RiNo Rising: Brighton Boulevard and the Transformation of River North

A ragtag band of artists, backed by a handful of friendly developers and a few hundred million dollars, are working to make the River North neighborhood, a.k.a. RiNo, a destination to rival LoDo. Their progress can be measured not only by rising land values (growing from $6 per square foot to $50 in 12 years) but also by development on once-blighted Brighton Boulevard.
If you're not paying close attention, River North appears comprised solely of run-down auto repair shops and century-old warehouses. Slow down -- you'll see blossoms of industrial-chic apartments, office buildings and galleries flowering in the remants of Denver's turn-of-the-20th-century manufacturing boom.
River North, dubbed "RiNo" by residents in a tacit nod to LoDo, is clearly in the midst of a major transition. Tucked into the southeast corner of the I-25 and I-70 Mousetrap, the neighborhood is anchored by Brighton Boulevard and stretches southeast across the train tracks to Lawrence and west to Park Avenue.

For decades, the area was dominated by factories and warehouses, and continues to bare the grittiness of those now-shuttered businesses. But during the last decade, RiNo has quietly attracted a tightknit band of artists who value the area's industrial tone and want to keep it.
"We're actually really booming," says Tracy Weil, a painter who operates the Weilworks Gallery at 3611 Chestnut Place in the heart of RiNo. Weil and a small group of artists and developers formed the River North Art District in 2005 with the goal of growing an artistic community in the inexpensive, industrial area north of downtown Denver.
Art Takes a Foothold 
Tracy Weil, the owner of Weilworks Gallery, helped form the River North Art District in 2005."We got together and sat down and thought, 'How can we get more people to the area?'" says Weil. The group's first step was to hold a tour of RiNo's eight art galleries. Weil says more than 1,000 people attended that first event. "It caught on pretty quick. We kind of just went from there."
Today the RiNo Art District counts 70 locations and a total of 150 artists.
Weil says the RiNo Art District recently became a nonprofit and won an $8,000 "prospective district" grant from the Colorado Creative Industries association. Weil says the group will use the cash to put up more signs (and build a smartphone app, naturally) to help people get around to galleries in the area.
One of Weil's new concerns is making sure that prices remain low for new artists coming into the neighborhood--a reflection of RiNo's changing status.
"Our goal is to maintain that industrial nature and that artistic personality," he says.
The new RiNo is nothing like what Rexford Brown encountered during his first trip to the area, 21 years ago. "It was mostly
"It's radically different," says Rexford Brown, owner of Pattern Shop Studio. "We don't plan on selling anytime soon."
warehouses. The heavy industry was gone. It was mostly deserted. There were a lot of empty lots," he says, noting the "tumbleweeds and coyotes" specifically.
But Rexford and his wife Sharon, a painter, were looking for a place to settle down after raising their children. They found the Box Ironworks building at 3349 Blake Street, which in the early 1900s was used to manufacture equipment and electric hoists for the gold mining industry. The Browns purchased the building in 1991. Working with architect David Owen Tryba, they turned it into the Pattern Shop Studio, an American Institute of Architects award-winning studio, gallery and home.
So what does Rexford think of the changes along Brighton Boulevard and the neighborhood? "It's radically different," he says, adding in a slow drawl: "We don't plan on selling anytime soon."
Charging RiNo
Spurred by the advances of the RiNo arts community, a handful of developers are now working to spark a full-blown neighborhood revival along Brighton Blvd. and in the River North area. Mickey Zeppelin, a Denver native and head of Zeppelin Development, says he has so far helped to invest close to $200 million into RiNo.
"It's really become more alive," Zeppelin says. "RiNo is really one of the most vibrant areas of the city."
Zeppelin's first major RiNo project was TAXI, a 25,000-square-foot office building on the bank of the Platte River, built in the former Yellow Cab dispatch center and corporate headquarters. It's now a home for photographers, marketing companies and tech start-ups. The building made such an impression that Bob Blair opened Fuel Café in TAXI in 2008. The restaurant, self-described as a "hip, funky, industrial restaurant, off the beaten path," has won a wide range of awards and recognitions.Drive, a building in the Taxi complex.
TAXI was such a success that Zeppelin has since opened a total of six buildings on the 20-acre complex, including Freight, Drive and others. TAXI's total space -- which is devoted to office, retail and residential areas -- now totals 210,000 square feet, and all of it is occupied by the 400 people who work and live there.
But TAXI is just the prelude to Zeppelin's main course. The Source will be a European-style market built in the carcass of an 1880s-era foundry at 3350 Brighton Blvd. Zeppelin says the Source will feature 30,000 square feet of "urban food" including a cheesery, a butcher shop, a whisky distillery, a Mexican restaurant, a coffee shop and a bank. Opening in July, The Source will be "another major catalyst in terms of the area," Zeppelin says.
Deacdes after his developments helped kickstart LoDo and the Golden Triangle, Zeppelin is held in high regard by his fellow RiNo pioneers. "Mickey was kind of the one who started the whole River North push," confides Weil.
Challenges, and a Bright Future
Zeppelin isn't the only developer working in RiNo. Block 32, 3200 Brighton Blvd., offers 200 brand-new apartments and "hip, urban living." Similarly, the 300 apartments at the Yards at Denargo Market, at 2797 Wewatta Way, are touted for their "enchanting aesthetics, proven to satisfy even the most artistic souls."
"It is the upcoming area in Denver," says Jonathan Kaplan, owner of Plinth Gallery. "It is the only logical area where expansion from downtown will happen."
Zeppelin estimates there are now 3,000 new residential units in RiNo. "Land prices have changed dramatically in the area. It's becoming a very desirable kind of place," he says, noting that during the past 12 years prices have increased from $3 to $6 per square foot to $40 to $50 per square foot.
All this activity has begun generating a neighborhood tone unique to RiNo. Alongside several new fitness locations and almost two dozen new restaurants is the Glitterdome, the Denver Roller Dolls' practice facility at 3600 Wynkoop St. Yeah, there's a women's roller derby league in RiNo.
"It is the upcoming area in Denver," says Jonathan Kaplan, owner of Plinth Gallery at 3520 Brighton Blvd. "It is the only logical area where expansion from downtown will happen."
Kaplan, a ceramics artist, moved to RiNo from Steamboat Springs in 2006 and has been promoting the RiNo arts scene ever since. He says two planned light-rail stations in RiNo -- one at 38th and Blake and another at the National Western Stock Show site -- are scheduled to open in 2016. He says they will be the final "tipping point" for the neighborhood.
While artists and developers continue to promote RiNo, some argue the city could do more to guide and foster the development of the River North neighborhood. Though the city has invested in parks in the area, and light rail is on its way, Brighton Boulevard remains unfriendly to cyclists and pedestrians. The city has studied the issue, but hasn't yet taken action.
"There's been lots of discussions, but very little resolution," Zeppelin says. "The city has really not done much with Brighton Boulevard in the last 40 years."
City officials said Brighton Boulevard and the RiNo area remain on Denver's radar, and that nearby revitalization and construction efforts will likely help drive new workers and residents into RiNo. 
As for redesigning Brighton Boulevard to make it more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, Denver spokeswoman Andrea Burns said the city is starting to work on the issue.
"Given the limited right-of-way, it may not be possible to accommodate all modes, but we are exploring various approaches," she explains via email. "Although the work thus far has been preliminary, we look forward to engaging area residents, property and business owners to create some dialogue about the future of Brighton Boulevard."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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Read more articles by Mike Dano.

Mike is a freelance writer and executive editor of FierceMarkets Telecom Group.
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