On a brisk afternoon, Denver’s self-proclaimed “punk-rock urban real estate developer” visits the latest stud in his leather jacket. The Source Hotel is all wooden planks and polished concrete, a nod to the industrial roots of its home in River North, a former warehouse district and grimy artist enclave that’s now a playground for Denver’s twenty- and thirty-somethings.
If RiNo is millennial paradise, the Source Hotel hopes to be where they vacation. Just off the newly polished Brighton Boulevard, the hotel’s streamlined lobby, beer tap included, leads to a cavernous, sun-drenched space with accoutrements that prove this is more than just a place to rest your head. There are chic restaurants, a clothing boutique full of the latest in street wear, an art shop full of prints you’d give your pretentious roommate for Christmas, a record display, a flower shop and, for the forgetful traveler, a curated collection of grooming products that look straight from a 1920s apothecary — until you see the price tags.
Kyle Zeppelin glides in and heads to the coffee bar at Safta, the hotel’s restaurant that took the local foodie world by storm when it opened last summer. Dressed in a white, fitted button-down, jeans that hug his tall, thin frame, and white designer sneakers, the 46-year-old co-president of Zeppelin Development looks like the ever-so-modern normcore executive. Except this Mark Zuckerberg prefers Gucci over the Gap.
Founded by Kyle’s dad, Mickey, in 1972, Zeppelin Development has helped transform Denver’s long-neglected central neighborhoods, such as the Golden Triangle, LoDo and, more recently, RiNo, into real estate commodities. But they’re more than just developers who turn abandoned warehouses into lofts: The Zeppelins pride themselves on getting their hands dirty in the nitty-gritty of growth, serving on neighborhood boards, creating area plans, working with — and sometimes prodding — the city to update its zoning codes, and backing the gentrification-hating opposition to some of Denver’s pet projects, such as the failed Olympic Games bid and the Interstate 70 reconstruction project.
Kyle considers himself the better angel of his trade, a moralistic rebel of real estate who stands shoulder to shoulder with community activists bemoaning the thoughtless architecture that’s transforming Denver.
“Developers are a big part of the problem, and to have someone that’s...in the business of leading the opposition, in some ways it’s confusing for people,” Kyle says. “Over the last few years, we’ve hopefully built up some street cred to be able to talk about these issues and have a pretty amazing coalition of people from a lot of different backgrounds that are seeing it in some of the same ways.”
Kyle doesn’t want to talk about how to brand the hottest restaurant or build the coolest hotel in town. Instead, ignoring his coffee, for an hour and a half he rails against Denver’s car-loving infrastructure, its lack of affordable housing, and what he calls the dearth of forward-facing vision at the mayor’s office.
Zeppelin is a modern firebrand, docile (if opinionated) in person but incredibly animated on social media. He fires off tweet after tweet against Mayor Michael Hancock or whichever backwards-thinking Denver City Council member has fallen out of his good graces that week. He can be a confounding contradiction, speaking at protests in tailored designer suits and polished dress shoes. A recipient of the Shorter Community AME Church Shoes of Justice award, which is given to leaders on local social-justice issues, he often posts photos of his family’s second home in Montreal or their frequent jaunts to Europe on his Instagram account. And as enemy number one of gentrification, he builds hotels and trendy food halls.
But Kyle’s also a passionate environmentalist, with the green-design awards for some of his buildings to prove it. And until the plan hit a snag at the city level, he was planning to give some of the land on the TAXI campus — the first Zeppelin Development project in RiNo — to a tiny-home village for the formerly homeless; he’d already given space there to a restaurant incubator that helps immigrant women learn how to start their own business. He and Mickey even decorated the place and outfitted the industrial-grade kitchen on their own dime. Those who work on these projects promise that they aren’t just for publicity; they actually do good, change lives.
Inch by inch, square foot by square foot, Kyle Zeppelin is on a mission to transform this gas-guzzling cow town into a city of the future. Is his vision plausible or just a pipe dream?
It’s December 1, and @kylezeppelin is especially feisty on Twitter.
“To translate — @MayorHancock burned through the last decade of the economic boom spending billions on making the city work better for cars. Now we have a stack of unfunded transit projects that we’re hoping @realDonaldTrump will lend us a hand with.”
“Don’t recall hearing you stand up for minority residents who are being pushed around by @MayorHancock and I70 Ditch and other outdated practices. Environment is objectively a mess PR spin can’t change. I suggest sticking to DIA PR and getting those bathrooms renovated over there.”
According to his father, Kyle has been an outspoken critic of politicians since he was a kid. “He was doing political cartoons, a couple of which I have, about Ronald Reagan when he was in the fifth grade,” Mickey recalls. “He was always a rambunctious, interesting kid who would show up with purple hair or any numbers of things.”
After Kyle’s parents divorced when he was five, he bounced around between his mother’s home in Breckenridge and Mickey’s places in Baker and Cherry Creek. Passionate as he was about issues, he struggled in classes and ultimately left high school. After getting his GED, he attended what was then known as Metropolitan State College and the University of Montana before settling into law school at DePaul University in Chicago. During his occasional visits to Denver, Kyle would work at City Spirit Cafe, which Mickey opened with artist Susan Wick in 1984 in lower downtown, several years before LoDo became a historic district, much less the bustling area it is today.
By 2002, Kyle had returned to Denver for good and settled into a nine-to-five at a title company. Knowing his son was interested in more stimulating ventures, Mickey asked if he’d like to get involved in a condo project he was developing off Colorado Boulevard. “I said, why don’t you work with the sales staff?” Mickey recalls.
Left to his own devices, Kyle fired the entire team. “I came back and went into the sales center and said, ‘Where is everybody?’ They said, ‘Well, Kyle fired everybody.’ He said they weren’t doing anything,” Mickey remembers.
“He has a great deal of confidence in his decisions,” he says of his son. “More often than not, he’s right, and it reinforces what he’s done.”
Mickey is the antithesis of his son, both in style and substance. He prefers ski-bum puffer jackets to designer cardigans, and massages his words. But what he did pass on to Kyle was his talent for bullish real estate acquisition, especially in more blighted parts of town. That’s a passion he inherited from his own father. “[He] was a junk dealer, and he could find things no one saw use in,” Mickey says of his dad, who immigrated to Denver from Poland in the 1920s.
Mickey’s first office was in a building that his father bought at 1414 Market Street in the 1940s for $5,000. “My father, even though he was in a different business, decided that real estate really fascinated him, and then he bought a few warehouses and buildings in lower downtown and a few in RiNo, [which] for years seemed to be a real loser,” Mickey says. “And now I go by there, and we sold them off, and they’re prominent restaurants and bars on Larimer!”
Mickey managed the building on Market while he attended law school, overseeing the tenant, an egg sorter. “My first project was to say, this is a great idea, I’d like to develop it,” he recalls. “My father said, ‘I have a great egg-sorter guy — why do I want you to go in and develop it?’ Of course, I think he made more money off the egg sorter than he did off me.”
Just as his son would decades later, Mickey abandoned the law and threw himself into development. In the 1970s he became president of the lower downtown neighborhood association and helped develop a growth plan for that area. After he opened City Spirit, he redeveloped an abandoned timber-and-brick warehouse on 14th Street into residential lofts. He then set his sights on the then-blighted Golden Triangle. He became president of that neighborhood association, redeveloped an old service garage for a Cadillac dealer into condos in the mid-’80s, and built sixty lofts in the neighborhood in the late ’90s.
Shortly after Kyle made his memorable entrance at Zeppelin Development, he took over marketing and eventually got into development with TAXI II, an addition to the nine-building RiNo campus that includes apartments, office space and restaurants. “He amazed me how he had very forceful ideas of how we thought we should do things,” Mickey says. “Some were really great, some were terrible. In any event, he showed an incredible interest and inclination and understanding for someone who really hadn’t been involved in real estate.”
After a trip to the Pacific Northwest, Mickey and Kyle homed in on an abandoned iron foundry in RiNo that had been on the market for a while; they imagined putting a food hall there like the ones they’d seen in Seattle. Maintaining its 130-year-old facade but updating the interior, the Zeppelins opened the Source, a market hall with independent food and retail vendors, in 2013. They’d open the adjoining Source Hotel five years later.
“Although the idea and concept came from both of us, it was really Kyle who detailed it and brought in the architecture and made it work,” Mickey says of the Source. “He has this great ability to find the right tenants who really provide a need for the community. Same thing in the Source Hotel.”
But Kyle’s passions don’t end with development. Kyle and his wife, Andra, the former editor of Eater Denver, have been ramping up their involvement in local and statewide issues. In 2018 they hosted parties for several Colorado ballot initiatives — and one for liberal luminary Bernie Sanders when he came through town — and they’ve thrown their support behind several candidates running in the May 2019 municipal elections. And Governor Jared Polis’s transition team tapped Kyle for his progressive transportation acumen.
Kyle even thought about running for mayor this year...until his dad talked him out of it. “Number one, I like him around too much, and number two, we have this incredible family that he’s committed to, and I think he would tear himself apart at this point in his life, with a five-year-old and a ten-year-old, trying to run a city,” Mickey says. “I think he still has a ways in the political world to grow and learn and contribute without being mayor.”
While Mickey was acquiring and developing real estate, Candi CdeBaca and seven relatives were living in a two-bedroom home in Swansea. The first person in her family to graduate from high school, CdeBaca went on to found a nonprofit that trains youth leaders in underserved communities in Denver. She’s now running for the Denver City Council seat currently occupied by Albus Brooks, a frequent target of the Zeppelins.
The longtime activist and social worker stood side by side with Mickey and Kyle in their attempt to defeat the Interstate 70 reconstruction project that will impact both RiNo and Swansea (as well as anyone who needs to drive across Denver) — she through community organizing and the Zeppelins through legal challenges that Mickey says cost them around $100,000.
Kyle argues that the roadwork will have negative short- and long-term impacts on northeast Denver, a part of town that’s already struggled with gentrification and pollution. And in a philosophical sense, he says, it’s reprehensible to invest billions of dollars in a project whose goal is to accommodate more cars, when true cities of the future are investing heavily in alternative modes of transportation.
If Kyle had his way, Denver would look more Scandinavian than Cincinattian and, like Nordic cities, would make deep investments in quality public housing and environmentally friendly transportation. “To have definable urban boundaries and transportation connection where we can grow in a way that’s inclusive, environmentally responsible, and works better long-term economically versus what we’re doing now, which is racking up all these liabilities, trashing the environment,” he explains.
“Gestures like that are why I can work with someone like Kyle,” CdeBaca says of his involvement in the I-70 fight. “When you are in an industry that could potentially cause harm, I think that, from a social worker’s perspective, you have an obligation to cause as little harm as possible, to reduce harm. When Kyle engages in those extracurricular activities to mitigate harm, I think that’s one of the right things to do.”
But she’s questioned his support of mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis, the former president of the RiNo Art District. “I think some would argue that the goal of that alliance is to be productive for RiNo, and to be productive in the sense that it generates the most profitability for developers in RiNo,” CdeBaca says.
Although Five Points includes that part of town on the official Denver map, a new neighborhood plan released in 2003 enshrined “downtown Denver between Park Avenue West and Interstate 70 and its interchange with Brighton Boulevard” as River North. Two years after the plan’s release (and four after Zeppelin Development opened TAXI in an abandoned cab headquarters off Ringsby Court), artists Tracy Weil and Jill Hadley-Hooper organized the area into the RiNo Art District, including parts of four historic neighborhoods: Globeville, Elyria-Swansea, Five Points and Cole. Then came the RiNo business and general improvement districts, which help fund advocacy, planning and infrastructure improvements in RiNo.
Every step helped that area become what it is today — for better or worse.
Giellis wasn’t in Denver when the RiNo Art District was established, but she led the group through some of the area’s biggest changes, including a new light-rail line and an explosion of popular restaurants and bars. Just five years ago, while developers were scouting the area, RiNo was primarily the turf of punks and DIY artists who found second homes at the Larimer Lounge and DIY venues Rhinoceropolis and Glob. Now the area is teeming with young, white families and thirsty millennials.
“I didn’t come into the picture really in River North until 2014, and it was really at that moment that development pressure was heating up,” Giellis says. “A lot of that was driven by the fact that the light-rail station was going to be opening. That was driving up all prices all around that area because people want to develop close to transit projects and because the mayor had identified Brighton Boulevard as a Corridor of Opportunity. Those kinds of proclamations, they do drive up land price and the price of everything.”
As mayor, Kyle says, Giellis will seek to improve neighborhoods without destroying their character. “She’s a proven leader in the community and will do it the right way.”
Part of the community felt differently in December 2016, when the Denver Fire Department raided Rhinoceropolis in the wake of a devastating fire at Ghost Ship, a DIY venue in Oakland. Artists who had been living in the building were thrown out in the cold.
Giellis roused the RiNo board and established communication with various city agencies. She also asked neighbors to pitch in what they could to help the suddenly-homeless artists. Their gifts included Starbucks gift cards, which the late Colin Ward, a beloved multimedia artist and Rhinoceropolis resident who died in 2018, bemoaned in an email to Giellis. We don’t want gift cards, he wrote. We want our home back.
That part of Ward’s note became a rallying cry against all the RiNo Art District stood for — unfairly, Giellis argues. “Were Starbucks cards handed out? Yes,” she says. “Was that our response to [the evictions]? No, by no means.”
Even the Zeppelins weren’t immune to city inspectors roused by the Ghost Ship fire. Earlier that year, Zeppelin Development and developer Neil Adams had opened the Globeville Riverfront Art Center in a former meat-processing plant wedged between Interstate 25 and the South Platte River. More than eighty photographers, painters, printmakers, jewelers and other artists rent co-working space there for about $150 a month. In March 2017, inspectors visited GRACe, as it’s known, after a recent buildout of the large warehouse in the back of the campus. “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,” wrote Andrea Burns, then a spokeswoman for Denver Community Planning and Development, in an email to Westword at the time. “Inspectors identified several aspects of the site that are of concern and must be addressed in the near future.”
Kyle roared back, arguing — as many DIY artists had during the Rhinoceropolis and Glob fiasco — that the city simply didn’t want to accommodate its arts scene. “The city was fully engaged in this process and has known about this for months,” he responded, pointing out that Denver officials had plenty of time “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.” But that didn’t happen, he said.
Still, activists and some artists consider Zeppelin and Giellis an unholy union, an alliance that shows old Denver is no longer welcome, at least not in this part of town. But Giellis says that even she pushes back on her most outspoken (and generous) supporter at times. “I have asked him to think about how we take the best parts of a lot of people’s ideas and implement those collaboratively,” she says.
For example, Giellis supported an incentive height and design overlay near the 38th and Blake light-rail station that requires certain new, nearby projects to include affordable housing or contribute to Denver’s Affordable Housing Fund. Kyle argued that it didn’t go far enough. “He didn’t think it was answering or addressing all the issues around affordable housing there,” Giellis says.
Affordable housing is one of Zeppelin’s favorite topics to discuss, but he’s also been criticized for not doing enough about it himself, or worse.
It’s not for lack of trying that he’s had to settle on implementing workforce housing into his projects instead of true affordable housing, Kyle responds. Or that his other efforts to address housing issues haven’t come to fruition. It’s because Denver retaliates against him and Mickey for their advocacy and criticism of city leadership, he says; that’s a charge that city officials who’ve been targeted by the Zeppelins, including Mayor Hancock, all deny.
The truth is slightly more complicated.
According to city records, the Zeppelins have taken, and repaid, nearly $9 million in loans (and one environmental cleanup grant) from the City of Denver for their projects since 2007.
Denver’s Office of Economic Development assesses loan requests and includes conditions in the contracts for the loans it grants. For example, three of Zeppelin Development’s four loans came with job requirements: ten permanent jobs, with 51 percent filled by low- to moderate-income workers, for TAXI II; 175 with the same conditions for TAXI III, etc. (The fourth loan required “slum/blight prevention.”)
The last loan the Zeppelins received came in 2013, two years after Hancock was sworn in as mayor for his first term. But it wasn’t the last time they’d ask the city for money.
In 2015, the Zeppelins requested $750,000 to help them acquire some land that’s now home to TAXI Flight, the ninth phase of that project. The OED indicated that it was on board, even scheduling a closing date, but it pulled out of the deal at the eleventh hour.
On April 1, 2016, the same day that Hancock was to sign off on the loan, the OED’s Jeff Romine notified Kyle in an email that the department would not be closing on the loan. He didn’t explain the decision.
Kyle responded two days later to Paul Washington, the OED’s then-executive director. “Paul — I’m interested to catch up tomorrow morning if possible. We’re assuming Friday’s note that ‘We’re not closing on the loan’ is not a Joke even though it coincided with April Fools. As you know, loan docs have been issued and we delayed closing to accommodate the city’s requirements at considerable expense after over a year of working on the loan with the city. There was no indication that there were any major issues so reneging at this late stage is a major curve ball.”
Romine says the deal died over a job-requirement dispute. In the final stages of negotiating its loan with the city, Zeppelin Development amended the contract, agreeing to “use its best efforts” to create 22 full-time jobs instead of vowing to bring on that many workers. That raised some issues, Romine says, because a past TAXI project hadn’t fulfilled all of its job requirements.
“Unfortunately, because of funding sources that we have and where that money comes from, ‘best efforts’ don’t work,” he explains. “You have to create those jobs. Given that we’d already been in conversation about not achieving specific outcomes from the former loan, it was determined that [the OED] would not move forward on this one.”
The past project to which Romine refers fell short by 25 jobs, or about 12 percent of the requirements.
A month after the Zeppelins learned that the OED wouldn’t make the loan, Washington requested a meeting with Hancock and the Zeppelins via email. Exactly what transpired during that meeting isn’t clear, since there’s no known recording. The Zeppelins say that Hancock blamed Kyle’s social-media outcries against his administration as the reason the loan was denied. Mickey says Councilman Brooks had told him something similar in a separate meeting about the same issue, adding that Brooks called him a Black Panther, “except my efforts were directed toward the city.” Mickey says he even bought a black beret after the meeting. Both Brooks and Hancock deny the Zeppelins’ accusations.
Then in 2017, the Zeppelins requested Low Income Housing Tax Credits through the Colorado Housing Finance Authority, as well as funds from the OED, for an affordable-housing project at TAXI that would have been the largest in Colorado, Kyle says: 300 units at 60 percent area median income. The tax credits were denied, and so was the OED funding. “We were in discussions to provide gap financing for this project, in the event the project would move forward with tax credits,” explains OED communications director Derek Woodbury. “However, since tax credits fell through, there wasn’t a gap for our office to finance.”
Kyle says that Denver is “very well represented” on the CHFA board and carries major sway.
Megan Herrera, CHFA’s public relations and communications specialist, provides this explanation in an email: “In Round One 2017, CHFA received 20 applications for affordable housing tax credits but we only had enough resources to award credits to 12 of those developments. The project was not approved because other projects rose to the top, competing at a higher level for this scarce resource. Specifically, some of the other projects in Denver that applied demonstrated meeting needs for populations that are a priority according to our Qualified Application Plan, including homeless and those with special needs.”
Without the tax credits, the Zeppelins changed their plan to instead incorporate 200 units of workforce housing at TAXI; construction is set to begin in early February.
Then there’s the matter of Beloved Community Village, eleven tiny homes for the formerly homeless. The village, which won a 2017 Mayor’s Design Award, was looking for a new site last year because the property it had occupied in RiNo is being redeveloped in 2019. Kyle offered some of TAXI’s land.
He met with the group behind Beloved Community Village and Community Planning and Development, which needed to approve the zoning permit for the project, and everything seemed to be going full steam ahead — until, once again, the city pulled out at the last minute. But this time, the city itself was surprised by the sudden turn of events.
“We were actually very much at the table with the project team to make this new location work, also,” explains Burns, speaking for Community Planning and Development. “We thought on our end that it was good to go, as well.”
Burns explains that building and drainage permits come at the end of the zoning-request process. When Public Works inspectors considered the nature of the tiny homes and the potential for flooding in the area, they determined that the TAXI campus wasn’t feasible. “That surprised everyone in terms of folks that had been at the table all along, including our team,” Burns says. “We were disappointed, but we also knew we couldn’t overlook it. It’s not an apartment complex. There are risks involved, and given the concerns with Public Works staff, we knew we had to help them find another location.” Beloved Community Village has been given an extension on its current lease and has filed for permits for a new site.
This fall, past and current participants at the Comal Heritage Food Incubator and their families and supporters gathered at TAXI to celebrate the restaurant’s second anniversary.
Back in early 2016, when Kyle heard that the Focus Points Family Resource Center was looking for commercial space for a food incubator, he arranged a meeting with Slavica Park, the nonprofit’s director of economic development and adult education.
“They had a space that was vacant and available, and Kyle wanted to do something a little different with the space and not just make it some restaurant,” Park says. “He wanted to have a social service behind it. It was perfect timing.” Not only did the Zeppelins give the nonprofit the space it needed, the former home of Fuel, and outfit a new commercial kitchen, they also offered up their company’s PR arm to get the buzz going.
Comal launched with seven participants, and staffing has since grown to fourteen. “The amount of revenue grew significantly,” Park says. “Kyle’s team did a tremendous job with marketing and PR.”
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Park says that she often touts Focus Point’s relationship with the Zeppelins as a model that other nonprofits and developers should follow. “This type of partnership between private and nonprofit are not very common,” she notes. “But if you look at it, it’s definitely helping us as a nonprofit do what we need to do but perhaps wouldn’t know how to do so well.
“For Kyle, yes, of course he’s in a moneymaking business,” she continues. “That family has done well for themselves. But he was looking for an opportunity on how he can give back to this very community where he and Mickey have done so well.”
As the sun was setting, hungry party-goers formed lines behind piles of food from around the world: Mexican pastries and tamales, meat stewing in aromatic Middle Eastern spices. Just on the other side of the South Platte River, crews were starting up the I-70 reconstruction project that the Zeppelins had fought so hard to kill. But here at TAXI, noted Denver chefs, community activists, longtime residents and newcomers — including transplants from Syria and Mexico — were sitting at picnic tables, breaking bread and enjoying the cool evening. Denver old and new were meeting in harmony.
The architect of this moment stood on the periphery of the party, taking it all in with a faint smile.