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The Design Lover’s Guide To RiNo

The River North Art District is Denver's field of dreams, calling creatives, foodies, and everyone else to its bustling scene. Here, we round up all you need to know to find the area's best design ideas--and discover what's next for Denver's hippest 'hood.

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The Essential Tour

Design lovers, this one’s for you: Discover some of RiNo’s best at these new spots (and a few old favorites).
1. Exhibition Tower at Weilworks Gallery

What We Love: The paneled, concave wood structure—designed by local architect David Lynn Wise—topping Weilworks’ exhibition tower is a work of art itself (and a great spot to admire the city skyline). 3611 Chestnut Place, weilworks.com/gallery

2. Zeppelin Station

What We Love: Flip boards, which were once ubiquitous at train stations, have been reimagined as menu boards at this bustling new food market hall. 3501 Wazee St., zeppelin
station.com

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3. Millers & Rossi

What We Love: The custom-made, neon green “We’re all animals” sign, part of the contemporary artworks (from local artists) that front the speakeasy. 3542 Walnut St., millers
androssi.com

4. Bar Helix

What We Love: It’s hard to pry our eyes away from the sparkle of the 20-
foot-long backlit bar, inspired by champagne bubbles. (Cheers!) 3440 Larimer St., 
insidethehelix.com

5. ATC DEN

What We Love: While checking out whatever contemporary art exhibition owner and artist Laura Krudener curated, you can pause to play DJ on the gallery’s record player. 3420 Larimer St., 
atcden.com

6. The Populist

What We Love: The restaurant’s charming patio feels like a true escape from the city, with a long community table, living wall, and festive string lights.
3163 Larimer St., 
thepopulistdenver.com

7. OKHI Co

What We Love: The hipster-style vibe is strong at this vintage retail shop. Our favorite design element? The wood-and-acrylic DIY shelves displaying ’zines and books. 3151 Larimer St.

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8. Modern Nomad

What We Love: The month-old design collective (housed in a former auto-body shop and NSFW theater) includes the second location of modern showroom Mod Livin’ and a group of tenants who showcase their wares together (so you’re sure to get the look you want). While you’re there, stop to admire the original red “Empire” marquee sign out front. 2936 Larimer St., modern
nomaddenver.com

9. 2800 Walnut St.

What We Love: Get a three-for-one design hit with a trio of gorgeous showrooms in the former Gold Star sausage factory. Solesdi U.S. shows off high-end European furniture, and Artisan Rug Gallery has an extensive collection of floor coverings from around the world. Don’t miss Design Wright Studios, the only local spot to ogle pieces from mega-designer Kelly Wearstler’s glamorous line.
 artisanruggallery.com, designwrightstudios.com, solesdi.com

10. Greenlight Lab

What We Love: The bar doubles as a design laboratory for LivStudio, and the design and architecture firm is looking for customer feedback on the furniture, lighting, and more. 1336 27th St., greenlightlab.net

11. Studio Como

What We Love: The Dock, a space dedicated to rotating exhibitions that highlight specific designers or current trends amid the modern showroom’s outstanding offerings. 
2535 Walnut St., 
studiocomo.com

12. Bindery on Blake

What We Love: Clerestory windows bring natural light into the former printing plant, a smart design decision for the artists, shop owners, and creatives who spend most of their days here. For fun, check out the refurbished, vintage “Liquors” sign in the property’s second building.
 2901 Blake St.

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13. Backyard 
on Blake

What We Love: This 1930s warehouse-turned-retail-and-eatery-complex was updated (and has a new addition), but it stays true to its industrial roots, and the courtyard brings some much-needed greenery into a mostly concrete area. If you go, don’t miss the small-batch homewares at River North Workshop.3040 Blake St., backyard
onblake.com


History Lesson

How did Denver’s industrial center become so damn cool?
RiNo
23rd and Blake streets, looking north; Brighton Viaduct in the distance. Photo by Kim Allen, Denver Photo Archives.

Thirty years ago, the area east of Broadway had a lot going for it: proximity to downtown and the city’s two major highways, relatively affordable land and properties, and a surprising cool factor thanks to a population of working artists and makers. But this segment of Five Points, long relegated to manufacturing, felt mostly forgotten. Visitors drove down Brighton Boulevard from the airport, and their first views of Denver were of abandoned warehouses and empty cross streets. That is, until city employees and developers took a closer look. “We knew that we would be growing as a city, and we questioned if all of that area needed to be industrial,” says Steve Nalley, neighborhood planning supervisor for Denver’s Community Planning & Development department.“The impetus for change was [commuter rail system] FasTracks and the buildout of our train system. In 2003, you would stand on Brighton Boulevard and it was tough to see that future. Stand out there today, and you actually see that future being built.”

Change began nearly 20 years ago. Developer Mickey Zeppelin and his son, Kyle, helped jump-start interest in the area with the opening of the mixed-use community Taxi in 2001. A year later, Blueprint Denver, a vision plan for the city’s future, identified the belt that would become RiNo as an area of change—ripe for development, in other words. FasTracks was approved in 2004. A year later, artists Jill Hadley Hooper and Tracy Weil created the River North Art District, an area of just more than 1,000 acres. RiNo was born.

Still, the district didn’t really hit its stride for almost a decade, until the time Americans started to trade the suburbs for the city and the locavore movement was gaining strength. “[RiNo is] Denver’s epicenter of creativity and innovation,” says Andrew Feinstein, chairperson of RiNo Art District and managing partner of the EXDO group. “That’s led first and foremost by the artists and the art galleries that made this neighborhood unique and special, and that has been continued by the small-business owners and pioneering developers who have carried that mantle forward.”

Today, Denver is investing more than $1 billion in the area, with efforts that include the Brighton Boulevard Redevelopment (infrastructural improvements along the 18-block thoroughfare), RiNo Park (new green space next to the South Platte River), and the light rail station, which began operations in 2016. The population of RiNo nearly doubled from 2000 to 2015, reaching close to 15,000. And when the district was founded, there were six galleries in the area, 22 artist members, and 15 makers; today, there are 20 galleries, 80 artists, and 140 makers.

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But it’s not all engaging design and smart adaptive reuse. Questions remain: Will creatives be able to afford to live and work in an area of such rapid growth? (Rule Gallery moved to the Art District on Santa Fe in 2016 because a developer bought the block and planned to demolish the buildings, and Ice Cube Gallery shuttered in June of that year because of soaring rent.) How can design-centric approaches help preserve the district’s unique vibe and address issues (such as a lack of green space and parking)?

RiNo can be a long-term success story—if stakeholders continue to be vigilant about cultivating affordable housing and work/live venues for the creative class. “What makes cities interesting is all the overlap between rich and poor, black and white and Latino, young and old,” Kyle Zeppelin says. “Part of the role for RiNo is to be more grounded, more approachable, for more people.”


Inspired Design

Five Points’ colorful history endures in the details at these contemporary spots.

Bigsby’s Folly
Housed in the Leyner Engineering Works building, erected in 1886, this six-month-old urban winery retained the structure’s original fir ceiling trusses and facade. Co-founder Marla Yetka complemented the structural elements with antique details, including a Colorado ballot box from circa 1935 that now holds guests’ comment cards. bigsbysfolly.com

The Ramble Hotel 
Hand-cut brick, factory-pane windows, hefty steel columns—RiNo’s industrial character is on display at this new boutique hotel. The chandeliered interior (which will house two bars from New York City’s Death
& Co. team when it opens in the spring) provides an elegant contrast. theramblehotel.com 

The Ramble Hotel
Photo courtesy of The Ramble Hotel.

Denver Central Market
The almost-18-month-old food hall hasn’t forgotten that it’s housed in an 89-year-old building. From the arched brick facade to the curved, glass-topped entryway to the large black-and-white photo of a 1920s-era fish market behind Silva’s Fish Market, DCM pays homage to the past beautifully. denvercentralmarket.com

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Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club
If Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis could return to Five Points and play Nocturne, they’d feel mighty comfortable in the dimly lit space. The Art Deco motif—vintage cabaret wallpaper, marble floor, curved banquette—works seamlessly with the original wood factory ceilings, metal beams, and exposed brick wall, holdovers from the building’s former life as the H.H. Tammen Building. nocturnejazz.com

The Nocture Jazz and Supper Club. Photo by Grace Boyle.

Growing Pains

Who’s winning and losing as RiNo evolves? Ranked below from winners to losers.

Boozehounds: At last count, there are at least 30 bars, breweries, cideries, distilleries, and wineries in RiNo. ‘Nuff said.

Ratio Beerworks
Ratio Beerworks. Photo by Adam Larkey.

Independent businesses: The RiNo Business Improvement District is working with developers to ensure that the focus remains on local and non-chain enterprises (with the exception of the upcoming Shake Shack, which no one seems to mind). It’s part of the appeal for locals and visitors alike.

“It’s important, if we want to keep the character of RiNo, to make sure that we have space where artists and makers can stay. [They are] what made it so interesting to the developers: Real things were happening there. Art was being produced.” — Fiona Arnold, President of Mainspring Developers

Creativity: RiNo is home to a shipping container plaza and warehouses renovated for the 21st century, and is the future site of living street, activated alleyways, and some of the city’s newest eco efforts.

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Adaptive reuse:Many developments in the area have embraced the idea of reusing a former manufacturing site or building for a new purpose. “People love that connection to what happened here before them,” says Fiona Arnold; her company, Mainspring Developers, oversaw the Backyard on Blake redevelopment.

Alleyways: Graffiti, bars, garage doors that open to reveal cycling studios—alleys have never been this hip (or well-used).

Public mural by Anna Charney.

Makers: Warehouses provide ample space for creative endeavors. Everyone from brewers to coffee roasters to furniture makers have found a home in RiNo.

Density: New zoning rules for the Denver City Council to consider in January will allow for up to 16 stories in some segments of RiNo (centered on the light rail station). The upzoning comes with a caveat: Any commercial building taller than eight floors will be required to devote a to-be-determined percentage of space to community-serving businesses, including artists and galleries; housing projects that opt for the increased height will have to set aside a certain percentage for affordable housing. No one is pushing close to that—yet—but Giambrocco, a mixed-use development that will transform six city blocks adjacent to the station, is currently blueprinted for the full height.

The creative class: This is a tricky one: Rising rents have priced out some of the artists who worked in the area before it was popular, but the number of creatives and galleries in the RiNo Art District has steadily risen since its founding in 2005. On the upside, new projects are including the arts in interesting ways. The Ride at RiNo apartment building (opening in the fall) will host rotating art exhibitions throughout the property with the help of Helikon Gallery & Studios. RiNo Park will feature sculptural work by local artists Pedro Barrios and Jaime Molina.

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Parking: The downside to RiNo’s popularity? Less street parking. And guess what: Adaptive-reuse projects in buildings erected before 1967 aren’t required to include any off-street parking.

Open Space: We’re not just talking green space. Density and development mean there aren’t many open areas left at all—whether that’s a park or concrete promenade where people can gather. The good news: The addition of RiNo Park and some new developments, which include promenades and courtyards, are a positive step forward.

RiNo
RiNo Park. Photo courtesy of Wenk Associates,

Affordability: As the area has become more popular, rent and property taxes have risen, making it increasingly difficult for people and small businesses to afford to stay in RiNo.


Eco Efforts

Good design isn’t just about buildings, as these environmental initiatives prove.

Project: RiNo Promenade and RiNo Park
The Deets: The South Platte River is a forgotten part of RiNo, but that’s about to change. The proposed RiNo Promenade is a 10-block-long outdoor leisure area situated along its banks, from 29th to 38th streets. Connected to the Promenade will be the 3.5-acre RiNo Park; construction is slated to begin in the spring and take about a year. The green space will include play areas, trails, industrial elements (park benches made of iron and wood), and public art, including cement mixers turned into light installations.
The Benefits: City parks give a serious boost to our economy, our health, and our environment. Just how big is that benefit? The City Parks Alliance (a nationwide organization dedicated to protecting and building urban parks) says that for the largest 85 cities in the country (including the Mile High City), the health savings are a whopping $3.08 billion.

RiNo
RiNo Park. Photo courtesy of Wenk Associates.

Project: Green Stormwater
The Deets: In an effort to keep the South Platte River from becoming more polluted, RiNo plans to treat stormwater before it reaches the waterway. It’s a first-of-its-kind initiative for the city.
The Benefits: The South Platte can use all the help it can get. Can we get an ‘amen’?

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Project: Green Roofs
The Deets: The push toward more green space is finding life in RiNo. Flight, the Zeppelians’ upcoming office building, features one of the city’s largest green roofs, topped with solar arrays; the World Trade Center, opening in 2019, will have an elevated garden.
The Benefits: Greenery is a city’s magic wand, filtering air pollution, cooling off the so-called “urban heat island,” mitigating noise, and helping us all to chill out.

Project: Trees
The Deets: More than 400 trees will line Brighton Boulevard as part of the corridor’s $37.8-million redevelopment project.
The Benefits: The world’s greatest cities sport tree-lined corridors in high-density areas. (The stroll down the Champs-Élysées in Paris wouldn’t be the same without the canopy of trees, oui?

Project: Enriched pedestrian experience
The Deets: A major goal for the district and the city is improving the walk- and cycle-ability of RiNo. When Brighton Boulevard’s first phase of redevelopment is finished in May, for example, it will feature the first elevated cycle track in the city and wider sidewalks. Giambrocco will include the city’s first Woonerf, a living-street concept borrowed from the Dutch in which pedestrians, bikes, and cars all share space.
The Benefits: Multimodal neighborhoods get people out of their cars, improve access for everyone (such as people who take the bus or can’t afford a car), and is good for Mother Nature. Rather than whizzing by, walkers and cyclers get closer to local businesses, which improves the local economy.


Art Walk

The streets of RiNo are a creative gallery of graffiti and murals. Check out four of our recent favorites.
Mural
A vibrant school of koi fish splashing colorful drops of water, by Blaine Fontana. Photo by Dana P. Smith.

Find it on the side of RedLine Contemporary Art Gallery (2350 Arapahoe St.)

Mural
A bright geometric work that reminds us of tripping geodes, by Debbie Clapper. Photo by Dana P. Smith.

Find it Behind 10 Barrel Brewing Company (2620 Walnut St.)

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Mural
A man floats above Brighton Boulevard, a collaboration between Jaime Molina and Pedro Barrios. Photo courtesy of Jaime Molina.

Find it Dylan Apartments (3201 Brighton Blvd.)

Mural
A serape (blanket-like shawl common in Latin America turned two-dimensional, by Anthony Garcia Sr. and Nick Morris. Photo courtesy of Anthony Garcia Sr.

Find it Northeast exterior wall of Matchbox (2625 Larimer St.)


Coming Soon

Smart design isn’t just about good looks. For an area to be vibrant and innovative, it has to include structures (physical and ideological) that complement its aesthetics. Here, five efforts in RiNo worth watching.

1. Improved Infrastructure
There’s plenty to admire in RiNo, but taking in all the buildings and art from the sidewalk is a challenge because, well, there aren’t many sidewalks. They simply weren’t necessary when trucks were just driving in and out to pick up supplies. But that’s all changing, particularly along Brighton Boulevard, where a massive improvement plan is underway: When construction on the first two of four segments is complete, the section between 29th and 44th will have 2.6 miles of sidewalks and raised cycle track, along with more than 100 benches, 80 on-street parking spaces, 300-plus lights, and three new traffic signals. “We’re connecting the neighborhood, and I think that’s critical,” says Albus Brooks, president of Denver City Council and councilman for District 9 (which includes RiNo). Upgrades to the underpass at 38th and Blake streets will help continue that connection between the west and east sides of the district. The city also plans to turn Walnut Street into a two-lane road, to encourage commercial activity à la Larimer and Blake streets, within the next year.

2. Places to Stay
When we book a room in a trendy part of town, we often head home with half a dozen ideas for updating our own bathrooms or bedrooms. If that’s your mode of style inspiration, too, then you’re in luck. Two exciting projects are coming to the district soon: the Source Hotel in March and the Ramble Hotel this spring. In-progress developments will add even more rooms in the next year or so. When HomeAdvisor moves its headquarters to the Hub Development in 2018, it will be joined by a 159-room hotel. The historic Rossonian Hotel will be renovated (timeline TBD) to include 105 rooms. And DriveTrain, a three-acre, mixed-use development on Brighton Boulevard, will likely include both a hotel and condominiums. Dreamy, right?

Rossonian Hotel
The historic Rossonian Hotel. Photo by Getty Images.

3. Affordable Housing
One of RiNo’s biggest challenges? Affordable housing. The good news is that a handful of projects are in the works, including the Urban Land Conservancy’s plan to transform Beloved, the tiny-home village for the homeless, into Walnut Street Lofts, 65 units reserved for folks making 30 to 60 percent of the area’s median income, available to
rent by late 2019. Artspace, a nonprofit developer focused on affordable housing
for artists, is planning to build 80 to 100 units in the district, but they won’t be available to lease until 2020.

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4. (Even More) Food and Drink
Shopping for art burns calories, so after picking out the perfect piece, fuel up at one of these coming-soon ventures: Super Mega Bien, the second eatery from the team behind Work & Class, opening next to the Ramble Hotel in March; and Colorado’s first Shake Shack and Odell Brewing Co.’s new brewery and taproom, neighboring businesses expected to arrive mid-spring. (Bonus: Uchi, from James Beard award-winning chef Tyson Cole, will get rolling this spring in Curtis Park, just on the edge of RiNo.)

5. Transit-Oriented Development
The land around the 38th and Blake light rail station is set for a major makeover. Two big newcomers: Zeppelin Station just started slinging street food and drinks on the west end of the station. And the first phase of Denver Rock Drill, a 700,000-square-foot mixed-use development, is expected to open to the public by the end of 2018.

Zeppelin Station
Photo courtesy of Zeppelin Station

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