On July 20, Denver City Council allowed ambitious plans to refurbish Denver's iconic 16th Street Mall move forward, despite a petition signed by approximately 3,000 people that called for members to squelch the project and redirect the millions of dollars set aside for it to Denver Public Schools and the City of Denver — entities that activists behind the campaign felt could use the funds for purposes better than an expensive spruce-up amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vote in favor of continuing the project was 11-1, with only councilmember Candi CdeBaca dissenting; at-large member Debbie Ortega was absent.
Paul Vranas, a DPS parent who led the petition drive, was disappointed by the district's lack of fight over the issue.
"Last night, city council debated the decision to return $33 million to Denver Public Schools or spend it on a remodel of the 16th Street Mall," Vranas writes via email. "We had eight parents and teachers speak in support of returning the money to DPS; we had 3,000 community members sign a petition; we had multiple newspaper articles; and with all of that attention, not a single DPS leader bothered to attend the meeting and speak up, let alone advocate for DPS. Multiple city council members had invited DPS and were expecting them to attend to advocate for their money. This was a huge embarrassment to Denver Public Schools."
The district's reticence to lobby shouldn't have come as a surprise. Prior to the meeting, DPS spokesperson Winna MacLaren offered this statement to Westword: "While we do not have an official position on this, it is something we are monitoring. Individual boardmembers are in contact with their councilmembers."
Likewise, the only members of city council who responded to outreach from Westword about the mall vote in advance were Kendra Black, Kevin Flynn and Chris Hinds, all of whom wanted the update to proceed as planned.
In May 2017, Westword published "At 35, Could the 16th Street Mall Use a $68 Million Facelift?" The headline question was prompted in part by this scenario: "With the tax-increment financing (TIF) district that paid for many of the mall’s original improvements set to expire this year, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) has roughly $68 million it can contribute to elevating the mall’s image. The only catch is that the money has to be spent by 2022 or it reverts back to the city and Denver Public Schools. That deadline has given added impetus to coming up with a fix for the 35-year-old mall, already considered a landmark in a city that’s been losing a lot of them recently."
Two years later, in May 2019, we took you inside the plan created to reimagine the mall along a 1.2-mile stretch between Market Street and Broadway. By then, the cost was estimated at between $90 million and $130 million, with an overly optimistic start date of 2020 (it's been pushed back to 2021 at the earliest, and is expected to take until 2024). "While plenty of elements would be retained," we noted, "including the free MallRide transit service, changes would be substantial — including the elimination of the median in favor of more space on either side of the street." Also targeted were the original pavers that make up the mall's main surface and are said to be rapidly deteriorating.
Cut to earlier this year, when we described the revision's next phase — and rising concerns. "Discussion of the project has been quiet — too quiet, according to some sources contacted by Westword, who perceive a lack of transparency that raises significant concerns about the mall project, given problems at other major construction enterprises, including Denver International Airport...and the Colorado Convention Center," we reported on February 18. A week later, we revealed that a job listing for a project director, with a starting pay range of $109,174 to $174,678, was posted before the city could hold further discussions with councilmembers.
Nonetheless, on June 16, a council committee approved extending the deadline for more than $50 million in TIF money for the project from 2022 to 2027, setting into motion the sequence of events leading to the meeting on July 19.
But then came the petition, which is written in letter format. It begins:
Dear Denver City Council Members,
Before COVID, the City of Denver began a $100m initiative to provide updates to the 16th Street Mall. While this might have been a great idea when money was flowing, we have entered into a financial crisis that is crushing our city, and most notably, the Denver Public Schools.
$33 million dollars of our tax payer funds that would have otherwise funded Denver Public Schools is currently sitting in an account for these 16th Street Mall Improvements.
Denver Public Schools is one of the lowest funded school Districts in the country. DPS is having to renegotiate contracts with our teachers and our essential workers and is still on a path to run out of cash in 2022!!
We are facing an educational crisis at DPS, and one that impacts 93,000 kids...65 percent of our kids are free and reduced lunch eligible, 67 percent of our kids are Black and LatinX. Our kids are the infrastructure that needs to be invested in, not the 16th Street Mall.
Now is NOT the time to take money from our kids education for a tourist beautification project.
The petition argued for a "no" vote and "an amendment to the existing DURA agreement to return $33m to Denver Public Schools and $25m to the City of Denver this year."
Pushing back against these arguments is Nancy Kuhn, communication manager for the Denver Office of Transportation & Infrastructure. "A primary reason that this project should move forward is to provide continued support for Denver Public Schools," she writes via email. "Currently the mall generates $46M per year in property tax; 65 percent of that, or $29.9M, goes to DPS annually. Investing in the City’s central business district’s main street for the first time in nearly forty years creates opportunity for increased property-tax revenues that directly benefit DPS and its students each year in perpetuity, that far exceed any short-term gain."
She adds: "The renovation of the mall is projected to create nearly 1,500 jobs in a time of high unemployment, bringing money home to families and helping restore tax revenues to pre-COVID levels. The project is anticipated to translate into $3.7B in regional economic impact which will help our city recover, economically, from the pandemic. The improvements address pressing safety and deteriorating infrastructure needs. The paver system alone is costing more than $1.5M a year to maintain. Many utilities underneath the mall need to be replaced and upgraded, including a water line from the 1800s."
Councilwoman Black shared the correspondence she'd been sending to constituents regarding the mall vote, which reads: "As policy-makers, council must look toward long term solutions not one-offs. Voting against the 16th Street Mall agreements would be short-sighted and potentially devastating to our downtown tax base. Not only would the city lose federal, state and Denver Water investments, the $56 million already collected (held by DURA) would not be returned to Denver and DPS until 12/31/22. The funds would not go back to DPS this year to help with DPS’s current financial crisis."
The same points are made by Councilman Flynn. "The petition is based on the false premise that by turning down the entire mall reconstruction project, the TIF money would then be available to DPS, the city and Urban Drainage," he says. "That is not true. The fund does not expire until Jan 1, 2023 — another two and a half years. No money would go to DPS or the others until then. In the meantime, this needed mall project, planned for ten years and finally with all the funding in place, will provide good-paying, skilled-trades jobs, apprenticeships and training opportunities at a time we're in recession and will need to have jobs available to working families."
Flynn also makes it clear that "the city council isn't voting on whether to give the money to the mall project or to DPS. We do not have authority to give the money to DPS now, and that's not the vote on Monday. The fund expires Dec, 31, 2022, and that's when anything that's left in it goes back to the city, Urban Drainage and DPS, not sooner."
As for Councilman Hinds, he says he has "asked to hear directly from the DPS administration/board at our next council meeting. ... We have received no request directly from DPS asking us to take any position on this contract amendment. Should DPS feel strongly about this contract, I welcome a conversation to learn that position and understand how it might affect my vote. I would also welcome comment from the DPS administration/board about this petition and how it impacts their position on the 16th Street Mall renovation."
In the absence of contradictory information, Hinds says he believes that "Denver has an obligation to ensure access to safe transportation for all. We're interested in a positive experience for everyone throughout Denver, but even if we weren't, we should maintain the Mall because any potential lawsuit against the city arising from the Mall's maintenance would also be paid for by taxpayers. It's a double win: We'd be doing the right thing (providing a positive experience), and we'd be avoiding doing the wrong thing (costly lawsuits and payouts)."
The majority of the council sided with Hinds, Flynn and Black, much to Vranas's chagrin.
This post has been updated to reflect the Denver City Council's July 20 vote.