The city of Denver seems to recognize there’s a better way to handle fire code violations than sending a group of artists out into the cold on a December night.
On Monday, the city council approved an ordinance that would allow tenants to stay in unpermitted buildings, so long as they agree to a plan to bring them up to code. The safe occupancy program was created after the city closed a couple popular DIY art spaces following the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California. On December 8, the Denver Fire Department was called to Rhinoceropolis on Brighton Boulevard. The warehouse was evacuated due to serious fire code violations, and several artists living there were forced to leave.
“It drove the community completely underground,” Lauri Lynnxe Murphy said. “People basically went into hiding, stopped advertising shows.”
Murphy is an artist who’s been involved in the Denver DIY scene for about 30 years.
“I’ve always lived and worked in these kinds of spaces,” she said, standing in her studio cluttered with colorful artwork.
Murphy is hopeful the safe occupancy program will help artists, but she’s worried about funding.
“No one is going to step forward really until there’s some money,” she said.
The safe occupancy program encourages owners and tenants of unpermitted buildings to voluntarily come forward to work with the city to make their spaces safer.
“We need folks to know that they’re safe, right. That they won’t be kicked out if they go through this program,” said Denver City Council President, Albus Brooks.
Brooks acknowledged the relationship between the DIY community and the city was strained after the closure of artist spaces in Denver.
“I think the city has responded really well,” he said. “We do realize Denver is growing fast. It’s moving fast, but at the same time we want to honor the folks who made Denver cool, who made RiNo, RiNo.”
Brooks called the safe occupancy program a great compromise that would allow artists to keep their spaces while following Denver’s black and white building code. The RiNo Art District supports the program and co-founder Tracy Weil called it a good first step.
“We have to start building trust, right? Between the city and artists,” Weil said. “And I think this bill can really help us move that forward in the right direction.”
Weil said the RiNo Art District board met Tuesday and discussed ways to chip in funding for the safe occupancy program.
“These things cost real money. Sprinkler systems cost dollars, dry wall costs dollars, electrical – all those kinds of things, so we’re really trying to be able to kind of move that forward,” Weil said.
The RiNo Art District is also looking to work with architects or designers who might be willing to volunteer their time and skills to help artists make sure their spaces are up to par.
“I think everything is under consideration,” Councilman Brooks said. “I think there is a lot of money for arts in the city of Denver.”
Murphy suggested that developers building up RiNo should contribute money to support artists involved in the safe occupancy program.
“They’re pushing us out of the neighborhoods that they followed us to,” she said. “[Developers] would not be making as much money on RiNo had we not been there first.”
Owners or tenants of unpermitted spaces can apply for the safe occupancy program. City code workers will inspect buildings, but won’t require code violations to be fixed right away unless there’s a serious life-safety concern. The program will also be open to buildings the city closed since December 2016.