Denver authorities “red-tag” artists space
Rhinoceropolis cited for fire-code violations and more
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.