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RiNo's Founders Make a Bid to Keep Their Area Wild — Or at Least Interesting

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Denver’s white-hot real-estate market keeps burning through boundaries and previous records, scorching feelings and facts along the way. And memories of Denver a generation ago, a decade ago, a year ago, wind up tossed in the dustbin of history.

Perhaps the most inventive rewriting of the past, coupled with the most optimistic price tag so far, popped up last week in a listing for a fire-damaged, 548-square-foot home at 3716 Marion Street — selling for $250,000.

“This is a Fix & Flippers Special or Fix & Live Special in Upper Lodo!,” chirps the ad. “This 2 Bed/1 Bath House in Upper Lodo has a Walk Score of #80. 548 Sq. Ft Home with a Garage! This Property is in the Hottest Neighborhood in Denver ‘Upper Lodo.’ This is most Centrally Located Property that you’re able to go in any Direction quickly to accommodate a busy Colorado Lifestyle. This Home is 900-1000 Feet from the New * Light Rail Stop to the Union Station & DIA East Line. The New Owner(s) might also enjoy being in the RHINO (Arts District) & 5 blocks from the Improved Platte River Trail. The Coors Field, Downtown Denver, Denver Coliseum, & NWSS Events Center & other Amenities are 10-14 Blocks away depending on Route! The House was involved in a Fire! A majority of Fire Damage has been removed and framing remains!! This Property is CONSTRUCTION READY and rebuild able as-is!!!! This Property truly is a Diamond in the Ruff! DON’T LET THIS GEM GET AWAY!”

And don’t let the truth get in the way of a good real-estate pitch. Upper LoDo? Where is that, exactly? 

Dick Kreck doesn’t know — and he’s the man who invented the LoDo nickname. He has proof: “LoDo” first appeared in his November 2, 1983, column in the Denver Post, in a piece on new stores going into Larimer Square — a virtual teenager at the time, since the block of Victorian storefronts had been saved from the wrecking ball and turned into a tourist attraction less than two decades earlier. Kreck had been on the phone with his then-wife, who was going to graduate school at Columbia University and said she thought Denver’s neighborhoods needed the kind of chi-chi appellations so popular in New York, like Tribeca and SoHo. So Kreck decided to refer to the warehouse neighborhood just beyond Larimer Square in lower downtown as “LoDo.” It didn’t make much of a splash at the time — though Kreck recalls that Larimer Square founder Dana Crawford wasn’t fond of the moniker — but when he used the nickname again in a second column, it started catching on. And on. In March 1988, Denver City Council approved designating a 23-block area from 20th Street down to Cherry Creek, from the alley between Larimer and Market streets to Wynkoop, as the Lower Downtown Historic District — better known as LoDo.

“I wish I had trademarked it,” Kreck says today.

But efforts  to piggyback off the popular nickname were not nearly as successful. An attempt to label a patch above 20th Street “NoDough” fell flatter than the economy along that then-desolate stretch. Although the map of city neighborhoods officially lumps everything north of downtown and west to the Platte in with Five Points, the area just past LoDo was generally referred to as Upper Larimer, or simply “up there.” Until it was chosen as the future site of Coors Field, when the Ballpark neighborhood title caught on…for a while. But an arty up-and-comer in the gritty industrial area beyond the Ballpark neighborhood would soon overshadow the ballpark: Who says this is a sports town?

A decade ago, Tracy Weil and Jill Hadley Hooper, artists who’d found a home in the old warehouses off Brighton Boulevard, were sitting at Ironton Studios, at 3636 Chestnut Place near the river, talking about what they could do to brand the neighborhood an arts district, the way Santa Fe Drive was doing some “cool stuff,” Weil remembers. Developer Micky Zeppelin, who’d moved from projects in LoDo up by the Platte to create Taxi, was calling the area River North, and “I coined the phrase,” Weil remembers. “I said it would be really cool if we start calling it ‘RiNo.’”

The fact that the acronym also stood for Republicans in Name Only just added to RiNo’s charm.

They drew a boundary around all of the art locations they knew in the area, on both side of the tracks, and Hadley Hooper came up with a catchy rhino logo. They trademarked the name, and “it just took off from there,” Weil remembers. And how.

The first RiNo studio tour was a modest affair in January 2006; this past weekend’s RiNo safari attracted hundreds upon hundreds of art lovers to more than thirty stops, rain and snow be damned. You don’t see people using the Ballpark address very often these days — although the Ballpark Neighborhood Association is still one of the most active neighborhood groups in the city. Any new business popping up past 20th Street will generally say it’s in RiNo — even if it falls outside that area by several blocks.

Later this year, RiNo will mark its tenth anniversary. Its founders aren’t resting on RiNo’s success, though — because so much of what made the neighborhood successful is disappearing. The warehouses that were once home to artists’ and musicians’ rehearsal spaces are now marijuana growhouse operations that can afford astronomical rents; complex after complex of pricey apartments are springing up in the empty lots. And so Weil, Hadley Hooper and other pioneers in the area came up with a plan to Keep Rino Wild.

They want to create a Business Improvement District for RiNo, a local district financing tool that would help stakeholders collectively plan, fund and implement services and improvements for their neighborhood, similar to districts in Cherry Creek and downtown. In fact, the proposed RiNo BID area, which is almost identical to the original RiNo arts district that the two sketched out a decade ago, “is as big as downtown Denver,” says Weil, stretching up to I-70, down to Park Avenue, over to the Platte and back to Broadway and the alley between Larimer and Lawrence. To push the plan (see it at rinobid.org), they held meetings this winter, collected signatures — and this past Friday turned in the RiNo BID application to the city, with 60 percent of all the landowners in the proposed district signing off. On Tuesday, they presented the plan to a city council committee; next Monday, it will go before the full Denver City Council, which could approve sending the proposal to a vote of all landowners and business owners in the affected area come November. If the BID is approved, those owners would have the power to tax themselves and control the neighborhood’s destiny.

As much as such a thing is possible in white-hot Denver today.

But even if RiNo’s truly wild days are behind it, advocates are hoping that the BID would allow them to keep some character in the neighborhood and encourage the arts there, rather than watch the area turn into some cookie-cutter, soulless development. “We’re thrilled,” says Weil, an artist as dedicated to raising tomatoes as he is to raising political awareness. “We want people to talk about it. We want people to love RiNo. We have high hopes. And we want to make sure that arts is in the forefront.”

The property at 3716 Marion Street is technically in the Cole neighborhood, just outside of Five Points and the overlapping RiNo district — or RHINO, as the ad calls it.  And that Upper LoDo thing? That was a mistake, says Rob Mann, the listing agent for the property; he meant Upper Larimer. He grew up in northeast Denver, and he’s heard it all. He watched Highland morph into LoHi — “I still call it Northside, darling,” he says — and saw RiNo take off. And no matter what you call this part of town, there’s no denying that it’s on fire. A quarter-million for a fire-damaged, 548-square-foot home? But the address is only six or seven houses from Jake’s Food & Spirits, a popular watering hole at 3800 Walnut Street, right at the bend where the street names of RiNo and LoDo and North Capitol Hill come together, he points out. And then there’s the light rail that will soon stop a short walk away, and more developments right around the corner.

“It’s an incredible area. Everybody wants to live here," Mann says. "Just help me sell it.”

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