RiNo: Rumbling towards Mixed-Use

RiNo -- the popular nickname for Denver's River North neighborhood -- is at once a place and a buzzword. The industrial corridor turned art district on the north side of the city is looking to make another leap to multiuse neighborhood, but can it preserve what made it special in the first place?
RiNo is big.

It's a big area, with big ideas, and a few big pitfalls to avoid.

Just ask two of the most prolific architects in the area: Bill Moore, founder and president  of Sprocket Design-Build, and Stephen Dynia of Stephen Dynia Architects, a firm with one foot in RiNo and the other in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

"We're trying to keep track of other people, but there's something new every time we publish this," says Moore, pointing to a map the firm uses to track development in the area. "RiNo is almost 10 friggin' square miles. It's too friggin' big."

He puts it in perspective: "It's like looking down The Strip in Vegas." To wit, the spine of Sin City measures a little over four miles from end to end, while Brighton Boulevard is five miles from Broadway to its confluence with U.S. 85.

Dynia likes to begin with an even grander scale. "I always like to start with the big picture. We're on a cooling crust above a ball of molten lava that's hurtling through space at a million miles an hour."

But somewhere in between is the epicenter of the development boom in RiNo: the so-called "Bowtie” centered on Brighton Boulevard between Broadway and 38th Street, a stretch of about a mile.

From here, a little more than a mile away, downtown can like a gleaming beacon. "Denver's like Oz," Dynia says. "It's a magical place."

East to WestAerial of Drivetrain

After working in corporate architecture in New York, Dynia decided he wanted a major shift. "The abrupt change is I left New York in 1993 and moved to the most opposite place I could find," he says. The inverse of the Big Apple? Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Working primarily on residential projects in Jackson left Dynia itching to work on more public-facing buildings, leading him to Denver and RiNo in 2005. He's since worked on every phase of Zeppelin Development's TAXI project, the RiNo pioneer that converted an old Yellow Cab facility into a mixed-use development in 2001, as well as The Source, the multi-tenant culinary market that opened in 2013.

Next up: a 49-unit residential building on TAXI that broke ground in late 2014; a 10-story hotel next to The Source that will break ground in mid-2015; and a 100,000-square-foot office building slated for groundbreaking in 2016.

All of Dynia's designs at TAXI have plenty of public spaces and repurposed materials. Office suites with garage doors that open to patios on every floor and "things that foster interaction," says Dynia. "It's a little industrial, but mostly it's functional and it connects with the environment."

And that utilitarian, no-nonsense grit, he argues, should be a model for the entire area. "What you want to recapture in RiNo is the realness of it -- it was never pretentious or bullshit," he says.

But Dynia says planners and developers need to look up to see its future. "This area was a product of post-World War II zoning where everything was zoned horizontally."

That needs to change, he says. "Mixed-use is the key to bringing this area back to health. I think it'll evolve naturally, because people want to live here now."

Dynia says real-estate investment trusts "do the same shit over and over. It's dormitory-style housing." The TAXI project, Freight Residences (or FR8 RES), takes a different tact, with private garden entries, a rooftop terrace, and little in the way of interior hallways. "You don't feel like you're one of 600 people living in the same building," says Dynia. Scheduled for completion in mid-2015, the properties are slated as rentals, but could be converted to for-sale product, he adds.

Coming soon: A hotel and a dense centerStephen Dynia came to Denver and RiNo in 2005.

On The Source, he says the adaptive reuse of an 1880s iron foundry was a relative piece of cake, noting, "All we had to do is not fuck it up. It was all about a functional factory floor where people could work without lights or HVAC, and we didn't want to make it too perfect looking."

The hotel that will go in south of The Source is in the early design phase. Dynia's vision is for a "shifted" 10-story tower with about 100 rooms and imperfect geometry akin to some of his work at TAXI. Don't rule out other design elements migrating across the river. "We may even explore garage doors," he adds.

Dynia says the project will fill a big hole. "Denver is so devoid of hip hotels. This is going to have an identity in this epicurean world. It's going to have a beer garden on the roof and a brewery at the base."

Density and diversity are also key elements moving forward, notes Moore, and what's missing is a neighborhood center. "Drivetrain is trying to build a center by connecting major points of traffic with destination retail," he says.

Drivetrain will break ground later this year with a target for completion in 2016. It includes 145 1,100-square-foot condominiums, a rarity in Denver of late, as well as 50,000 square feet of commercial and retail space.

Sprocket is also involved in the mixed-use Backyard on Blake, with office and retail space and 14 townhomes; The Syndicate, a 32,000-square-foot coworking space at 1910 W. 38th Ave.; and Cardona Townhomes, with 24 townhomes adjacent to Drivetrain on the South Platte River.

In all, there are more than 1,000 new residential units in the works for the Bowtie in the near term. Moore says he anticipates a dense residential core to be in place by the end of 2016, but the developers behind the projects need to figure out how to integrate them into a unified whole.

Unlike the master-planned Central Platte Valley, RiNo is much more of a patchwork of owners and uses.

"What's different about RiNo that we want to embrace is the organic way it's evolving," says Todd Wenskoski, deputy director of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative (NDCC), a city initiative to coordinate development in the RiNo, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea areas. "We want its history to inform its future."

"The energy has spilled out" from the Bowtie, he adds.

Industrial uses, like Great Divide's brewery project that broke ground in September, are key in this regard. "It's a pretty strong statement," says Wenskoski. "It's not a common land use, industrial next to multi-family residential."

He says the target is "a 50/50 split" between industrial and office uses and residential, calling Industry Denver "a good example of that." The second phase of "collaborative workspace” opened in August 2014, followed by restaurants, and more than 300 residential units are next.

Industry breathes new life into a once-moribund RiNo warehouse.There's a definite need for larger, for-sale residential units, Wenskoski notes. "Everyone is focused on the low-hanging fruit with Millennials. At some point, you've got to focus on families."

Wenskoski says "big infrastructure improvements” on Brighton Boulevard and the South Platte River will catalyze development. The latter is in preliminary design phase and the plan will be unveiled for public input in early 2015. "We're committed to making it a multimodal corridor” with a protected bike lane and other improvements, Wenskoski explains. "It's really about connecting the neighborhoods and the river."

Offers Dynia:  "There is the most unbelievable confusion of street alignments."

But he says that two of the primary reasons for the grid chaos -- the South Platte River and the railroad tracks -- are big influences for his firm's architecture. "We take great inspiration from the rail lines. They're moving, they're colorful and they're part of the culture of the West."

Likewise, he takes cues from the river, and looks forward to leveraging it as more a community asset than an industrial tool. "The promenade on Ringsby is an incredible vision."

The RiNo in the room: gentrification

The broader vision for RiNo "is about maintaining and amplifying the creative energy that already exists," says Sprocket's Moore. "That doesn't translate to paper very well."

Because of this, he describes a familiar hurdle for RiNo. "The risk, not even the risk, the foregone conclusion is how are the artists going to coexist with rising land values," he says "If they leave, we lose the thing people really value. I have no answer for that. It's a question that's come up repeatedly."

Denver Arts & Venues has at least a partial answer in Artspace. As the price of real estate jumps in RiNo, "We're being really cognizant in these deep, weedy conversations with artists and arts organizations of how much more their property taxes will go up," says Lisa Gedgaudas, program administrator of Denver Arts & Venues' Create Denver initiative.

Focused on creating affordable spaces for artists and arts organizations, the Minneapolis-based developer has more than 35 projects across the country that add up to over $600 million in investment, ranging from El Barrio, with 89 live/work spaces in a formerly abandoned school in East Harlem, to an $8.9 million project in Loveland, Colorado, dubbed Feed & Grain and Space for Artists.

Artspace can help bridge the affordability gap in RiNo. In the works since 2007, the vision grafts a shared workspace onto affordable housing on a yet-to-be-determined site. Gedgaudas says she expects "over 50 units," adding, "That could go way up."

The stakeholders are looking at more than a dozen sites, from RTD land to city-owned parcels to private property and Gedgaudas doesn't dismiss the possibility of adaptive reuse. Groundbreaking is tentatively slated for 2016.

The city is taking input via an online survey to shape the plan, with a target of creating concepts and financial analyses by March. "I'd love to see more film and music in the dialogue," says Gedgaudas.

The dialogue has another critical group involved. "We have had conversations with developers who are interested in maintaining the arts," she says. "Now we have the developers as arts advocates."

Along with the full slate of infrastructure work, there's a parallel effort to establish a business improvement district (BID) in the area. The BID is "self-initiating," Wenskoski says. "It's triggered a thoughtful conversation."

He describes the discussions to date as "indicative of the original spirit of RiNo with Tracy Weil and others -- letting others join in."

Moore, on the other hand, characterizes the talks to establish a BID "very touchy." "I'm on Blake Street and I own a coffee shop. Do I really want to pay to promote a gallery on Brighton Boulevard?"

As Five Points, Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and Arapahoe Square all overlap with the large slab of real estate popularly known as RiNo, Wenskoski strikes an inclusive note. "From a NDCC perspective, we embrace the diversity of the neighborhoods."

"It's extraordinarily exciting," he adds, pointing to "places with a different character" just a mile apart in LoDo and the Bowtie. "That's what a great city's about."

From Nowheresville to Awesometown

With all of the residential development, could RiNo get overbuilt? "If it were all for sale, I'd say yes," says Moore, "but because it's for rent, I'd say no. There have been very few new apartments built in places people want to live in the last 80 years. It's a completely different picture than seven years ago” -- when Denver's new residential development was dominated by expensive, for-sale projects.

His forecast for the apartment projects in RiNo: "They're going to fill them up."

"There may be a brewery bubble, or a restaurant bubble, but there's not a residential bubble or an office bubble," says Moore. "Look at Baker. It's one of the city's oldest, densest neighborhoods, but 12 months from today, the population will triple.

"That's going to have a profound impact. Traffic's going to be worse. It's going to be like San Francisco. When you come home from work, you're going to walk to meet people. It'll be way too much of a headache to drive."

Dynia says he's seen a wave of positive changes recently sweep through the city. "Ten years ago, I thought of [Denver] as more of a sports town," he says. "Now there's cultural things seeping out. It has meat to it."

But more broadly, the tide has come back in for cities, he adds. "We are in an era of re-urbanization."

But in Denver it's much different from other parts of the country. Back East, "Nature is completely encased in the built environment," says Dynia. "The West is the complete opposite. The West has this newness to it."

And in RiNo, mindset is more important than the built environment. "It's really a frontier for new ideas," he adds. "RiNo is a frontier. It's a whole different kind of frontier, but it's a terrific frontier."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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