Denver’s fight for creative space

Encouraging the 'creative millennial crowd' to relocate to your town or city has become the holy grail of urban regeneration, with local councils and mayors falling over themselves to secure the future of their area by encouraging this increasingly lucrative demographic to live and work inside their borders.

Take a stroll through somewhere like Shoreditch, East London and you will the see impact that it can have. There's a familiar timeline of poor neighbourhood attracts artists; artists make poor neighbourhood cool; start-ups set-up shop in newly crowned 'cool neighbourhood' at low rent; big businesses relocate to neighbourhood at highly inflated costs; and, finally property developers decide to further exacerbate things by flooding neighbourhood with luxury flats and renaming it.

Yet there’s a high price to pay for a booming economy, thriving job market and coffee shop culture, with families who have lived in said neighbourhood for generations being priced out. While the lack of reasonably affordable space in which to work also means that the artists, musicians and creatives who enabled this change are forced to flee.

A lesson in what not to do

This dilemma is nothing new. While some cities, such as Berlin, have managed to handle the issue with consideration by introducing rent caps in order to preserve a degree of normality. Others, step forward London and New York, could not have shown a higher level of disregard for grassroots creative industries.

This sad state of affairs is one that has been bugging Rohan Silva, co-founder of East London-based co-working space Second Home, for some time.

"In New York, people are decamping to LA and I think we've really got to be careful in London that people don't pick another city and choose to go there. Because the moment a city starts to lose its artists, things can fall apart and the city might lose its edge," explains Silva.

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"It doesn't take a lot for that to happen. It's a little bit like the financial market. The moment the sentiment moves, it can move very fast. The artists and the creative people are moving to LA and other people want to join them. And things can overcorrect. London's the same in that sense."

While Denver, Colorado could not have been placed in the same bracket as historically deprived areas, like East London or Brooklyn, at any point in its recent past, it is facing up to the fact that it now has many of the same issues to deal with that have been the source of such disquiet in London and New York. At the time of writing, Denver is in the top three cities in the whole of the US for millennials to move to – something which Mayor Michael Hancock is very proud of.

A change to celebrate

"Denver has become the epicentre, the main attraction, for both the millennial population as well as the baby boomers across the country, that’s something very unique," points out Mayor Hancock. "Entrepreneurialism and innovation are really driving that level of excitement around Denver at the moment."

One organisation instrumental in this change has been the Downtown Denver Partnership, a non-profit business organisation that has been planning, managing and developing the downtown area since 1955. I spoke to their President and CEO, Tami Door, to get a better understanding of how this has been possible.

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"In 2007 we created a 20 year plan that was a vision for what Downtown Denver should look like. When writing it we realised that our biggest demographic was babyboomers and for every two leaving the workforce we only have one person entering it, so there’s going to be a gap," notes Door. "Even though technology will reduce the need for employees, that’s still a very big gap."

There was a realisation by the partnership that Denver’s strengths didn’t lie in the industries which typically attracted creative millennials, which meant that changes needed to be made in order to stimulate a shift in employment patterns in the city.

"We methodically set about working out how to attract the future workforce; millennials. This led us to some really interesting decisions, ones that we wouldn’t have taken 20 years ago. For example, cycling infrastructure was a big part of attracting the right employee base – it’s one of the top things we have concentrated on.

"Other important factors include a strong arts and culture offering, a sense of community around innovation and good housing options. The housing options are extremely healthy at the moment, in the past year we added an extra 10,000 units in Downtown. It’s growing rapidly but we’re filling them up as fast as they’re opening. What we’re focused on now, as we go forward, is that there’s affordable housing. If we build housing to attract the future workforce, it does us no go if they can’t afford to live there."

Thanks to the work undertaken by the likes of The Denver Downtown Partnership and Mayor Hancock, the city is now a real hub for millennials, especially those in creative and technology industries. But with rent costs already rapidly rising, can those in charge of overseeing this change really ensure that creatives aren’t priced out?

The tactics of preserving space

"One of the big challenges that we face here is providing people in the creative industry with affordable space to live and work," explains Margaret Hunt, head of Colorado Creative Industries. "To tackle this we’ve launched an initiative called Space to Create, which is addressing this key infrastructure need – we must make sure that there is always affordable space in the commercial sector."

But does Hunt actually believe it’s a battle that Denver can win? After all, it’s one that many other cities have lost. And when you add into the mix the fact that the creative districts in Denver and the surrounding areas see double the national average in terms of earnings and job growth, the task becomes as tall as the Flatirons.

"Well, it’s a big issue and one with decades of evidence around it. We’re working with the leading consultancy in the United States, Art Space, who are a non-profit developer based in Minneapolis that have been working on this for 30 years. They have worked on 40 projects across the country to provide affordable creative space and in all of these they are in the black. Colorado is the first state-led initiative they have worked on but the timing is right, you just need to look at the property values and rising rent costs here.

"The first project, which opened in July, is 30 units of work and housing space and it ranges from studios to three bedroom houses for families. All of the units are fully leased and there are 165 artists on the waiting list. We know there’s a massive demand and we know that this financial model really works, so we anticipate another project to begin shortly - it will be the biggest project of its type in the country. We’re also in pre-development talks over two other projects in different arts districts. If everything that’s in the works now comes of financially then we could have as many as 19 projects underway in the next four years, that’s a lot of affordable space for creatives – it’s an amazing story."


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