Murals elevate apartments into landmarks

The apartment buildings at 1380 Steele St. features three Pat Milbery murals, the largest of which is nearly 60 feet tall. Artist: Pat Milbery/So-Gnar Creative Division

Thomas Graeve
Senior adviser, Pinnacle
Real Estate Advisors

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While the Denver skyline continues to be filled with cranes, owners and managers of multifamily properties have found themselves in a virtual arms race to provide the latest and greatest amenities to attract tenants. Gone are the days when a swimming pool and an exercise room would distinguish a property from its competitors – dog washes, espresso bars, indoor/outdoor kitchen facilities, rooftop decks and smarthome features have become so common during our latest building boom that these extras have become commodities that renters have come to expect rather than appreciate.

In a sea of new apartments, especially in central Denver, owners are finding it challenging to differentiate their product. After all, even a renovated vintage building is competing with projects completed just one or two years ago. One local multifamily owner has borrowed a page from the playbooks of the creative communities in River North and along Santa Fe Drive to incorporate a truly one-of-a-kind amenity: art.

Christina Eisenstein spent the better part of a year renovating the 34-unit building at 1380 Steele St. and the 18-unit property at 1300 Adams St. Eisenstein set out to create handsome interiors with higher-end finishes, along with some whimsical artistic details. While working through renovations, she noticed the significant blank canvases at her disposal – the Steele Street property is six stories tall – so she set out to find an artist capable of converting the charcoal gray walls into an Instagram-worthy source of pride for the neighborhood and future tenants.

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Enter artist Pat Milbery, a Denver-based muralist whose distinctive vivid color-blocking style has graced everything from Denver Public School buildings to the Westminster light-rail station to the oversized smiley face statue advertising Visible Mobile at Stanley Marketplace. Eisenstein and Milbery met after she encountered one of his pieces at RiNo’s annual Crush Walls street art festival. Their respective creative energies jelled, and Milbery was given broad latitude to follow his vision at 1380 Steele. The property now features multiple Milbery originals, the largest of which is nearly 60 feet tall.

Another Crush regular, North Carolina-based Nick Napoletano was hired to transform 1300 Adams St. Napoletano’s art at the property – a series of portraits, animals, brightly colored ribbons and splashes adorning the walls, courtyard and balconies – coalesces into one continuous piece when viewed from the corner diagonal and across the street from the building.

One of Milbery’s pieces at the Steele Street property features his signature “Love This City” heart, a geometric mashup of hot pink and gray triangles that comes together to form a floating heart shape, frequently emblazoned with the name of our city across the front. “Love This City” began in collaboration with Visit Denver, the trade association tasked with marketing the Mile High City to the rest of the world, and Milbery’s art collective, So-Gnar Creative Division.

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The “Love This City” heart appears at multiple locations around town – including the original at El Noa Noa Restaurant on Santa Fe Drive – but one of the largest sits at the wedge-shaped plot at the northeast corner of Broadway and Arapahoe Street. When asked about the impact that Milbery’s mural has on the operation of the property, Marti Page, who owns the commercial building at 2134 Broadway, said that while the mural is significant for several reasons, it would be hard to put a specific price tag on how much the art adds to the value of the property in exact dollars. The art certainly does add value, but that value also is manifested in more abstract ways. It greets drivers at RiNo’s virtual doorstep, and it has become a landmark that gives the people who live and work in the area a sense of identity: “My office is near the ‘Love This City’ mural.”

Imagine if all the murals throughout that neighborhood vanished – RiNo would have a much different vibe, and those who live and work there would likely feel a diminished sense of pride in their surroundings if they were just a collection of unadorned warehouses.

Milbery stated that street art is unique in that its public nature allows everyone to interact with it and become part of its story; likewise, the art becomes a part of the viewer’s story for a moment – or maybe a lifetime.

North Carolina-based Nick Napoletano was hired to transform 1300 Adams St. with a series of portraits, animals, brightly colored ribbons and splashes adorning the walls, courtyard and balconies, which coalesce into one continuous piece when viewed from the corner diagonal and across the street from the building.
Courtesy TJ Romero, Architectural Storytelling

The opportunity to actually live with Milbery’s murals has shown itself to have real value for the owners of 1380 Steele. Colin Keaton of Four Star Property Management, who manages the asset, said the apartment building is the first of its kind in Congress Park. As the property completes lease up, not only has the unique character of the building attracted like-minded tenants who appreciate the opportunity to live in a true piece of art, the rents it is achieving are 5% to 10% above other vintage properties in the neighborhood.

Using art at a property creates a unique space by giving it character and perhaps a spark of something special that causes a driver to slow down or a person to snap a selfie. Art can turn a building into a community landmark. And how does one put a value on the “thing” that turns an ordinary building into a landmark?

Featured in CREJ’s November 2019 Multifamily Properties Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.