Astroland crashes

Citing code violations, city officials shutter Boulder’s only D.I.Y. venue

Krystal Baugher | Boulder Weekly

A new kid in the skinniest jeans ever moves into town. Right away he scares the neighbors because all he wants to do is dance. Then all the parents start to worry because they know what dancing leads to: sex! And everyone knows what sex leads to — underage drinking and driving off bridges.

Wait. No. Boulder isn’t Bomont, Tenn., and this isn’t Footloose.

Or is it? Maybe all that the kids want to do is cut loose.

As of early September 2011, the D.I.Y. (do it yourself) space Astroland, located at 4415 N. Broadway, has closed.

Astroland was an all-ages art and music venue for the community to have a place to convene and exchange ideas. It was also a venue for emerging artists — one of the few in Boulder supportive of all genres of music. Whether Astroland will re-open is still in question.

The official reason for the closing, according to city environmental and zoning enforcement office records, was a building code violation. Simply put, zoning rules do not allow large groups of people to gather inside the building.

“This is a space that is not originally intended or meant to be used as an assembly-type occupancy,” says Jimmy York of Emerald Management, which manages the North Boulder property occupied by Astroland, quoting a letter from Fire Marshal David Lowrey.

Neighbors complained about big parties and “raves,” so the city investigated. The fire department, the buildings department and the police all came to inspect. The fire marshal found that the warehouse failed to meet city code for “assembly” in several ways, and that in order to be brought up to code, Astroland would have to improve “egress” — how people enter and exit the building — and add sprinkler systems. They also found evidence that the wiring inside the warehouse had been altered in a way that didn’t meet the building code.

“It’s not necessarily a shutdown of the building or condemnation,” York says. “It’s more of a, ‘Please fix these code [violations].’” The property management company wants the people renting Astroland to pay for the repairs, but the Astroland renters say they received the building in that state. The dispute is yet to be resolved, which leaves the only official D.I.Y space in Boulder unoccupied and show-less.

Typically, D.I.Y. venues don’t bring in the capital or the consumerist culture that the city of Boulder thrives on financially. No one is making any money, neither the people throwing the events nor the city that might tax them or force them to buy permits. From the artists to the audience to the people working the door, everyone is contributing and creating and having a good time, but that might not be enough to pay the bills.

“This is a labor of love and collective interest,” co-organizer Chad Wallace says. “The system is so for-profit; we need to establish interest in the non-commercial arts movement here in Boulder.”

Though there is a large population of young people here, many see themselves as temporary residents attending school as opposed to members of the community.

“Many students don’t feel this is their ‘home’ and often don’t take the time or effort to make investments in the town,” says co-organizer Erica Dixon, pointing to Boulder’s lack of a cohesive art and music scene.

Underage drinking was the other big issue Astroland faced. The venue, at first, allowed those of legal drinking age to bring their own alcohol to the show. The organizers thought their actions were legal, since they viewed the show as a private party. After a run-in with the police at the Titwrench show last June resulted in some minors being ticketed for alcohol possession, they learned differently.

“We didn’t have a guest list, an RSVP list that made it a private party,” co-organizer Justin Forthuber says. “So, to the police, it was like drinking beer on the street.”

After the Titwrench incident, Astroland organizers did everything they could to make the place compliant.

“We went substance-free. We soundproofed the space and didn’t go over the sound code. The cops had no reason to hang around,” Dixon says.

But they did. According to Dixon and other organizers at Astroland, the police would come up to the parking lot and flash their lights on even though they weren’t arresting anyone or investigating anything.

“It was intimidation,” Dixon says. “People would get here and then turn right around.”

Boulder Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kobel did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Update, Sept. 16: Boulder Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kobel responded in a statement sent to Boulder Weekly:

“The Boulder Police Department is aware of only one time in which we were dispatched to Astroland. On June 24, 2011, an alcohol enforcement officer responded to a complaint from neighbors. When the officer arrived, she issued three citations: one to each of the two owners of Astroland for serving alcohol on an unlicensed premises, and one minor-in-possession ticket to an underage male who was allegedly consuming alcohol. The Boulder fire marshal posted an ‘unsafe space’ notice recently after an inspection revealed that the nightclub had a number of serious public safety issues which need to be corrected. For example, the fire marshal noted that space contained unsafe electrical wiring, flammable wall finishes (curtains) and did not have an adequate means of egress. Also, Astroland is not zoned for public assembly. Although the building inspection violations could be corrected, there is still a zoning issue which would need to be addressed by Astroland’s owners with the city zoning department.”

Though they’ve been through plenty of struggles, it hasn’t all been bad. In fact, the Astroland community has experienced plenty of amazing nights, from the intimacy of the first big snow of the year at an art show last winter to the jam-packed 13-band show at Halloween (selected by Westword as one of the best Halloween parties of the year).

“When people come up to me and thank me and tell me that this space means so much to them, that’s meaningful,” Dixon says.

Astroland provided the opportunity for the development of an extended network of creative alternative-thinking people, a community.

“Before [Astroland], unless you met in class, how else would you engage with these other people?” Dixon says.

The most significant example of the growth and closeness of this emerging arts community happened last February when Astroland was robbed during a concert. Someone who attended the show stole the venue’s cash box, which contained $700 for that month’s rent, according to news reports. Astroland put out a call for help on Facebook, and the community responded.

“It was incredible to see such a powerful response from everybody,” co organizer Zack Roif says. “Random people from different states contributed hundreds of dollars.”

Within 48 hours they had collected enough money to cover what had been robbed. This reaction is proof, they say, that there exists an active community of people in Boulder who care about supporting these types of venues.

“We’re doing something here not many other places can,” Roif says. “To see people actively coming out and giving their own money and contributing it to a place that they care about — it was a really awesome, sentimental moment. I realized we really are doing something for the community. It’s a family feeling; everyone is a part of it.”

Other Astroland goers shared similar reactions.

“I think that one of the best things about Astroland is that it really precipitated this mingling between communities in Boulder that are disparate. Young Boulder natives and older townies, CU freshmen and Naropa [University] grad students, ravers, punks, hippies and poets all found an outlet in our space,” says Andrew Cohn, an Astroland volunteer. “There have been musical collaborations between people who might have never met if not for Astroland. I think that’s what the founders were striving for all along.”

York told Boulder Weekly that as of Tuesday, Emerald Management has begun the process of evicting Astroland.

“We served [the tenants on the lease] a three-day notice for compliance or possession, so if they don’t pay the rent, then we’ve got to take them to court in order to kick them out,” York says. “We’d just rather them pay and take care of the business, and we’re waiting on them to respond.”

Dixon says that the experience of operating a D.I.Y. venue was eyeopening.

“We are all planning on pursuing the curation of creative spaces throughout careers, but for now we need to step back and focus on finishing school and developing our personal artistic pursuits. I hope the Boulder creative scene continues to grow, and I’m sure we will all continue to do things to facilitate this. But for now we will all be greatly relieved to leave Astroland in the past,” Dixon says.

David Accomazzo contributed to this report.