Inspectors with the City of Denver paid GRACe, an artist co-working space in north Denver (the name is short for Globeville Riverfront Art Center), a surprise visit on Thursday, March 16, and asked owners Neil Adams and Zeppelin Development for what one owners says will amount to millions of dollars' worth of improvements to the facility.
Adams and Zeppelin Development co-owner Mickey Zeppelin opened the former meat-processing plant turned building-supply warehouse turned artist co-working complex last summer, and have created ninety working spaces that each rent for $150 a month.
Sectioning off the large warehouse in the back of the campus into the working spaces is what triggered the inspection.
“City officials met with the owner recently and learned about the extent of the build-out of this space, which occurred without permits or inspections,” Andrea Burns, spokeswoman with Community Planning & Development, wrote in an e-mail to Westword. “Fire and building inspectors visited the site today to follow up and see the build-out in person. Inspectors identified several aspects of the site that are of concern and must be addressed in the near future.”
“The project was [previously] inspected by [the Denver Fire Department] with a determination made that it was safe based on the exiting and fire extinguishers for the artist use,” counters Zeppelin Development co-owner Kyle Zeppelin, Mickey's son. “The city was fully engaged in this process and has known about this for months.
“To clean [the building] up, to do the bare minimum for a build-out, to have it function as an artist space and to be able to provide it for pennies on the dollar compared to market-rate commercial space attracted ninety artists to an area of the city," Zeppelin says. "That’s an underused section of the riverfront."
Ever since the Denver Fire Department discovered fire-code violations in local DIY spaces last December — Rhinoceropolis's artist residents were evacuated with panic-inducing haste — the specter of surprise visits from city officials has worried the arts community. The city met with members of the arts community, hosting a very public gathering in January, and the city later said that it would not perform inspections without first attempting to work with DIY spaces and galleries around Denver.
And the city did meet with the owners in this case, according to Burns. “We have been in discussions with the owner for some time regarding the space,” she wrote, “but when we learned this week of the potential extent of the unpermitted alterations we felt a drop-in inspection was appropriate.”
“[The city] is maintaining absolute change of use that requires us to bring GRACe up to the letter of current code, even though it’s functional,” Zeppelin says, adding that the city treating the decades-old building like a new one isn’t practical. “Then this morning, lo and behold, Brad Buchanan [executive director of Denver Community Planning and Development] sends out the cavalry.”
Zeppelin says the city likes to tout the arts community but doesn’t put in the work to make sure it's affordable for creatives.
“You have a mayor that shows up to the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts luncheon yesterday that’s taking credit for being a supporter of the arts and saying this is a worthwhile investment,” Zeppelin says of Mayor Michael Hancock. “But to be able to come up with designation and have a reasonable interpretation of the code to solve this problem — which doesn’t cost them anything, it just requires some leadership to steer it in a positive direction — to create a win-win where it’s a functional situation,” isn’t happening.
The city doesn’t currently plan on shutting down the facility, Burns says: “The city will detail code violations and next steps for the owner so that the building can be brought in line with standard safety codes for the safety of the artists and visitors who use this space daily.”
On Thursday afternoon, it was hard to see that anything unusual had happened at GRACe just a few hours earlier. The day’s warm weather let artists spend hours on end digging through the scrap metal that lines the driveway into the gallery spaces. Inside the main gallery, a purple-haired woman named Susan Dillon, GRACe’s manager, was cheerful as she gave a tour of the different working studios for artists, which range in size from 1,700 square feet to 48.
“They’re our bread and butter for folks who are trying to get out of their living rooms and out of their basements,” she says of the smaller working spaces.