Den­ver au­thor­i­ties “red-tag” artists space

Rhinoceropo­lis cited for fire-code vi­o­la­tions and more

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Dy­lan Owens and Kevin Simp­son

Den­ver au­thor­i­ties have “red­tagged” the Rhinoceropo­lis artists space that was evac­u­ated in frigid tem­per­a­tures on Thurs­day night, cit­ing a num­ber of fire-code vi­o­la­tions and the fact that five peo­ple were liv­ing in a build­ing that isn’t zoned for residents.

Those who were part of the tight-knit artis­tic com­mu­nity, which had per­sonal con­nec­tions to vic­tims of Oak­land’s Ghost Ship ware­house fire last week, on Fri­day moved be­long­ings out of the blond-brick struc­ture in the 3500 block of Brighton Boule­vard in the tran­si­tion­ing River North, or RiNo, neigh­bor­hood.

Mean­while, the Den­ver Fire De­part­ment and other city agen­cies in­spected the two ad­ja­cent ad­dresses that com­prise the build­ing and posted no­tices in­di­cat­ing that it can only be oc­cu­pied by con­trac­tors un­til it meets fire stan­dards.

DFD spokes­woman Melissa Tay­lor noted that while the build­ing had passed pre­vi­ous in­spec­tions, it met stan­dards only for com­mer­cial oc­cu­pancy. The dis­cov­ery that five peo­ple lived there in­di­cated that the struc­ture “fell through the cracks” of en­force­ment un­til Den­ver po­lice be­came aware of the sit­u­a­tion. Once au­thor­i­ties knew peo­ple were liv­ing there, the prop­erty should have been re­ferred to the Fire Pro­tec­tion Bureau for in­spec­tion.

Tay­lor added she did not know if a height­ened sense of aware­ness stem­ming from the Oak­land fire had trig­gered con­cern, or if po­lice re­ceived a ran­dom call about the prop­erty. But with nei­ther smoke de­tec­tors nor sprin­klers, the build­ing didn’t meet the fire code for res­i­den­tial prop­erty and fire of­fi­cials made the de­ci­sion to evac­u­ate the premises im­me­di­ately.

“It’s im­por­tant to note we don’t take de­ci­sions like this lightly,” Tay­lor said. “We never, ever want to displace residents if at all pos­si­ble. But para­mount to that is an in­di­vid­ual’s safety and we want to make that our pri­or­ity, which is why im­me­di­ate ac­tion was taken.”

How­ever, she em­pha­sized that the fire de­part­ment’s re­sponse Thurs­day night was not a “knee-jerk re­ac­tion” to the Oak­land tragedy, in which 36 peo­ple died, but “how we rou­tinely han­dle sit­u­a­tions when we en­counter life-safety haz­ards. Those sit­u­a­tions are miti-

gated im­me­di­ately af­ter they’re brought to our at­ten­tion.”

Stephan Her­rera, an artist, car­toon­ist and mu­si­cian who was one of the residents forced to up­root and find new lodg­ings, ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment at the loss of a vi­tal com­mu­nity — and anger at what he sees as eco­nomic forces push­ing it out of the neigh­bor­hood.

“This en­abled me to be around like-minded in­di­vid­u­als, to have a di­a­logue and cre­ate be­side them and in­ter­act with other artists who come here,” said Her­rera, gaz­ing up at the sec­ond-floor win­dow of his for­mer home. “I see it as the city us­ing this as an op­por- tu­nity to push artists out. Our com­mu­nity is al­ready griev­ing and mourn­ing af­ter Oak­land. This was a dis­gust­ing way to re­act.”

But fire au­thor­i­ties said that sim­ply wasn’t the rea­son­ing be­hind Thurs­day evening’s ac­tion and a broader ex­am­i­na­tion of such prop­er­ties that al­ready is un­der­way.

“What will be looked at are struc­tures — not nec­es­sar­ily what’s hap­pen­ing in the struc­tures, but the struc­tures them­selves,” Tay­lor said.

A Go­FundMe page has been set up for those pushed out of the build­ing, and by Fri­day af­ter­noon it had raised more than $2,000.

RiNo Art Dis­trict pres­i­dent Jamie Licko ac­knowl­edged that she un­der­stood why the city con­ducted the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, call­ing it a “re­ac­tion to what hap­pened in Oak­land,” but didn’t agree with how it was ex­e­cuted.

In a re­lease, Licko stated the or­ga­ni­za­tion had no prior knowl­edge of the in­spec­tion, call­ing it a “rash” direc­tive.

“From a tim­ing per­spec­tive, pulling off an evic­tion like this at 5:30 p.m. on one of cold­est nights of the year seems like it could’ve been more thought­ful,” Licko said in a phone in­ter­view. “Let’s be more thought­ful as a com­mu­nity and work to­gether.”

Ac­cord­ing to Licko, who spoke with prop­erty owner Larry Burgess and city zon­ing of­fi­cials, Rhinoceropo­lis may soon host events again, but as an in­dus­tri­ally zoned prop­erty, it is un­likely to re­turn as a space for hous­ing.

“There’s a large out­cry since last night to let peo­ple live there,” Licko said, “(but) get­ting it up to code as a res­i­den­tial fa­cil­ity is go­ing to be an ex­pen­sive process and one that can’t be rec­ti­fied overnight. Get­ting the space to where it can con­tinue as a mu­sic and art venue is some­thing we can do quickly.”

With Rhinoceropo­lis ef­fec­tively shut down, the venue’s pa­trons have be­gun fear­ing for the fate of the city’s other DIY spaces. Licko asked that those who want to par­tic­i­pate in the con­ver­sa­tion around RiNo’s artist com­mu­nity get in touch with the RiNo Art Dis­trict, who plan on pulling to­gether a work­ing group to pro­pose “the next steps for work­ing with the city.”

Start­ing Fri­day, any vi­o­la­tions noted even at the less strin­gent fire com­pany level will be re­ferred to the Fire Preven­tion Bureau for in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Tay­lor said. The de­part­ment will “spot check” the rel­a­tively small num­ber of city build­ings that fall into the square­footage range that hov­ers be­tween nor­mal busi­ness fa­cil­i­ties and larger ware­houses.

De­spite the un­for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the sud­den dis­place­ment of the residents, Tay­lor stressed that a fire could have pro­duced more sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences.

“As much as we’re griev­ing what they went through,” she said, “we’re not griev­ing loss of life.”

Rhinoceropo­lis res­i­dent Made­line John­ston on Fri­day works to clean the floors as oth­ers gather their be­long­ings be­fore Den­ver of­fi­cials in­spect the studio space. Pho­tos by Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

Residents and their friends re­move be­long­ings from Rhinocer­ropo­los, an artists space in the 3500 block of Brighton Boule­vard in the tran­si­tion­ing River North, or RiNo, neigh­bor­hood.

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