Monday, April 25, 2011

Mecca for creative small businesses

Over the river and through a bit of urban jungle, longtime developer Mickey Zeppelin and his partner/developer/son Kyle are building a mecca for 21st century "creative entrepreneurs."

And I don't mean artists.

The Zeppelins' three buildings, two that make up Taxi and a recent truck-terminal renovation they call Freight, are rife with cutting-edge art and even an artist's studio or two.

But the commercial development is more about business, and particularly collaborative, Internet-based small businesses -- search-engine optimization, Internet advertising, digital graphics and design -- than it is about the artsy, loft-like design that has become common to modern or renovated business districts.

Besides that, Taxi and Freight are located on the west side of the South Platte River, in the still more industrial area of what many people are now calling RiNo, the River North Art District. When Taxi opened nearly 10 years ago, Mickey Zeppelin's ties to the arts community usually rendered publicity about his business enterprise to a secondary status behind the dozens of arts-oriented businesses and residences that were spreading out on the east bank of the river.

But the Great Recession, which drove many middle managers and executives into starting their own businesses, and the explosive growth of some of those new, Internet-savvy firms, "played  into our hands in a lot of ways and is what got Freight leased" over the past year even before build out, said Kyle.

Kyle and Mickey Zeppelin
Kyle Zeppelin prefers to call those commercial tenants "new-economy businesses," and notes that their owners and employees fit perfectly into the open-air campus that Taxi and Freight have become.

He and Mickey bought the Freight building, the truck terminal still equipped with freight-bay garage doors that new tenants can open on mild and summer days, after building and filling the second Taxi building which includes residential units above a ground floor of commercial spaces.

The three buildings are 95 percent leased by about 60 businesses that employ about 300 people, Mickey said. Several original commercial tenants are still there, and some have grown from small spaces to larger ones, with one threatening now to take over the large leasing office Taxi had kept for itself.

The original Taxi building, 3455 Ringsby Court, was converted from the old headquarters of Yellow Cab and retains some of the concrete curbs and paving that were part of the original site. The Fuel Cafe, independently operated by a tenant, offers close-at-hand food and bar service; there's a Pilates studio and fitness center, free parking and a new childhood-education center in the Freight building.

"The Internet is not getting any smaller," Kyle said to explain Taxi and Freight's attraction to the new businesses leasing its space. "You look around at the inventory of real estate and it was primarily this pretty typical format of Class A and Class B office buildings that were very impersonal and in some cases very fancy and not very representative of the way this new generation of companies was working," he said.

It's "more collaborative, more open floor plans, more shared spaces, more opportunities for collaboration at a high level of specialization," he added, and both he and his father believe Taxi was ahead of the trend 10 years ago when it built just those kinds of innovations into its business "campus."

"You can't put them in a downtown office building next to a mortgage broker or an insurance company," Kyle said of his "new-economy" tenants.

"These guys want to come to work in their shorts; they don't necessarily have to answer to anyone. They're good at what they do and they want to keep their employees happy because their employees are in demand. And if they want to bring their dog to work, they'll bring their dog to work. If they want to play video games over lunch in their conference room, then that's what they're doing."

Mickey, at age 74, is quick to measure a potential tenant's interest in the culture of Taxi. "It's interesting," he said. "We generally will know within 10 minutes: They get it or they don't get it. It's the kind of place that has incredible energy around it, and people say, 'I love it,' or you just take one look at their face and say, 'This really isn't a fit."

The Zeppelin's next building -- new construction planned at about 95,000 square feet and a cost of about $20 million -- will be targeted to bigger companies, large tech firms that might be interested in 8,000 to 10,000 square feet to house up to a couple hundred employees.

"That's really the kind of Silicon Valley model," said Kyle. "Plug in the Apple or the Twitter or the Google and surround it with all these smaller groups and it creates an opportunity. The smaller groups create an opportunity for the bigger groups to tap into some of this innovation that needs that kind of small scale, and then the bigger groups present an opportunity for the small groups because they're out there functioning at a really big scale."

Sounds like the perfect formula for continuing to draw innovative small businesses to a 21st century business park -- with a little residential thrown in the mix.

Mickey Zeppelin said he and his partners have thrown about $50 million into the development so far, and their return on the investment is just now beginning to manifest itself. Rents range from $17 to $20 per square foot, which Kyle said is about 20 percent less than new construction in nearby downtown, and Taxi is actually able to help small firms finance custom tenant buildouts, adding another level of draw for smaller tenants.

And the urban atmosphere -- "We got a bus maintenance facility on one side, a concrete plant on the other," said Kyle -- remains in fashion among new businesses that are not only playing at the edges of their industries but that also appreciate locating in a place that's "got an edge to it."

That makes Taxi and Freight a little like the landlords who have developed the complex. "It's a little off center," said Kyle. "If you don't see the vision ...."


  1. I was at the opening of Taxi, from the beginning it has been a very interesting concept.

    Do they have activities that are planned to bring the tenants together, mixers or other events, or do those things seem to just happen naturally?

  2. John, I don't knowthe answer to that question, but it's a good one. The interview, however, suggested most meetups among tenants occur naturally.

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