Would New Roadway, No Buses Help or Hurt the 16th Street Mall?

Plenty of Denverites are up in arms about the current state of the 16th Street Mall, which they see as a setting for random violent crime and an aggressive, drug-using homeless population that's keeping visitors away.

In the view of Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver, such factors — which are being addressed by a new safety plan that officials think is making a positive difference — obscure the unique character of the 16th Street Mall, which she considers one of the city's true gems. That's why she's strongly opposed to the possible replacement of the granite "pavers" that make up the surface of the roadway — and why she's open to discussing the idea of eliminating buses on the mall entirely.

"We think historic places and beautiful design are important in the city," Levinsky says in regard to the pavers — the subject of two meetings today hosted by RTD (details below). "They contribute to our quality of life and our understanding of who we are and where we came from.

The 16th Street Mall, which debuted on October 4, 1982, was conceived by the well-known architectural firm I.M. Pei & Partners, and the pavers were a key part of the designers' overall vision. Their pattern is meant to suggest the scales on a rattlesnake, as well as Navajo rugs, and Levinsky feels that the granite material enhances the impact.

"Having a special material on the street on the mall is its distinctive designation," she argues. "It shows that this is not the same as any other city street. And you also lose the design's integrity. If you take away one design component, it's hard not to affect other design components: the trees, the light fixtures. We think of it as one of the mall's three big design elements."

The problem is that maintaining the pavers is expensive, which is why RTD is looking at replacing them with one of three different concrete alternatives seen in a document at the bottom of this post.

Rehabilitating the pavers is also among the options on the table, and Levinsky thinks this approach is in keeping with a 2008 analysis by the Urban Land Institute. A ULI panel called the mall "public art of the highest international quality" and encouraged Denver to fix the area rather than physically modify it. Moreover, Levinsky stresses that "rehabilitation was originally selected as part of a public process back in 2010" that was led by RTD and the Downtown Denver Partnership and included the participation of 3,600 people.

One way to lessen the wear and tear on the pavers would be to either eliminate or reduce bus use on the mall. Levinsky points out that "the city is doing a study about the mall, and the 'Meet in the Street' events that have been held over the past few years have been very successful. Anecdotally, there's some evidence that when the buses aren't on the mall, it's more vibrant, and people feel more comfortable; there's more energy. But the transit function is important, too, and we'd have to figure out a way to accommodate that either on the mall or off the mall in some capacity."

The question of eliminating buses on the mall won't be at the center of today's hour-long meetings, which are scheduled to get underway at noon and 5:30 p.m. at the RTD administrative office, 1600 Blake Street. Instead, the focus will be on the granite pavers — and Levinsky fears their elimination would continue an unhappy process.

"There were three big mid-century designs downtown: Skyline Park, Zeckendorf Plaza and the 16th Street Mall. And the only one left is the mall," she says. "I want to make it clear that we're not opposed to changes on the mall. We think there are a variety of creative changes that can be made. But we are concerned about jumping to this decision about the materials."

Levinsky notes that "there have been a lot of discussions about design quality in Denver during the development boom that's going on right now" — an apparent allusion to complaints about slot houses and other multi-unit complexes that have been popping up in many Denver neighborhoods of late. "And design assets bring people here. They really matter to cities around the world that have unique identities and beautiful places."

Continue to see an RTD document showing roadway alternatives that will be discussed at today's meetings.

16th Street Mall Transit Way Alternatives Evaluation

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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