wineries and distilleries, with more are on the way. In 2017, the next phase of development is underway, bringing more office and retail space with it.

Stephen Dynia of Dynia Architecture has designed a number of buildings in RiNo for Zeppelin Development, including Freight and Drive at TAXI and The Source. Now he's got three Zeppelin projects currently under construction in RiNo: Source Hotel, Zeppelin Station and Flight, a new building at TAXI.

"We're thrilled to come to a place at a time when this is all happening and be a part of it," says Dynia. "There was a stall-out in American cities for a long time. A lot of cities have gone through rebirth."

Stephen Dynia helped author RiNo's aesthetic with his architecture at TAXI.

He points to the 2015 South Park episode that lampooned gentrification in Denver, but notes that it hits pretty close to home. "The dilemma of RiNo is an age-old problem that's accelerating in this era," Dynia says. "There will be gentrification, and there's certainly insane rises in prices and rents."

But there's also plenty of thoughtful development, he adds. "I see a sustainable quality here from some of the owners wanting to not see the neighborhood transform so drastically that there's nothing left of the original character."

The Source is a prime example. Dynia has consulted on projects in Pittsburgh and New York City since the food hall opened in an 1880s foundry on Brighton Boulevard in 2013. Food halls "are a phenomenon because a lot of broken neighborhoods that used to have shops everywhere," he says. "The difference is The Source is a truly local market hall. I think that means a lot more, because you now have big development companies trying to develop a food hall."

The Source brought local food to RiNo by way of a long-abandoned foundry.

Dynia continues, "When does it come to the point that it's a food court and McDonald's comes up with a brand to not look like McDonald's? Then you'll have 'craft' beer made by Anheuser-Busch and 'local' food made by McDonald's."

It's a parable for development in RiNo: How does the booming creative district balance its authenticity with unbridled investment?

Dynia says the answer is partly about distinctive and appropriate development and design, and compares RiNo to the Denver Tech Center. "It's a completely fabricated environment," he says of the latter. "I wouldn't be able to exist in a place like that. It's a little bit soulless. RiNo has a connection to the city that I think will strengthen. That's the core of it: community."

But that community can be difficult to maintain. "When I moved to New York, Tribeca was just being born," says Dynia. He describes the "same barrenness" as RiNo circa 2007. "Twenty years later, it became some of the most expensive real estate and desirable places to live -- and inaccessible to anyone who started there."

Brighton Boulevard is booming with construction activity.

The RiNo Beer District

"The steamroller is running down this way, figuratively and literally," says David Emrich, president of Postmodern Company, the video production company he founded in 1992.

Emrich moved Postmodern to RiNo after buying a former plumbing-supply warehouse at 2734 Walnut St. in 2002. "There was a smattering of painters and furniture makers," he says of the neighborhood. "This side of Broadway, there wasn't anything but distributors and furniture makers."

Adds Emrich: "I knew it would be an interesting and vibrant part of town in a few years. Some of my employees have said to me, 'We thought you were crazy.'"

Now, not so much. But the speed and trajectory of development has surprised Emrich. "That it's beer and restaurants is shocking," he says. "In a two-block radius from me, there are six brewpubs, with Odell coming three blocks away."

There are more artists now, but they make up a smaller proportion of RiNo than they did a decade ago. "It's less their neighborhood," says Emrich. It's largely because rents have jumped about 30 percent since late 2015, he adds. Some rents are "more expensive than LoDo."

Emrich is in a good position because he owns his building, but says he's a bit cynical about what RiNo's become. "My whole purpose was to find a place to work," he says. "It's good to have bike races and a Pabst music festival in the middle of the neighborhood. That helps the bars and the restaurants and the retail. For me, it makes it harder to get here. I'm here to work and the rest of the neighborhood is here to play."

Emrich isn't alone in that opinion. Deena Selko opened MOTH Contemporary Circus Center in 2015 on the northwestern fringe of RiNo to teach trapeze, juggling and other circus skills to 12- to 18-year-olds and adults.

Students juggle at MOTH Contemporary Circus Center.

"I don't feel RiNo is really an art district," says Selko, noting that she's quickly outgrowing her 2,500-square-foot space on Globeville Road and not sure RiNo will be able to offer her what she needs in her price range. "In order for me to stay, there'll have to be more momentum in the performing arts."

She says that an emphasis on the almighty buck -- and craft brewing -- overshadows creativity. "I go to the RiNo meetings. It's all developers. It's all money, and I get it. It would be nice to be on that side of things, but I'm an artist."

Adds Selko: "People have said, 'It should be named the RiNo Beer District.'"

Emrich isn't going anywhere. "I still like RiNo," he says. "I get to walk down the street and have fish tacos. I didn't get to do that six years ago."

But he's bracing for more change. "The next tier of the cold front hitting the warm front is the World Trade Center at 38th and Blake," says Emrich. With more office space in the works, he wonders, "Is it going to be the brewpubs that can't afford the rents?"

Pushing north

With higher rents, many artists are migrating beyond RiNo Art District's northern boundary of I-70. "The creatives are moving across into Globeville," adds Emrich. "It's just the market. Golden Triangle, LoDo, Brooklyn. Artists find a space and make it interesting and it keeps progressing -- or regressing, depending on how you look at it."

But it's indicative of a broader trend of creative displacement from RiNo represented by the shutdown of DIY spaces in 2016 and other creative spaces falling prey to the wrecking ball.

Acrylic and ink artist Meg Kiphardt worked at Wazee Union in RiNo until it shut down in the face of new development, then relocated her Oranje Studio to GRACe in Globeville. She was part of a core group of Wazee Union tenants who made the move. 

"We really liked the feel" of RiNo, she says. "We liked the interaction with other artists. . . . In 2012, it was still really hard to get people out there. Now it's one of the most popular places to be."

Meg Kiphardt moved her studio north to Globeville Riverfront Art Center.

After living in central Denver for years, Kiphardt moved to Wheat Ridge last year with her husband, Phillip, and their baby. But she says she still needs a studio, and location is key. "I don't feel creative in my duplex in Wheat Ridge," she explains. "I just don't.”

Her rent has risen -- Kiphardt now pays $700 a month for 375 square feet -- but she wouldn't trade the community spirit for a home studio. "The good outweighs the bad," says Kiphardt. "That could change quickly."

How can Denver keep artists in RiNo as it continues to develop? "That's the toughest question of all," she answers. "It would have to be a big move on the part of the city to ensure there are affordable spaces and affordable rents. Artists aren't ever going to be the highest bidder."

Mural by Thomas "Detour" Evans.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Graphic design by Matt Megyesi.

This story is part of a series about Colorado's Certified Creative Districts. Support for this series is provided by Colorado Creative Industries.
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Q&A with Tracy Weil, Weilworks
Q&A with Tracy Weil, Weilworks
Tracy Weil was one of the first artists to establish a studio in the neighborhood and co-founded the RiNo Art District in 2005. He's a painter, consultant and owner of Weilworks Gallery, and continues to be heavily involved in the neighborhood's development.

Confluence Denver: What have you been up to lately? It seems like you've worked for several local creative districts in the last few years.

Tracy Weil: First, it was just RiNo, then I was hired to consult with 40 West Arts in Lakewood to get them started. About three years ago, I started consulting with the Aurora Cultural Arts District. I do that about 15 hours a week, and spend the rest of my time on RiNo.

CD: How has RiNo changed in your time in the area?

TW: I bought my studio in 2000. In 2004, I built my live/work space on the property. In 2005, we started the art district. Now it's changing quickly. There are taller buildings now, TAXI is building a tower. The landscape is changing.

But we've always changed. In 2009, we lost 25 artists because a building was torn down. We've always fluctuated. Things change.

When I came to RiNo, it was a food desert. My closest food sources were 7-11 and Subway. Now we've got The Source and Central Market, and they're putting in a Natural Grocers. Things are quite vibrant now. It's been fun to watch and be a part of.

CD: What have you learned about the development of creative districts over the years?

I used to work for Mickey Zeppelin in one of his restaurants, City Spirit Cafe. LoDo was just getting started. Mickey approached me and said, "You can buy this loft for $70,000." I didn't have any money -- I was a waiter -- but it's $650,000 for that same loft now.

In 2000, I had more money and that's when I bought the land for my space in RiNo. You have to buy your own property if you want to control your destiny. I kind of learned my lesson with that.

Luckily, there are artists in the RiNo who bought their spaces. Then you have things like Rhinoceropolis and Glob, and they rent theirs. It's really a day-to-day type of thing. A lot of times when you want a change of use, you have to put in sidewalks and make other improvements. It really makes it cost-prohibitive. We're working with Community Planning and Development right now to develop a special use permit to keep people around long-term by keeping it affordable.

It's this constant kind of thing where we really have to think outside the box. We've actually grown. People think there are no more artists in RiNo. I think we're just getting started.

CD: An art district establishing a business improvement district is a unique strategy. How did that come about?

TW: At first, we thought, "It's a developer tool, it's not for artists." But then we said, "Why don't we do it?"

With that, we can change the paradigm. Everybody's used to the paradigm: Artists move in, they improve the neighborhood and then they're forced out. We don't want that to happen.

When we started, we were an arts organization with a budget of $8,000. That increased to $75,000 in 2015. We quickly realized that if we didn't do something, we would lose all of the things we'd worked so hard for. Our budget for this year is around $1.8 million.

CD: What's the RiNo of the future look like in your eyes? What are you looking forward to?

TW: I'm really looking forward to the RiNo Park. We're going to activate a place long-term in the center of RiNo, not only for artists, but for everybody.

I'm excited about our new RiNo Store we're working on. We're moving our office to Zeppelin Station. As part of that office, we'll have about 500 square feet of retail space. We'll be able to sell RiNo-made products. To me, it's about giving artists income streams to handle cost increases. We're trying to focus on people buying art. That's how artists succeed.

My ultimate goal is to have 1,000 studios in RiNo. Every time I work with a property owner or developer, if I get one or two or five studios, that's going to really help.