Art News

City Agrees to Amend Safe Occupancy Program Proposal

Rhinoceropolis was closed December 8 for safety concerns; it has yet to reopen.
Rhinoceropolis was closed December 8 for safety concerns; it has yet to reopen. Lindsey Bartlett
After more than seven months of discussion, the city presented its Safe Occupancy Program proposal for DIY spaces and other unpermitted facilities at the Denver City Council meeting on Monday, July 10. And despite that seven months of discussion between various city agencies, activists, artists and other stakeholders, councilmembers got an earful from people who didn't think the proposal went far enough, or who were concerned with certain provisions.

As a result, city officials held more meetings with reps from Amplify Arts Denver, All in Denver and others this week, to consider possible amendments to the proposal. (Read the original Safe Occupancy Program proposal, billed as a "voluntary path to compliance for existing spaces [that] would ensure safety, avoid displacement.") And by July 13, they'd agreed on a few fixes.

For starters, the activist groups wanted the proposal to "include spaces previously shut down and vacated by the city since December 1, 2016," a reference to Rhinoceropolis and Glob, which were closed by the city December 8 and have yet to reopen.

The city's response? "Yes, however we would like to be very clear in the language on this item to allow it only for those that have received an order to vacate due to unpermitted work and/or no valid certificate of occupancy issued since December 1, 2016."

The city also agreed to amendments that would extend the time frame of the Safe Occupancy Program from 24 to 30 months, and offer a "six-month grace period to allow any space that might be inspected and cited after passage of the bill to come into the program." As originally written, only spaces that came forward voluntarily could be part of the program.

The groups had requested changing the time frame for completing required work from 270 days to 15 months; the city is willing to compromise at 365 days, with the possibility of extensions beyond that on a case-to-case basis.

The city also agreed to a review of the program every six month, and also suggested a sunset review at the end of the trial.

All of this work should make for a much smoother Denver City Council meeting next week, when Councilwoman Debbie Ortega is expected to introduce the amendments.

"On behalf of both All In Denver and Amplify Arts, we are delighted with the city’s response to our requested amendments," Brad Segal, co-founder of All In Denver, wrote the city after the last meeting on July 13. "We also acknowledge the incredible effort and can-do spirit that city staff has placed into creating this initiative, and finding the wherewithal to bring it over the goal line the last couple of days."

There are a few sticking points — money to do the work, for example — and Jill Jennings Golich, the deputy director of the Denver Department of Community Planning & Development who will over see the program, acknowledged that in a note to the stakeholders that included the proposed amendments: "While not noted in the attached, I do want to say we are supportive of a working group to explore funding options, and continuing the work Arts & Venues has already started....We appreciate you bringing these ideas forward, and believe these changes will help further the success of this program."

For a clue to some of the issues that working group will be exploring, here's the testimony that sometime Westword contributor and longtime Denver artist Lauri Lynnxe Murphy offered at the June 10 council meeting:

We have had fifty years of DIY spaces in Denver, and they have built this city’s creative culture into a world-class destination - and we have never had a Ghost Ship fire. I have spent my entire adult life in the DIY community here. Former mayors have been in these spaces, everyone who works at Arts & Venues have been in these spaces. Councilwoman Ortega, you’ve been in these spaces. These spaces should be celebrated and supported, and instead, you’re attacking this community. You are undermining creatives by getting rid of our incubator spaces with this move, and wiping out opportunities for young artists to hone their respective crafts.

This proposal solves no problems, and in fact, is only going to drive people further underground, and potentially into less safe spaces. You’re asking people to take risks with their housing and livelihoods when they are in these spaces because it’s what they can afford. And the reason for that, usually, is because the landlords have no interest in fixing up the spaces in the first place.

So: you’re asking people who don’t own these spaces to invest in them, down to hiring an architect, and NOTHING in this specifies any help from the city for people to do so, despite the DIY fund you announced, nor does it specify the landlord’s responsibility. In many of these cases, people are on month-to-month leases — they don’t even know if they will be there two years to sink thousands of dollars into a space so the landlord can later rent it for more money or tear it down. You aren’t taking reality into account, at all, for how any of these spaces have functioned. And you’re taking an AWFUL lot for granted about landlord-tenant relationships.

Asking people to turn themselves in is asking them to take an enormous risk. You’re not considering how tight this housing market is, and in situations where artists are living in spaces, how desperately they are trying to keep a roof over their heads. No one will want to take a risk with their housing, much less their DIY space or studio, when it’s all they can afford. And the proposal says nothing about what will happen if they don’t turn themselves in, not giving people the option to use this program if they were simply uninformed about its existence. That seems mighty punitive.

I was hoping I would see a reality-based solution come from the city. Artists and musicians can’t afford to hire architects for spaces they do not own, and most landlords won’t. If you compare this non-solution to the generous response that Oakland had towards its creative community, then I think Denver should rightly be ashamed. Real estate and rent prices are already driving artists out of the city — now this hostility towards the community could simply convince young artists there’s no reason to stay here. A town bereft of artists isn’t a world-class city — it’s a soulless shell.

You’re treating people like criminals for simply attempting to survive in this town, from the homeless to this town’s artists. The world is watching you. What kind of place Denver is has nothing to do with what you build, and everything to do with what you destroy. 
Denver City Council will meet at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, July 17.
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun