Liliana Mutic owns a food cart on the 16th Street Mall.
Liliana Mutic owns a food cart on the 16th Street Mall.
Larry Winter

Cart Blanched

Early in the morning, Liliana Mutic parks her sturdy wooden food trailer in the middle of the 16th Street Mall next to Glenarm Street -- a prime location. She stands inside the cart all day, smiling and talking to customers. Originally from Bosnia, Mutic has been working on the mall for seven years, selling sandwiches and a great lemonade.

Over that time, she's seen a lot of changes, most of them for the better. Retail developments such as Denver Pavilions have drawn more shoppers to the mall, and trendy loft projects have brought in new residents. These days, enough people visit the area to support all eighteen food carts and eight merchandise carts parked along the sixteen-block strip.

The Downtown Denver Partnership has influenced many of these changes. A nonprofit business organization, the DDP is in charge of managing the mall. Some of its tasks include researching shopping and parking trends, promoting business, organizing events like Buskerfest, investing money in mall improvements, and working with the city to create rules and regulations governing business practices there.

Now the group is in the preliminary stages of creating a program that will revamp the look of the 16th Street Mall. One phase of the project includes streamlining the fee system. The DDP charges cart owners a standardized fee of $135 per month to operate, regardless of their location or whether they use city electricity to fuel their carts. John Desmond, the organization's director of downtown environment, says the fee structure needs to be changed so that the carts that use the most resources pay the highest fees. "In general, the fees will go up a little bit, but they haven't gone up for the past seven years," he points out. "We've got to look at inflation. Beyond that, it's what's fair."

Desmond also wants to stir up the mix of carts, which consist mostly of the hotdog kind, by bringing in other vendors, including a wider variety of retail carts. "We want the mall to be as diverse, from a retail basis, as possible," he says, adding that the DDP will also begin to encourage seasonal and weekend carts like hot-chocolate vendors in the winter and snow-cone sellers in the summer. Currently, vendors have to sign year-long contracts.

One of the more controversial aspects of the plan would change the way carts look. "Some appearance changes will be required," says Desmond, but at this preliminary stage, that could mean anything from asking for uniform signage to more drastic alterations.

Mutic likes the Downtown Denver Partnership. "There are rules for the size of your cart, the sign, the number of coolers, and how long you can stay in one place," she says. Mutic thinks those rules are good, and she'll do whatever the organization requests. "If I make money here, it must be a good city."

Boris Shubih, owner of a hotdog cart at 16th and California streets, also likes the DDP. "But I don't want to change cart," he insists. Shubih moved to the United States from Russia nine years ago and has been selling hotdogs on the mall ever since. "Business sometimes good, sometimes not too good," he says. "May cost extra money, and that's not good."

Another hotdog vendor says that if the DDP puts up the money to change the look of his cart, he'll alter whatever they want. But he doesn't want to pay for it himself. "Part of the corporate mentality that runs this mall is to put everyone in the same box," he explains. "The very reason we do this is to be individuals."

William Thompson, a young employee of the Chocolate Factory cart on 16th and Lawrence streets, adds that the DDP's plan seems like "just another sophisticated scheme to make everything look the same, like all the condos that are going up in the Platte River Valley."

Desmond insists that community involvement and input from the vendors will be an essential component in determining how the program is restructured. But some of the vendors are afraid that voicing their opinions would "rock the boat" and cause headaches for their businesses. Still others don't speak English well and have no idea what the DDP is.

Nevertheless, Desmond believes that the revamping program -- which will be done with the city's assistance -- will help the vendors, because the current rules and regulations, which were instituted in 1995, are out of date.

"Our goal is to make [the mall] more viable for vendors and for management of them," he says. "We plow the money we get from the vendors back into projects to improve the mall. We want to be able to make it easier for vendors who currently have to go through all sorts of hoops about what is approved."


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