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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