Denver real estate developer and visionary Mickey Zeppelin turned 80 last week — which is a good time for young hipsters of Denver, and really Denverites of all ages, to thank him for making Denver and RiNo the cool and exciting place it is today!
Back in the 90s, I remember celebrating my sister’s sweet sixteen in one of Mickey’s ultra cool LODO spaces. The room had intricate tile work on the floors and walls, eclectic chairs, painted murals – an exciting urban atmosphere – the likes of which a suburban girl growing up south of Hampden didn’t see very often.
To appreciate what Mickey has done for Denver, it helps to look back to those days. Before the Cherry Creek mall or the multi-million dollar condos and townhouses – before the cranes, hotels and Hermes – Mickey Zeppelin lived in a humble abode among art galleries and quaint shops that made up Cherry Creek North we once knew. LoDo was the same thing. Prior to Coors Field, micro breweries, trendy lofts and R.E.I. – there were empty warehouses, artists studios and Mickey Zeppelin. The Golden Triangle – well…same thing.
So it is no wonder that before the rest of us even knew where RiNo was, Mickey knew. Mickey’s son Kyle notes,
My Dad sees the potential of these areas before everyone else does—this kind of edge of downtown area where there is really no development. He sees things ahead of their time.
Kyle, who joined his Dad in real estate after law school, is also a conscientious trailblazer. His vision for RiNo’s Source, with its independent restaurants and coffee houses under one exciting roof, paved the way for other independent markets sprouting up in Denver like the Stanley Marketplace, Avanti, and the Denver Central Market. At the forefront of “first of a kind” projects, Kyle maintains a strong social conscious that carries through his work.
An Interview with Kyle Zeppelin:
WALK US THROUGH HOW RINO GOT STARTED?
We started 20 years ago. It was creative work space, new economy work space before that term even existed. TAXI is the outer western edge of RINO on the west side of the river. There were some smaller pockets of development activity, but we were kind of the only game in town for a while.
After the ballpark, LoDo became pretty mainstream, and the artists kind of dispersed. Some of the same culture that existed pre-Coors Field in LoDo is here in RiNo. Thes are not the amazing historic structures you have in LoDo. That’s more what LoDo is about. This is about artists space, post industrial, interesting character with more of a creative edge to it.
Post recession, we started thinking about this project called the Source, which was happening in other places but wasn’t that common—an urban market hall. We saw a similar project in Seattle where my sister lives called Melrose Market: a few restaurants, meat counter, coffee, produce and a flower shop. That’s partially where the idea came from.
RiNo started to become a concentration of creative and tech. In some ways the Source proved the model.
People will go out of their way to eat and drink the right things. That’s universally appealing. We get people from all over the metro area.
That is one of the unique things about the Source. It is not just hipster kids who care about design and art but older people from southeast suburbs, families, and different outlets that make it appealing to all groups.
Everyone is co-existing and having a good time. There is opportunity for interaction that gets people outside their usual circle.
WHAT’S NEW HAPPENING IN RINO?
We have 3 major projects under construction:
1. The BOA Tech Building
We are working on a build-to-suit office building for BOA Technology at the north end of the site with 140,000 feet of work space. It will also have an artist in residence program – artists will be selected for residence, a stipend and a studio.
2. The Source Hotel
The first high rise building in RiNo, is currently a big construction project -a 100 room hotel with the St. Julien out of Boulder. The Source Hotel is going to be geared toward the new urban destination traveler with high standards and a culinary focus. It should be pretty interesting — indoor – outdoor space, a rooftop deck beer garden and pool with views in both direction, views of downtown-the mountains.
The new rail station on the west side of RiNo will have pedestrian bridges and greater connectivity. (The RTD rail station at Blake and 37th is the first stop on the line between Union Station and the Denver International Airport). We are calling it Zeppelin Station. It is going to be a really fun place with a multi-cultural food hall representative of the population throughout the metro area. With 80,000 feet of work space going upstairs – half is already leased up and the rest going pretty quick.
GROWING UP WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE PLACE IN DENVER?
I wasn’t tuned into real estate. It was just about wherever my friends were. I also loved the side of a ski mountain.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT DENVER?
The laid back culture and how inviting Denver is. People are from all over. It is an easy place to talk to people, to live in different neighborhoods, to meet new people and to work with new people. It is the opposite of some more established places with circles of people that tend to stay within. Obviously the climate and access to the outdoors too and to be an hour and a half away from some of the better skiing in the world.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LIVE A SUSTAINABLE LIFESTYLE?
I don’t know exactly what that means, but I do know we care about the same things during the day we care about when we come home at night. The job and work is integrated with the way I live my life. My commute is across the parking lot, so that is pretty sustainable. Raising kids here is a unique situation. They are constantly interacting with people. Knowing how to relate to others really prepares kids for life.
Our lives are interconnected with the projects that are intended to be catalytic and enhance the situation around us.
With our projects alone, we are not going to totally transform the way the city works, but I think we can improve the model. We are able to raise the bar that way.
We are active in the surrounding neighborhoods. Part of the opportunity for RiNo is not just to draw people from the outside and have this fun creative place where people with money can afford to come and eat at the best restaurants. There is also opportunity for surrounding neighborhoods, that are the poorest in the city, to find ways to engage.
WHAT IS COMAL?
We have a food incubator called CoMAL where people from the surrounding neighborhoods can feed their families and get job training. We refreshed the space, and they run a taco shop out of it throughout the week. There is a chef teaching basic kitchen and life skills. It has been really well received. A few Syrian immigrants are starting to train there and make middle eastern food on Fridays. (Read more about Denver I Love’s visit to Comal, Authentic Syrian lunches Fridays at TAXI ).
WHAT ARE THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN RINO WITH KIDS?
There is a group of kids here who like to be with each other. We have a pool out of recycled shipping container; a pretty extensive playground with a used up fork lift; and a climbing wall. We have a game room/rec room in the Freight area, and are building a soccer field between the two buildings under construction.
WHAT DO YOU ADMIRE MOST ABOUT YOUR DAD?
He has built a life and business around contributing to all the things he cares most about. He spends his time where he feels he can make a difference. If he says he is going to do something, he consistently does it. There is a high level of integrity. There is no posturing. He isn’t trying to climb the social ladder or sell people on things he can’t deliver. What you see is what you get. He has a pretty big agenda of all the things he wants to accomplish commercially and socially.
DO YOU HAVE A MANTRA YOU LIVE BY?
We try to align what is socially relevant with what makes sense for the business. If it doesn’t work socially, then it will ultimately be a drain economically. If you look at everything we are doing, there is a broader purpose. Throughout the business and my life I try to do things that have lasting value.
A CHAMPION FOR TRANSPORTATION CHANGE:
It drives me crazy when I see all these little moves with transportation that don’t amount to much—bike lanes here and there, available parking spaces, big wide roads. If you add it all up it doesn’t really make it possible for people to get in the mind set that they can get rid of their cars. We need a different backbone for walkability.
IN WHAT WAYS DOES ART PLAY AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN RINO?
Art is the experimentation where a lot of ideas start in their pure form-not as convoluted with the business form.
The art culture is a huge part of what creates the opportunity for us to do the projects we do.
We are trying to not have it turn into just a bunch of commercial development. The government also plays a role in helping the neighborhood develop in a more inclusive way than if left only up to the market. We have artist housing, significant art components in every project; an art incubator space at 50th and Washington with 90 art studios—funky, gritty, artist space. We are going to start doing more art shows here.