New library proposed for Denver’s RiNo Art District pits haves vs. have nots

While Denver’s City Council considers whether to fund the city’s 27th library branch, it must weigh not only its finances in a pandemic but also whether that library would reach traditionally disadvantaged north Denver neighborhoods or just their well-heeled neighbors to the south.

The new branch would be at 1930 35th Street — in a city-owned building — in the River North Art District, which officials hope will bring in residents from the Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods, as well as people from across the city who might want to use things like 3-D printers and sound studios.

But neighborhood organizers question whether the branch would be anything more than a new extravagance, considering it won’t actually be in Globeville, Elyria or Swansea — and residents of those neighborhoods would have to cross railroad tracks to walk to the proposed library.

“Places like Globeville-Elyria-Swansea, they want their own separate identity, they don’t really want to integrate into RiNo,” said Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association. “I don’t know if this new library can be expected to serve too much beyond RiNo’s demographics.”

Library officials are working to bridge that gap between the communities, Denver Public Library spokeswoman Annie Kemmerling said. And Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who represents the district where the new library would go, agreed the proposal highlights the discrepancies.

Still, the price is right, Kemmerling said, considering the city’s financial crisis. Denver already owns the building, which sat vacant for several years after serving as a bicycle warehouse and place to repair police cars. Plus, the RiNo Art District and its partners will pay to revamp the space, setting aside room for local nonprofits.

Aside from what it would cost to stock, outfit and operate the library, which Kemmerling said isn’t currently clear, the new branch would run the city $180,000 a year for 10 years. The rest of the money would come from the arts, business and general improvement districts, and partners and donors, RiNo Art District Executive Director Tracy Weil said.

The branch would have a traditional, if small, lending library, Kemmerling said, and can serve as a hub for a bookmobile, which could more easily get into surrounding neighborhoods. But the big vision, Weil said, is a major maker’s space. None of the library’s other branches have things like he wants: a tool library, 3-D printer, sound studios and more.

Kemmerling tempered Weil’s enthusiasm a bit, saying the library hasn’t necessarily planned for any of those specific amenities, though officials are speaking with community members to discuss concrete ideas.

The other unique part of the plan is housing two nonprofits — Focus Points and the Redline Contemporary Art Center — to provide on site arts education for children and adults as well as affordable studio spaces for local artists.

“You can’t have an art district without artists,” Weil said.

Equality questioned

A City Council committee approved the new branch’s funding proposal last week, sending it to the entire body for approval in the coming weeks. If approved, Kemmerling said the new branch could be ready for business by late summer or fall.

And it does appear as if the council will give it the green light. CdeBaca said through a spokeswoman that she was reluctant to back the proposal at first, and characterizes her position as “not opposed” rather offering her full-throated support. She also said she is working with RiNo officials and others to ensure the branch is an equitable resource for the region, and would like to see the same opportunities in neighborhoods that don’t have extra taxing districts like RiNo does.

And while Weil said he wants the new library to serve as a sort of olive branch between RiNo and surrounding neighborhoods, the bottom line is it’s a long walk for Globeville, Elyria and Swansea residents, said Alfonso Espino, a community organizer for the GES Coalition.

Espino worked at Elyria-Swansea’s tiny Valdez Perry Library for five years and said he knows firsthand how desperately the three neighborhoods need a traditional branch — books, internet access, job hunting and adult education services, not maker spaces and art exhibits.

All the same reasons the RiNo branch would be unique make it a slap in the face to nearby neighborhoods, Espino said. He said it’s “asinine to even suggest” that RiNo groups are subsidizing a new, much-needed library branch. Rather, he said, this is the city subsidizing a new amenity for RiNo.

“I’m very cautious about criticizing Denver Public Libraries, it’s one of the highlights of the city,” he said. “But they chose to side with the trendiness of the RiNo neighborhood over what a library is supposed to be: A community resource.”

Kemmerling said library officials are aware of the need in Globeville and are still searching for a site, adding, “this just came to fruition sooner.” Plus, she said, it’s not clear even if that happens whether the city could afford to open a new branch on its own.

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