Denver Fire describes hazards at Rhinoceropolis. How can Denver keep its DIY art spaces?

Denver Fire has released a list of the violations that inspectors found at DIY space Rhinoceropolis.
10 min. read
Experimental musician Cecilia McKinnon, AKA Star Canyon, plays to a growing crowd under a plush set. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

DIY art spaces Rhinoceropolis and GLOB, in the warehouse on the right, are just a few doors down from the development of the Catalyst Health Tech Innovation campus. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

There's still a lot we don't know about Denver's decision to conduct a surprise inspection at Rhinoceropolis and its sister DIY arts space GLOB and evict the people living there, but Denver Fire has released a list of the violations that inspectors found there.

According to Denver Fire, those hazards included extension cords used for permanent wiring and wrapping paper on the walls and plastic on the ceiling.

The fire department said the building -- 3551 Brighton Boulevard and 3553 Brighton -- is not permitted for residential use and doesn't have smoke detectors or sprinkler systems, as would be required, nor does it have a properly working furnace.

Asked if the city is investigating other DIY arts spaces, Denver Fire spokeswoman Melissa Taylor said at a press conference Friday that inspectors are looking at structures for safety, not what's going on inside them.

"It's kind of come out that potentially the art community is being targeted, and that's most certainly not the case," she said.

Taylor said the decorations alone would not normally result in an eviction and the lack of a sprinkler system or other fire suppression was a major factor in the city's decision.

In an email to members, RiNo Art District President Jamie Licko said the district's board members did not know the inspection was coming and they pledged to work with the city to ensure DIY spaces continue to exist in RiNo.

"I think there could have been a more reasoned approach to making sure people are safe and having a longer-term game plan for preserving that space," Licko said in an interview. "I just don't understand why people are so resistant to sitting down and working out a solution instead of 'get them out of here.'"

Right now, no one can sleep there, and no performances or shows can be held there.

Artists who have called Rhino home say they've been passing inspections for more than a decade.

Taylor said the building had, in fact, been inspected, but "an occupancy fell through the cracks."

Asked directly if the fire department knew people were living there, Taylor said, "It should have been escalated sooner, and we take full responsibility for that."

Andrea Burns, communications director for Community Planning and Development, said in an email that Rhinoceropolis is "zoned I-MX-5 which would allow for residential use if a zoning permit for residential use was acquired (it was not) and if the residential parts of the building received building permits under the residential building code requirements.

"We do not have any building permits on file for construction, plumbing, mechanical, etc., anytime in the last two decades or so," she continued.

Denver Fire said the people who had been living in the building were allowed back to collect their personal belongings Friday morning. The five people who were evicted were offered a place to stay, but no one accepted, Taylor said.

On Thursday night, Milton Melvin "Buddy" Croissant III, who founded Rhinoceropolis 11 years ago, posted a letter to U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette on his Facebook page that said the space had passed fire inspections in the past and that the city was aware that people were living there.

"When I started this space, the landlord was fully aware that we were living in his property -- we built rooms to code, made sure there was safe exit and maintained fire extinguishers," he said. "We passed fire code inspections regularly, and understand that the current tenants have up until this past summer. So to hear that after 11 years, that the DFD has now found this to be unacceptable, is disheartening to say the least."

It's not clear if there will be a way for Rhinoceropolis to fix or address the problems and return to its former use. Taylor said that may ultimately be up to the landlord, who will need to get residential permits if people are to live there again.

Experimental musician Cecilia McKinnon, AKA Star Canyon, plays to a growing crowd under a plush set in GLOB as part of the Titwrench festival. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Council President Albus Brooks, whose district includes the RiNo Art District, said he'll be looking into the possibility of remediating the issues over the weekend and that he values the "vibrant" arts community that made RiNo what it is today.

But he suggested new affordable artists' housing the city hopes to see near 38th and Blake might be a better option than letting people live in warehouses.

"We can't have people living and operating in buildings that are not up to code," he said. "You saw what happened in Oakland. I am not willing to take that risk. We need our people to be safe."

DeGette (who, to be clear, doesn't have actual jurisdiction here) sounded a similar note in her response to the Rhinoceropolis founder, which he also shared on Facebook.

"The DFD and DPD made their decisions out of the concern for the inhabitants of Rhinoceropolis and the safety of others," she wrote. "Artist collective spaces can bring economic and cultural value to cities, but safety must be the top concern. While it is unfortunate that this has happened during the winter, the former residents will be safer living elsewhere until the relevant issues raised by city authorities are addressed."

Artists have said the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, which killed 36 people at a warehouse that had been converted into artists' living quarters and a performance venue, is being used as an excuse to target an already marginalized population that contributes enormously to the cultural life of cities.

Taylor denied that the deadly fire had shaped the city's actions.

"If this had been brought to our attention three weeks ago, it would have been handled in exactly the same way," she said.

Denver police said they received a "tip" about conditions and notified the fire department. They declined to be more specific and would not answer a direct question about whether the tip came from the public or from within the department.

Taylor said that Rhinoceropolis had been inspected as a commercial space, not a residential one, and some issues are a lower priority when no one is living in the space. Moving forward, the fire department plans to flag issues for the Fire Prevention Bureau in both commercial and residential spaces.

"What we're dealing with here is a misqualified occupancy," she said. "This is permitted for commercial use, which means it needs much less fire protection devices in place than what it would be for residential."

Licko, the RiNo Art District president, called the city's actions a "knee-jerk" response to the Oakland fire. Art district members are in regular communication with city officials about a range of issues, and the district could have played a role in finding a solution, she said.

"Knowing that we're in constant communication and then having this happen, there is something off about it," she said. "My preference would have been that they contacted us and contacted the property owner and brought us together to say, 'We don't want to see things happen here like happened in Oakland. We're concerned there are some issues, and how can we get at that?'"

In the email, Licko described concrete steps the art district plans to take, namely working with the city to reopen Rhino as a music venue, looking at the zoning of formerly industrial spaces to make sure they can keep operating -- legally -- as live/work spaces and venues and stressing to the city the importance of maintaining affordable DIY spaces.

"We must start giving artists their fair dues," she wrote. "They should be supported and celebrated as culture makers and shapers. Cultural institutions like Rhinoceropolis must have a home here in Denver if we want to truly be a first-class city with a creative soul."

Licko said she's concerned that if warehouses have to meet residential standards as the code exists today, it will be prohibitively expensive and more DIY spaces will be lost. The city needs to look at ways to be flexible with the requirements while still maintaining safety. And the city should consider putting up money for big-ticket items like sprinkler systems.

These are the sections of the code that Denver Fire says were violated:

1. 102.3 Change of use or occupancy. Changes shall not be made in the use or occupancy of any structure that would place the structure in a different division of the same group or occupancy or in a different group of occupancies, unless such structure is made to comply with the requirements of this code and the International Building Code. Subject to the approval of the fire code official, the use or occupancy of an existing structure shall be allowed to be changed and the structure is allowed to be occupied for purposes in other groups without conforming to all of the requirements of this code and the International Building Code for those groups, provided the new or proposed use is less hazardous, based on life and fire risk, than the existing use.

2. 605.5 Extension cords. Extension cords and flexible cords shall not be a substitute for permanent wiring. Extension cords and flexible cords shall not be affixed to structures, extended through walls, ceilings or floors, or under doors or floor coverings, nor shall such cords be subject to environmental damage or physical impact. Extension cords shall be used only with portable appliances.

3. 803.1 General. The provisions of this section shall limit the allowable fire performance and smoke development of interior wall and ceiling finishes and interior wall and ceiling trim in existing buildings based on location and occupancy classification. Interior wall and ceiling finishes shall be classified in accordance with Section 803 of the International Building Code. Such materials shall be grouped in accordance with ASTM E 84, as indicated in Section 803.1.1, or in accordance with NFPA 286, as indicated in Section 803.1.2.

1. Materials having a thickness less than 0.036 inch (0.9 mm) applied directly to the surface of walls and ceilings.
2. Exposed portions of structural members complying with the requirements of buildings of Type IV construction in accordance with the International Building Code shall not be subject to interior finish requirements.

4. 305.1 Clearance from ignition sources. Clearance between ignition sources, such as luminaires, heaters, flame-producing devices and combustible materials, shall be maintained in an approved manner.

5. 308.1.5 Location near combustibles. Open flames such as from candles, lanterns, kerosene heaters and gas-fired heaters shall not be located on or near decorative material or similar combustible materials.

Do you have a story or a memory about Rhinoceropolis?

Please share it with reporter Ashley Dean at [email protected].

This story has been updated throughout.

Ashley Dean contributed to this report.

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