Fine art of city living
Decorative features and themes heat up appeal for 2 developers' projects
By Beth Potter
Special to The Denver Post
Article Last Updated:12/02/2006 05:01:34 PM MST

At least two Denver developers are using art to set themselves apart from others in the city's core.

Grant Barnhill assigns themes to his apartment buildings and decorates around those themes. He named his first building Aperture, and filled public areas of the building at 1777 Williams St. with cameras, film reels and framed photographs. A sculpted 4-foot steel faucet is mounted on the exterior of his nearby H2O apartments.

Barnhill's Boutique Apartments have a 98 percent occupancy rate, compared to a metro rate of about 90 percent, he said, and always have people on the waiting list.
MoDo Developers set its condo projects apart by decorating them with custom-made industrial thresholds that integrate the unit's number into swirls of color. Denver artist Charlie Wooldridge will also build one-of-a-kind kitchen counter/bar tops for buyers.

"I look at it as a place to live, but also as a long-term investment," said Eric Burns, who just bought a ground-floor unit at MoDo's latest apartment conversion on the southeast corner of East 11th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street. "Having the art in there can also help it appreciate," he said. "When I walked in, I felt it was very different from (anything) I've ever seen."

MoDo Developers copied the wavy deck rail from an existing architectural feature discovered while renovating the building at 500 E. 11th Ave. (Post / Jerry Cleveland)

Burns, 22, who works at Deloitte & Touche, represents the niche market these properties are designed for. About 60 percent of MoDo's buyers are young single men who want something special from their first homes.

"It's all about style and lifestyle," said Courtney deWinter, a MoDo spokeswoman. "These younger guys have far more developed sensibilities when it comes to hardwood floors and nice lighting."

The slightly unconventional approach seems to be working. In a moribund real estate market, MoDo (which stands for Modern Downtown) has sold 50 percent of the condos in the 11th and Pennsylvania project. Prices ranged from $102,000 for a 486-square-foot unit to about $330,000 for a 1,220-square-foot unit.

MoDo's 30-something owners met while doing door-to-door sales for South-Western Educational Publishing. They scraped together $400,000 and bought an aging apartment building at 1045 Clarkson St.

All they knew was that they wanted to redo it with a focus on city living, said Dave Ness, MoDo's marketing director. That meant including art, outdoor balconies and rooftop decks whenever possible, Ness said.

"By spending quite a bit of money on the landscaping and changing the building quite literally from a boring square box to something that's eye-catching, it definitely helps us on sales," Ness said.

As president of Portus Funds, Barnhill often stayed in boutique hotels while
traveling around the country. It occurred to him in the late 1990s that their hip, urban appeal could be translated into Denver apartments.

He bought the building that became Aperture in June 2002 for $950,000 and spent about $500,000 redoing it. The building is now worth nearly $3 million.

Barnhill now has seven downtown buildings with such names as Route 66, Lodge, Works and Shambala. His tenants are "a similar demographic to MoDo," he said, but with more females than males.

In the Shambala apartment building at 1355 Pearl St., for example, Barnhill spent an estimated $60,000 on Eastern Buddhist and Hindu art for common areas. Tenants pay between $475 and $650 a month for studio apartments that range from 306 to 420 square feet.

Barnhill works with professional interior designers Renee Augustine, owner of Studio R, and her husband, Steve Augustine, owner of Eye Candy, to create the fun finishes in his buildings, including the steel faucet on the side of H2O at 1733 Williams St.

At the request of tenants who said they were at a point in their careers where they could afford to buy, Barnhill started two condo projects.
At Medina, 20 S. Logan St., 12 of the 15 units have sold since June at an average of $250 per square foot, about $30 per square foot more than the metro average of about $220.

Barnhill's second condo project, the unfinished TriBeCa, at 1231 Downing St., will have a New York theme.
"Most of our residents live and work in a tight geographic area around our buildings," Barnhill said. "The trend in condos and apartments is you want to be close to downtown."