"If we build it, they will come," said Downtown Denver Partnership CEO Tami Door at the 2016 State of Downtown briefing at the Hyatt Regency on May 10. "And they are coming." And coming, and coming, turning Denver's downtown into one of the most successful in the country — and Denver itself into the best place to live in the country, as pronounced by U.S. News and World Report in March.
Twenty-four companies have relocated to downtown Denver, Door told the crowd; vacancy rates on office space are dropping — they're currently at 9.5 percent — and rents are going up, even with 1.6 million square feet slated to hit the market soon. Today, 123,000 people work downtown, and close to 20,000 people live downtown; as a result, the area is attracting new amenities, including pocket parks and the grocery stores that Denver could only wish for a few years ago.
"The numbers speak for themselves," Door said. "We are a growing city. We are aspiring to be something even greater than we are."
Some people in the crowd at the Hyatt Regency ballroom could remember when Denver didn't have a reputation as a great city. Back in 1983, a young Latino legislator named Federico Peña ran for Denver mayor with the slogan "Imagine a Great City" — and won in a very crowded field that included plenty of old-school candidates. (Historic tidbit: That slogan was created by my Westword co-founders, the late Sandy Widener and Rob Simon.) But it took a while for Denver to get to great-city status; during the oil bust of thirty years ago, it had the highest office vacancy rate in the country. In contrast to today, when thousands of people move here each month, the moving vans were all headed out of Denver back then.
Rob Cohen, CEO of IMA Financial and chair of the Partnership board, was one of the few who moved to Denver thirty years ago. "We aspire to be a great city, and now we're starting to be a great city," he told the group. "And guess what? We're having great city problems."
Some of those problems came up that morning. Downtown still needs schools and affordable housing, and proposed legislation to deal with construction defects had just been defeated — "but we will stay in the game," Door said.
East West Partners is the only developer currently building condominiums, managing partner Chris Frampton noted during a panel moderated by Cohen. This is "haymaking season" for developers doing projects not just in downtown Denver, but the entire metro area — but if you look at Denver Fugly (the Facebook group dedicated to discussing the uglier aspects of Denver development), you'll see that there are a "large number of people who don't feel great about it," Frampton added.
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For the most part, though, all the numbers coming from the Denver Partnership are very, very pretty. It's a great city, imagined.
See the full 2016 State of Downtown report here.