Developer Mickey Zeppelin has been called daring and visionary, his projects edgy and off-center. The same has been said of his son and partner, Kyle, who joined him 12 years ago.
Many people raised their eyebrows when, in 2000, Zeppelin Development began focusing on a tangle of rail yards, stockyards, cement plants and flour mills near Brighton Boulevard along the South Platte River — an area that had been off the development radar.
The results of their effort can now be seen at Taxi.
What once was a gritty piece of real estate on the west bank of the river has become the centerpiece of the growing River North — or RiNo — neighborhood.
A sixth building in Zeppelin's 20-acre Taxi complex is scheduled to open Nov. 1. Called Drive, the four-story structure has 38,000 square feet of office space, includes a salon and two restaurants and is fully preleased.
It will increase Taxi's total space — office, retail and residential — to 210,000 square feet.
"All of it is occupied," said Mickey Zeppelin, 75, now in his 40th year as a developer in urban Denver.
The transition is less surprising when one considers that Zeppelin is the same urban pioneer who, in the mid-1970s, began reviving lower downtown before it was LoDo, and then, when LoDo became too trendy for his tastes, helped turn the Golden Triangle into a hot spot.
Zeppelin — who abandoned a law career in 1972 to become a developer as well as a property owner, manager and investor — has had a number of successful projects, and some not so successful. If he had to pick the one he'd like to be remembered for, it's Taxi.
"That's because it was the rawest and the biggest challenge," he said. "There was no real infrastructure here. It was really virgin territory."
The Taxi campus now houses almost 80 businesses and 400-plus employees, and it boasts a heavy reliance on recycled materials and reuse of existing structures. Taxi has been nominated for an international Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence.
Taxi, however, was not an overnight success. Instead, the development has evolved over the past several years.
The former Yellow Cab central office, a 25,000-square-foot brick building on Ringsby Court, was transformed into Taxi I, a single-story office building that now includes Fuel Cafe and flexible work spaces that house tech startups, marketing companies and photographers.
Taxi II, a mixed-used building of 44 residential units and 60,000 square feet of office space, opened in 2008. The ground-up, 550-foot-long structure was dubbed a "landscraper" because it would be a 55-story skyscraper if stood on end.
Another renovation followed, called Freight — a midcentury truck-freight warehouse that has been leased to more than a dozen new-economy businesses as well as an early-childhood center.
Then came Diesel and Bio Diesel, all of which have helped spawn other developments in RiNo: Cypress' 300-unit apartment project at the old Denargo Market, Scott McFadden's 200-unit apartment complex, and Industry, a renovation of a current building into a technology center.
The effort brought its share of challenges.
"I would call this development a success, but it was interrupted success," Mickey Zeppelin said. "There were some pretty low periods in 2007 when the market died and nothing would lease. We were struggling financially."
A turning point came when Barker Rinker Seacat, a large architectural firm, leased almost 11,000 square feet in Taxi II.
Mark Lee Levine, a professor in the Burns School of Real Estate and Construction at the University of Denver, has known Mickey Zeppelin for years and has even sold him property. He admits he saw Taxi as too risky.
"I would not have ventured in there," Levine said. "I thought he was awfully far ahead of the curve. Now, when I see his leasing rate, I realize I was wrong."
Architect Stephen Dynia has worked on Freight and Drive and is now working with Kyle Zeppelin on the Source, the conversion of an 1880 foundry on Brighton Boulevard into a European-style market featuring locally sourced artisan products such as meat, cheese and coffee and that will include two restaurants.
"It's hard not to use the word 'visionary' when someone buys a sliver of land between the river and railroad tracks that is not even in River North proper but on the other side," Dynia said. "They're bold developers. They like to preserve the character of old buildings, and they like to create meaningful projects that serve a social purpose. I love working with both of them."
The Zeppelins' emphasis on recycled materials comes naturally.
"My dad was a junkman," Mickey said, "so I think it's in the genes."
Those materials include discarded tempered-glass hockey panels from the Pepsi Center, which let natural light stream in.
"We found the hockey panels in a stack across the river," said Kyle, 39, who also has a law degree.
Reclaimed bowling lanes were transformed into office furniture and workstations. Old gym floors are now countertops. Shipping containers were welded end-to-end to make a swimming pool for the entire complex.
Garage doors are a prominent feature.
The original garage doors in the Yellow Cab depot were retained in Taxi I and became so popular they were incorporated into other buildings on the site. The doors, mostly glass and manually operated, flood work spaces with natural light and can be opened to let in fresh air.
Natural light is another feature in Drive. There's a skylight in the roof and glass floors on the levels below, allowing light to filter down.
While the Zeppelins' motto might be "Don't create boring things," there is a strong sense of community in their projects.
"We didn't want this project to die at 6 p.m.," Kyle said. "We wanted it to be more of a mixed-use environment at different times of the day. We didn't want it to be just an office park."
Taxi's tenants say the effort to create a community within the development has paid off.
Frank Bushell, a partner of Cirro, a Web-development company that moved into Freight two years ago, said his firm often collaborates with other Web developers in Taxi who would otherwise be competitors. Bushell also said his work space is a reflection of who his company is.
"As opposed to having an office space downtown with carpets and low ceilings and other standard stuff, we wanted our clients to see an open work environment, big garage doors, a lot of air and natural light," he said. "This space completely embodies our company."
John Mossman: 303-954-1479 or email@example.com
The zeppelin zone
Some other projects by Zeppelin Development:
1984: City Spirit Cafe and Bookstore, LoDo
1992: Volker Lofts, LoDo
1994: Cadillac Lofts, Golden Triangle
1994: Curious Theatre, Golden Triangle
1998: Grand Cherokee Lofts, Golden Triangle
1999: Rocky Mountain Bank Note building, Golden Triangle
2001: Greenhouse, Cherry Creek