Thirty years in, the 16th Street Mall is still going strong

Thirty years in, the 16th Street Mall is still going strong

Thirty years ago this week, amid launches of balloons and speeches and other emissions of hot air, Denver's 16th Street Mall was officially declared open for business. It was the beginning of a new era for downtown merchants and office workers, the first big move by a voracious transit empire known as the Regional Transportation District — and the death of something, too.

For a kid growing up in Denver in the 1960s, the bumper-to-bumper traffic along the old 16th Street was the apex of urban sophistication and cool. Downtown was where you took cousins from the suburbs and hick towns to impress them, showing off sky-scraping bank buildings and clock towers and venerable sandstone hotels as if you owned them. And 16th Street was the ribbon of light and noise and energy that held it all together. It was our Broadway, our Sunset Boulevard, our Champs-Élysées.

The street had everything. Elegant, hulking movie palaces fit for a rajah beckoned with huge marquees and lobby displays; the Denver and the Paramount squared off across the street from each other with the latest blockbusters, while the Centre pushed Disney fare a few blocks away. (Nothing better than plunking down 35 cents for a Wednesday matinee at the Paramount and being the first kid on your block to see Goldfinger.) Parents dragged you to chic shops and sprawling department stores — including Neusteter's, Joslins, May D&F, the Denver Dry and its precious Tea Room — but if you were lucky, the trip also included Dave Cook Sporting Goods or Zeckendorf Plaza and its ice rink, or maybe a fancy dinner at the Top of the Rockies.

At the center of it all, between Stout and Champa, was the operation that epitomized all that was useful and beautiful about downtown, the only place where you could grab a slice of pizza, buy a Moody Blues record, a live goldfish or cheap underwear — and pick up an education in human behavior at its best and worst, just watching the throngs of people coming and going at the Woolworth's lunch counter.

At night, the street was a river of neon and menace. Cruisers showed off their muscle cars, heading northwest on 16th, then looping back on 15th, past decrepit bars and dim parking lots and shady hotels, endlessly circling the heart of downtown as if smitten. They were the offspring of Dean Moriarty, in love with night and the city.

By the time I got my own driver's license, though, city leaders were puzzling over what to do about a downtown in steep decline. The movie houses, the stores, even the night spots were losing business to the suburbs. Phil Milstein, director of Downtown Denver Inc., floated the idea of a pedestrian mall, only to be met with staunch opposition from retailers. Then RTD got involved.

A glorified bus company fueled by a regional sales tax and big ideas, RTD had a tough time selling auto-loving Denverites on mass transit. Some of its earliest proposals, including futuristic "people movers" and a subway that would have run from Eighth Avenue and Lincoln through downtown to Blake Street, had been hooted into oblivion. But the agency's poobahs correctly perceived that a pedestrian mall with shuttle service could be the first link in a metro-wide system of transit projects — especially if you added bus terminals at each end of the mall and brand-new administrative offices for RTD in a renovated building on Blake.

With RTD wooing an influx of federal dollars, property owners and retailers were gradually won over to the idea that the mall would ease congestion, improve business and spur redevelopment of some of the street's more dilapidated blocks. Mayor Bill McNichols Jr. fought like hell to keep auto traffic on the western end of the project, but found his veto overridden by a mall-enraptured city council. I.M. Pei, creator of so many other iconic Denver structures — including, of course, Zeckendorf Plaza — signed on as architect.

Construction began in 1980. The unveiling came two years later, a full year behind schedule and at a cost of roughly $75 million, nearly a third over its original budget. Within a few months, several giant holes were discovered under the mall. Workers hustled to fill in the cavities and replace pavement stones that kept coming loose while retail interests scrambled to fill in the cold, sterile spaces between the bus lanes with benches and flowers.

At the time, one member of the Downtown Denver Partnership declared that the mall wouldn't be completed until the downtown retail scene had been upgraded. If that's true, then the mall is still a work in progress. Two major stores, J.C. Penney and Joseph Magnin, fled downtown while the mall was still under construction. Over the next decade or so, numerous other downtown institutions joined the exodus: Fashion Bar and Joslins, Cottrell's and Montaldo's, Neusteter's and Fontius. May D&F's parent company bought out its old rival, the Denver, then gave up the ghost of Zeckendorf Plaza in 1995 to a boring hotel expansion. In their place are the Tabor Center and the Denver Pavilions, lofts and chi-chi bars and Starbucks.

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47 comments
OverIt
OverIt

30 years ago is was great; even 20 years ago is was great.  Now...does anyone look around when they come down here?  Curtis and up is terrible, and that's during the workday.  Forget about coming down on a Sunday afternoon.  If you have a family or anything valuable it's often just scary to be hanging out on the mall.  The LoDo side of the mall...a bit better but still not great.

 

And the whole length is just dated and makes me feeling like it's 1992.  The expense of regular maintenance or a makeover are too high (and we pay for it as taxpayers, not the vendors and property owners proximate to the mall).

 

Time to turn it back into a regular street.  It has run its course.

Stephen At Half Aspen
Stephen At Half Aspen

I remember laying there with an officer's knee on my neck and the other tightening down the cuffs like he was torquing a lug nut. Ah, the good old days.

Tenzin Tsering
Tenzin Tsering

Hardcore parkouring every small obstacle in my path.

twisst260
twisst260

@new_clear_DAZE A very bright ISS will cross your sky tonight. It comes up in the South at 7:57 pm. Details: http://t.co/Jjgkl4Dq

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

if you'd like to see your comment published in the print edition as a letter to the editor (with your real name), e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

WestGuest
WestGuest

16th Street was cool, before the mall.  Thanx for the nostalgia, Alan!

as far as panhandlers, they're outnumbered 10 to 1 by the people

soliciting for their "causes".  but if all you need is a souvenir t-shirt,

this is your spot.

Ozzie Perch
Ozzie Perch

I remember driving down it just one way...now my buses are cruising it!cool!

Caleb Mather
Caleb Mather

Junkies n' panhandlers are my personal fave

Michael McCarthy
Michael McCarthy

Is the 180 cameras...police on: horse...segway...motorcycles....bicycles....foot....undercover too...so yeah...it is safe...that is my favorite part. If someone shoots you..they will know who did it.

Joe Matrone
Joe Matrone

what joktan said... 16th st is one of my least parts of Denver

Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan

Favorite thing about the 16th St. Mall is avoiding it.

Joktan Rogel
Joktan Rogel

I can't decide between overeager petitioners and smoke being blown in my face. It's a really tough call.

Lisa Wolf DeWitt
Lisa Wolf DeWitt

al fresco dining...before dark and the unsavory folks start roaming the streets

Wehavesir
Wehavesir

Seriously, it's not even that bad! Have you ever been to south side Jamaica Queens or Compton? The 16th street mall is not ghetto whatsoever, even late at night. Be more scared of the drunk lodo jock-types bar hopping than the homeless. Geesh 

Keloid
Keloid

The 16th Street Mall: A transient toilet and gangbanger outreach program that never met a wig shop it didn't like. World class, Denver! WORLD-FUCKING-CLASS!

basecamper
basecamper

@DowntownDenver @DenverWestword The mall is a scary mess filled with second rate shops, panhandlers and strung out teen runaways. Buzz?

Keloid
Keloid

Well, thanks to Hancocks camping ban, all your shit seems to be rolling uphill to us. I'll be sure to point em back to where they belong, so your gem of the west doesn't lose it's local flavor.

Spliffy
Spliffy

You wrote LMAO? Seriously? What the fuck, are you a fourteen year old girl texting about her new tween boyfriend or Bieber CD? SERIOUSLY? You SERIOUSLY wrote LMAO? Thanks for chiming in for the sanctimonious douche canoe contingent.

sux2Bstupid
sux2Bstupid

 @Sux2BU

 

 Definition for pleb from the Oxford English Dictionary: plebeian: one of the common people.

 

plebe/plēb/Noun:A newly entered cadet or freshman, esp. at a military academy.

 

Go get yourself a real dictionary.

 

 

sux2Bstupid
sux2Bstupid

 @Sux2BU

 Yes, and because Keloid spelled pusillanimous correctly, that makes him some kind of genius?

 

Here's the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: pu·sil·lan·i·mous/ˌpyo͞osəˈlanəməs/Adjective:Showing a lack of courage or determination; timid.

 

Maybe you'd better explain how BackOffImStarving's comments were lacking in courage?

 

I think you have no clue what you're talking about. The Urban Dictionary? You attached a link to the Urban Dictionary?!? That's hilarious.

sux2Bstupid
sux2Bstupid

 @Sux2BU

 You attached a link to the Urban Dictionary? Seriously? LMAO.

Factually
Factually

 @Keloid

 Also, I don't think you know the definition of pusillanimous (I think you're guessing), because you didn't really use it correctly.

Factually
Factually

 @Keloid

 ActuallyBackOffImStarving is correct. It is "pleb" -- short for

plebeian, which means someone regarded as ill-educated. A "plebe" is a first year military student.

Keloid
Keloid

Spare me your self righteous indignation. How many homeless you got squatting in your apartment? 50? 100? You renting Porta Potties for them to use, or just letting them beshit your doorway? That's what I thought, you're nothing but another good German, beating your chest about community and corporate greed while you blog on your iPad and sip lattes and smoke kindy in your skinny jeans and hoodie. Go hop on your fixie and pedal your baby nuts around the block a few more times before you spout your ridiculous fucking nonsense to me, junior. Oh, and it's spelled 

P-L-E-B-E, you pusillanimous asshat.

Sux2BU
Sux2BU

Don't you have an Occutard Camp to go stink up?

BackOffImStarving
BackOffImStarving topcommenter

 @Keloid Heil Hitler.  Right, Keloid?  We can't have the unclean coming into contact with the chosen ones.  I'm surprised you stooped to talking to plebs like us.  Was that your contribution to society for the year of 2012?  I guess that means you don't have to give your single can of beans to the food drive this holiday season.  Fucking piece of shit douchebag.

 
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