Architecturally, the rectangular brick building at 1778 Gilpin Street is about as interesting as a three-story cardboard box. For apartment developer Grant Barnhill's objectives, however, the aesthetic emptiness is the equivalent of a blank canvas.
Last fall, while construction crews were tearing outdated carpeting and bathroom fixtures from the upper-floor units, Barnhill was in one of the ground-level units where artist Jimmy "Rocketman" Descant was assembling obsolete consumables into signature space vehicles. The bedroom was piled high with 1950s miscellany -- hood ornaments, beehive hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, thermoses, irons and bike sprockets -- all ready to be combined into fifty fantasy rockets that will be displayed around the building. It's a style Descant dubs "Buck Rogers art deco."
"I do my art based on a time when things were built stronger, built to last," he says. "It's not the Wal-Mart or disposable, cheap culture. I want to give things a new use."
This month, the apartment complex -- including a craft propped above the front lawn that reaches twelve feet high with a six-foot wingspan -- entered the Denver rental galaxy as "Rocket."
This isn't Barnhill's first themed endeavor among the aged Victorians and sober brownstones of Uptown. At 1777 Williams, directly behind Rocket, is the photography-focused Aperture building. Inside, large black-and-white photographs and vintage Kodak signs decorate the halls, while hundreds of antique cameras adorn the lobby. Outside, a classic drive-in movie projector is mounted to the stoop. Down the street, at 1733 Williams, a giant silver faucet juts from the facade of the 25-unit H20 building, which features portholes in the hallways and a Sea Monkeys mural in the laundry room.
Since Barnhill and partner Zvi Rudawsky started their company, Boutique Apartments, three years ago, they have acquired and remodeled seven properties, giving them each a distinct persona ranging from Eastern philosophy to Americana; Rocket is just the first of three buildings planned for 2007.
In his office inside the recently renovated Shambhala building (think of a mix between an Eastern art exhibit and a yoga studio), Barnhill talks about the local apartment market, which somehow leads into ruminations on global poverty and his belief that corporate culture must undergo a "fundamental shift" to encompass values that go beyond the bottom line. "I think we're all connected," says the 42-year-old business-school graduate. "What impacts others impacts us."
His rhetoric may be idealistic, but he's earned it in the cutthroat real-estate industry. Originally a commercial real-estate broker, Barnhill started buying neglected apartment buildings in the mid-nineties, just as investment tides began returning to many blighted inner-city neighborhoods. His projects started small and then grew, a four-unit structure begetting an eight-unit property, then a twenty-unit.
"And I tried to McDonaldize that process," Barnhill says. At his company's peak, he could turn over ten units a month. Rip out the carpet, slap on some paint, and dump it for some nice margins. "It was all about the short-term. It wasn't thinking about sustainable practices or building community," he admits. "We exemplified what's wrong with business in the U.S."
But the money -- oh, the money. "I was pretty much a total yuppie," he says. "BMWs, Armani suits, the whole thing."
But then his body caved. In 1998, he suddenly became tired. Beyond tired. Tired like thirty-year-old shag carpeting tired. The official diagnosis was an autoimmune disorder brought on by stress.
"It got so bad that I would wake up at 10 a.m., drag myself to the shower and then have to sleep for three more hours," Barnhill says.
He walked away from it all, and he and his wife bought an RV and drove across the West. He was astounded by the homogenous landscape of strip malls and housing. After six months on the road, they went international and spent two years backpacking through Asia, Europe and Central America.
He returned to Denver and worked at various art nonprofits, but soon found himself needing extra income. So he purchased a small apartment building with Rudawsky and undertook a remodeling effort. Feeling the familiar sickness of standardization return, Barnhill recalled the small, funky "boutique-style" hotels he had seen abroad.
"One of the things I saw traveling was there was a sense of place, a sense of community around these places," he says.
That's what he's focused on today, and his business model is built on economics with a long view -- serving one of the city's most abundant demographics. Call them hipsters, the creative underclass, Generation X, Y, whatever, but they are young professionals between 21 and 35 years who make between $25,000 and $50,000 a year.
"If you're a student or are just starting your career, you essentially have two options: You can either live beyond your means here," says Barnhill, swiping his hand across a section of a satellite photo of central Denver where a studio goes for $1,175 a month, "or you can live in a dilapidated, older building where the rent may be cheap, but you have to deal with crime and other problems."
Within that rental price gap is the vast middle of prospective lessees who are looking for studios or one-bedrooms that are both affordable and not complete hellholes.
Barnhill runs his finger on the map where a thick yellow line ensnares the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, Governor's Park, Uptown, City Park and Congress Park. This circle, Boutique Apartments' target geography, encompasses over 24 million square feet of multi-family property, the highest concentration in Colorado. Of this, 14 million square feet belong to rental units. Though blessed with great locations, most of these buildings -- 80 percent, Barnhill says -- are run down and suffering from mismanagement. It's this type of aging property, usually built in the '50s or '60s, that condo converters tend to avoid. Barnhill's fourteen-person team snatches them up on the cheap, usually from retiring owners, then remodels them on a relatively modest budget.
Take Shambhala, at 1355 Pearl Street. In 2005, Boutique Apartments purchased the then-Holiday House apartments for $2.2 million. At the time, the sixty studios rented for between $300 and $400 a month and were fraught with discolored carpet, primitive appliances and what Barnhill calls "the stench." Enter Boutique Apartments' "creative team," which is based around the design vision of local firm Eye Candy Graphics. An investment of about $1.1 million enabled the group to redo the units with concrete countertops, hardwood floors, designer lighting and other trimmings of earth-toned grace. The motif is continued with the 76 encased Buddhist sculptures that line the hallways and the panoramas of Hindu symbolism and Japanese watercolors that are painted in the mail room.
"Sometimes it's difficult, because we have to come up with new themes and new art," Barnhill admits. "But at least it's all different."
Of course, themed living is nothing new to the Mile High City, where a surge in loft building has added 11,890 new multi-family residences to central Denver since 1990. But high land prices and the costs of building parking structures for the latest lofts often translate into upper-income sales tags. At the Jack Kerouac Lofts, for example, even though the building's Dharma Bum namesake rarely had enough money for a flophouse, condos run at least $250,000.
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As for parking garages, older buildings like the Shambhala are exempt from the 1967 zoning law requiring off-street parking, and not having to build such a structure cuts costs so that Barnhill can put rents at about $600 a month. Shambhala opened last February and now boasts a near-100-percent occupancy rate, as do all of the Boutique buildings, he says.
Part of that occupancy rate comes from the price point, but some of it is certainly derived from the feel-good amenities Barnhill offers. Five percent of the company's property-management fees go to non-profit partners, such as a global microfinance organization that provides loans to Third World farmers; the complexes are remodeled under green-building guidelines and are completely powered by Xcel Energy's WindSource program; and the free wireless Internet allows tenants to access Boutique Apartments' website, where the motto is "Building community, one square foot at a time." The site includes lists of neighborhood coffee shops, music venues and restaurants, some of which offer discounts to tenants. Barnhill even bought a slate of tickets to see the Dalai Lama speak at last fall's PeaceJam gathering -- and gave them to his dwellers for free.
"What always amazes me is the power of how business shapes culture," Barnhill says.
And how shaping a business culturally can really take off.