Longform

After ignoring the South Platte River for decades, Denver is once again panning for gold

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River North isn't like the rest of the city; there's no constant urban drone from people, cars, office-building action or even dogs. Instead, the sound levels in this changing neighborhood oscillate between the near silence of nature and the cacophony of heavy industry — one just as startling as the other. But this quirkiness is what drew some of the first urban pioneers back to what was once a hidden part of Denver.

"I love how much nature there is here. We've seen eagles, and there is a family of chipmunks that lives right over there," says Tracy Weil, who in 2003 turned an old garage just steps from the river into a stunning art studio, gallery and home — and helped to create a hot new art district, RiNo, along the way. But at the same time, "RTD uses Arkins, which fronts the river on the east side, as a shortcut from I-70 to its facility, and I get fifty buses going by here sometimes at five in the morning."

Still, he loves the area: "Where else in Denver can you own land along the river?"

This part of the river, however, is one of the most unkempt and least used of any stretch within Denver limits. After heading north along the edge of downtown, the Platte plunges beneath a busy railyard, reappearing between a contaminated old landfill and RTD's sprawling maintenance facility and hub. It is bordered on the west by the popular Taxi development and a concrete plant, and on the east by a massive Pepsi warehouse and a long series of vacant or nearly vacant buildings and lots. After that, the river winds beneath I-70 and then past the National Western Stock Show complex.

Because this part of the city has been devoted to heavy industrial purposes for more than a hundred years, it was always a popular place to dump unwanted refuse. It still is. A few blocks from Weilworks, someone has upended a couch onto the embankment. Down below, in a culvert along the bike path, a homeless couple listens to a portable radio while they wash their feet and rinse out their clothes in the water spilling from a drainage ditch.

The other side of the river isn't as easy to explore on foot — not unless you want to take your life into your own hands. There is no path, not even a thin shoulder to separate the pavement from the steep hill that tumbles down to the river. Instead, there are dirt footpaths and a couple of staircases that lead to nowhere.

Kyle Zeppelin would like that to change. Eleven years ago, his father, Mickey Zeppelin, bought the former Yellow Cab terminal next to RTD and has since turned it into Taxi, one of the most intriguing developments in the city: a mixture of living and working spaces that have retained an edgy, industrial feel. Now the neighborhood is in the family's blood, and Kyle Zeppelin has chosen it for a project of his own — the Source, a combination market/restaurant/brewery/beer garden slated to open in 2013 — because of its defining feature. "The river," he says. "It creates opportunity."

But it also creates problems. "It's a work in progress in terms of improvements," Zeppelin explains. "There are plenty of relics of the way the river used to be, relics of a time when cities dumped their waste into their rivers."

And Taxi is somewhat isolated — by its neighbors, by the railroad tracks and by the South Platte itself, which cuts the complex off from RiNo and Kyle Zeppelin's own Brighton Boulevard project. There are crossings at 31st and 38th avenues, but they don't make walking or cycling easy. To change the feel of RiNo, Zeppelin would like the city to close Arkins and Ringsby and reroute them, opening the river up to parks and people who could enjoy them.

He'd like to build a bridge — one that would sew the two sides of RiNo together. The city and the Greenway Foundation would also like to build a bridge; in fact, the Greenway's $14.6 million plan for the area calls for a pedestrian "art bridge," art park, sculpture garden, community garden and boat launch. Zeppelin likes the concept, but he's tired of waiting.

"The river looks exactly the same as it did ten years ago when we started talking to them. We want to realize that thing sooner rather than later," he says. So Zeppelin is pricing out his own bridge, something that could cost just $250,000.

"There is a hundred million dollars of investment going on right here," he explains, describing several other large mixed-use developments currently under construction in RiNo. "You can't find any part of the city where there is this level of investment around the river." But he's worried that the city isn't keeping up: "There is a lack of political will, and influence is being exerted in different directions. No one is watching the ball."

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