Keeping RiNo “Gritty”

By Matthew Van Deventer  |  Photos by Chase Doelling

Fledging Business Improvement District Hopes to Keep RiNo “Gritty” Amidst Development

The Source is an artisan food market that occupies a former ironworks foundry in RiNo.Denver’s River North neighborhood is one of the most quickly developing areas in Colorado and steps are being taken to make sure the area keeps its cool as developers move in and prices go up.

In April 2014, co-founder and board chair of the River North Arts District (RiNo) Tracy Weil went to the city to see how the area’s main neighborhood association could organize and partner with the city to protect its residents, artists, and business owners. 

After research and feasibility studies, with a $75,000 city grant, RiNo decided on pushing for a Business Improvement District (BID) in order to maintain the area. 

Weil has seen his property value increase from $7 per square foot to nearly $50 per and said RiNo wants to change that all-too-common case of a warehouse-turned-art-district neighborhood shoved out by development.

The 2014 BID Performance Report defines a BID as a “quasi-municipal corporation and political subdivision of the state, in which property and business owners elect to make a collective contribution for the maintenance, development, and promotion of their commercial district.”

BIDs are guided by the Colorado state legislature while City Council enacts the ordinance and is supposed to provide oversight. 

Weil hopes a BID will keep RiNo gritty and affordable.

“We wanted to be able to change the paradigm where an art district starts and you have artists there and they’re selling paintings and then eventually they can’t afford it anymore and they have to move on,” said Weil.

Local artist and property owner Laura Phelps Rogers is skeptical it will stay the course, though.

She and others are concerned the self-governing BID has too much power and no oversight, specifically the executive director position, which is the neighborhood’s liaison to the city.

Phelps Rogers encourages all involved in the proposed RiNo BID to take extreme caution when writing up the contract with the executive director so that he or she is not immune to being challenged if they are not representing the neighborhood justly.

“There’s no point in signing up for a special district fee into perpetuity through a system that there’s no oversight,” said Phelps Rogers about the proposed BID. “So whoever gets the executive director job in this BID, believe me, they’ve gotten themselves quite something, because you’re getting a nice cushy job with no one to tell you what to do essentially.”

In September 2013, Phelps Rogers resigned as vice president of the West Colfax BID because the board neglected to seek out other candidates for the executive director position—what she feels is the board’s duty—who would better fit the budget, leaving more funds for the neighborhood.

Alye Sharp is a consultant with Centro Inc. and is one of a two-person team responsible for facilitating and communicating the RiNo BID process.

For the most part, Sharp and Weil have seen  positive feedback on a RiNo BID. Any pushback has been from property owners who didn’t understand the nuances of the plan, and after face-to-face meetings, most got on board. 

If the RiNo BID is approved, commercial property owners within the boundaries will see an additional property assessment charge of 4 mills, or .004 percent, on their 2016 property tax bill. 

Bryan Slekes is the Business Project Manager for Great Divide Brewing Company and also sits on the BID steering committee representing the brewery. Great Divide has two locations inside the BID territory, including a five-acre facility on Brighton Blvd.

Four mills is minor compared to other BID assessments that can be upwards of 13 mills. This was something the steering committee spent a lot of time looking at, making sure the new tax would be enough to benefit the neighborhood, but not so much as to break commercial property owners or discourage newcomers. Ideally, the BID will have the potential to be a benefit for new and current renters and owners, who will enjoy a well-maintained and publicized neighborhood.

Sign outside Great Divide’s facility on Brighton Blvd.“Once a neighborhood starts putting skin in the game and actually pays more money to contribute to neighborhood improvements, the better chance you have to leverage those funds with foundations [or] the city annual budget,” said Slekes.

The 2016 RiNo BID budget is estimated at $500,000. Sharp said that may increase to $1 million by the time the process is finalized, seeing how quickly RiNo property values are growing.

In the first year, the BID will fund at least one advocate or executive director who will stand as RiNo’s unified voice. 

Funding will also go toward branding, marketing events, and education about RiNo’s businesses and creatives, according to A RiNo BID could fund the creation of, for example, a rusty metal welcome sign or a rhino mural created by RiNo artists specifically for the gritty, urban neighborhood. 

Placemaking will also be funded by the BID. Placemaking includes development of parks, development of the riverfront, installation of benches, pedestrian lighting, and bike racks, as well as neighborhood activities and advocating for larger projects in need of outside funding from the city or other investors. In theory, these efforts will help drive traffic to businesses in the neighborhood, maximizing, or at least evening out the commercial owners’ investment in the form of additional taxes.

Additionally, the BID is in discussion with nonprofit developers that specialize in affordable live/work space for artists. According to Weil, this could help RiNo maintain its creative edge. 

The nine-member board governing the BID will be approved by City Council and required to have a mix of stakeholders including developers, business owners, and artists. It will be chaired by Justin Croft. Croft is a project manager at Zeppelin Development, a development firm located in RiNo that specializes in developing underused industrial areas.

After a 10-year term, stakeholders may request the BID be renewed by City Council.

As for the Brighton Blvd. Corridor, the city will be fronting the bill, putting $28.5 million toward complete reconstruction of the roadway and its utilities, according to John Conner, a Financial Specialist for Denver’s Department of Finance. 

A separate General Improvement District (GID) was put into the BID process to funnel funds into capital improvements and infrastructure enhancements for the Brighton Blvd. corridor and riverfront. 

On June 1, Denver City Council unanimously passed both the BID and the GID. More than two dozen supporters showed up sporting white t-shirts reading “Keep RiNo Wild,” referring to themselves as a “crash of Rhinos.” District 8 City Council Member Albus Brooks showed his support and revealed the same tee under his button-up and tie. 

Nearly everyone in the room was in favor for both ordinances, though some people voiced concerns, one of whom was Epic Brewing Company’s front of house Manager, Jennie Richau. 

While she isn’t against the BID or GID and said that the brewer has no qualm with the additional BID tax—around $1,000—she does want to see part of the budget put aside for bigger moves than just marketing. 

“Our fear is that we are going to miss out on this great opportunity,” explained Richau. “And if we spend all this money on these marketing efforts, we’re missing an opportunity to set some of that money aside for a bond later on with the city to do something great for public safety.” 

There are no stop signs on Walnut between Park Ave. and 38th, and Richau sees cars speeding and going the wrong way. Walnut St. has no sidewalks or bike lanes despite all the pedestrian traffic it sees. In theory, the BID will bring more pedestrians to the area—but without safe streets or even a plan for them. Brighton is getting safety infrastructure; Richau hopes Walnut St. will too.

“We’d like to see a BID board focused on the entire neighborhood, not just making Brighton the main focus,” said Richau.

Weil acknowledged that a key piece to the neighborhood is that many artists purchased property early on, making it difficult for other creatives to move in, which is what he hopes RiNo, as an association, and the BID can help solve.

“This is pretty groundbreaking for an art district to actually be leading this sort of effort,” said Weil. “We hope to set a trend for other art districts and other organizations so that we can really make sure the arts are at the forefront and people can really appreciate artists creating communities.”

As Weil noted, the BID could help RiNo residents steer the neighborhood away from the all-too-common story of an artist community disappearing into the shadows of development. However, only time will tell whether or not a BID will enable RiNo to maintain its uniqueness or let it fall victim to a common story. ■