Denver Offers to Help D.I.Y. Spaces Get Legit - If They Come Forward

The proposed Safe Occupancy Plan would avoid evictions at artist-run spaces if property owners turn themselves in and come up with a long-range plan to meet safety standards. The city is pledging patience, support, and expert advice on economical ways to upgrade buildings.
The City of Denver is reaching out to artists and other residents currently inhabiting illegal spaces with a deal: Come out of hiding and we’ll do our best to help you get up to code.

Perhaps more crucially, the city’s proposed Safe Occupancy Program promises not to immediately shut down un-permitted structures if their owners come forward — unless there are immediate life-safety hazards present.

Artists and their supporters gathered Jan. 18 at the McNichols Building in Civic Center. The meeting with city officials over the the closure of artist-run spaces was tense. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

The program offers something unique in urban building regulation, a conditional occupancy permit, which allows so-called D.I.Y. spaces to remain open as long as they present a plan designed to bring structures in line with existing standards. The plan, which can stretch several months and beyond, has to be approved by the city and meet timeline requirements agreed to with the Denver Fire Department and the Community Planning and Development agency.

But that could give property managers the breathing room they need to meet safety guidelines and to mitigate their liability in case of accidents in the short-term.

“We really think this can have a significant and positive impact in providing a rational, affordable way for unpermitted spaces to improve the level of safety for the owners, the tenants, and for the people who visit and work in those spaces,” said city planning director Brad Buchanan.

The Safe Occupancy Program, now on its ways to the City Council for approval, comes in the wake of considerable tension between the fire department and local artists that was set in motion by the sudden closure of the long-popular D.I.Y. art and music space Rhinoceropolis in December. An unannounced inspection — occupants called it a raid — resulted in the immediate expulsion of residents on one of winter’s coldest days.

The Fire Department contended it had no choice but to shut down the operation immediately because of safety violations.

The residents countered that the city’s recent development boom has driven the price of real estate so high they have no choice but to occupy underground spaces.

The trouble started when the city evicted occupants of Rhinoceropils in December. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

Things reached a boiling point at a tense public meeting on Jan. 18 when artists and others battling the pressures of the rental market aired their grievances and demanded city government take action to help the situation.

The Safe Occupancy Program is designed to be that help, but also to diffuse the animosity in a way that builds the good faith needed for property owners to take part. No fines or punitive charges will be levied against program volunteers.

The plan is temporary, but will last two years to allow trust to build between officials and participants. The city acknowledges that property owners will only step up if they understand that fire inspectors are not going to evict tenants without good cause.

“I believe it’s gonna take word of mouth and I believe it’s going to take a couple of these occupancies to come forward to show how we navigate it,” said the Fire Prevention Division Chief Manuel Almagure. The department will have “to show that we mean what we say and say what we mean in moving forward.”  

In addition, the city planning department is pledging to work with program applicants as counselors of a sort, helping to devise affordable methods to meet codes. Officials are soliciting architecture and construction firms to do pro-bono work to bring costs down and looking for funds that will alleviate financial pressures on owners. “We’re going to come up with smart solutions together,” said Buchanan.

The plan was worked out with input from neighborhood groups, property owners and artists.

Rhinoceropolis was the unassuming headquarters for Denver's underground visual and performing arts scene, until the city shut it down in December. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

“This bill is a significant step forward in addressing the challenges that artists and creatives face in Denver in doing their craft in spaces that are safe and yet affordable,” says Jamie Licko, president of the RiNo Art District in a press release. “We applaud the city of Denver for taking this step, for bringing clarity to the process and for establishing new ways to creatively collaborate to keep artists and others in place while navigating them through a process that sets them up for success long-term.’

The plan has some potential side benefits. Although it was developed with residential artist spaces as its key beneficiary, it is open to such operations as galleries and performance venues with an occupancy of 300 people or less. Any residential space that is two stories or lower and has a maximum of 16 units can also take part.

The hope is that existing spaces can be made safe and new spaces can be developed, easing, at least in one small way, the city’s affordable housing crunch.

“Particularly today, whether it’s on a national landscape or a local landscape, artists and creative communities are one of the most effective translators of issues that we’re all facing,” said Buchanan.

Artists help a city talk about its problems, he said, and losing that "community-serving artist community would be tragic.”

Here’s how the program works:
  • For two years from the bill’s effective date, the owner or tenant of an existing unpermitted space may come forward to apply for the program.
  • City code officials would inspect the space to assess its safety but would not require the owner to correct violations right away unless there is a serious life-safety concern.
  • The owner or tenant will work with city code officials to create a plan and set extended timelines for making sure their space is up to code. This would involve the applicant hiring an architect or other licensed professional.
  • During the process, an owner or tenant may apply for a conditional certificate of occupancy to continue to use the building. City officials will grant this allowance after verifying that no serious life-safety hazards exist and a plan to bring the building up to code is on place.
  • While work is ongoing, inspections will be scheduled to assess progress.

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