High noon on Saturday, August 8: the busiest time of the day on the busiest day of the week in the busiest month for the 16th Street Mall, one of the top visitor attractions in Denver, a city that set new tourism records last year.
How do you top that? This summer, the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District hosted Meet in the Street, a series of five bus-free Sundays on the mall where “the street is yours.” Without those free shuttle buses that have run up and down the mall since the day it opened in 1982, people could spill from the storefronts across the sidewalks right into the medians, enjoying expanded outdoor cafes, live concerts and games, even stick their toes in a section featuring real turf. The program was part of a major revisioning project recently launched by the Downtown Denver Partnership, the City of Denver and other agencies and entities that have hired Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects, a “global leader in people-centered design,” on a $650,000 contract to study the mall and identify challenges and opportunities. To determine how to get people to “linger,” especially in the section from Tremont to Arapahoe streets.
But on this sunny Saturday, the biggest challenge is finding an empty chair at one of the cafes or in those urban oases between the bus lanes, where regulars are playing chess, tourist families study their maps and delegates on a break from a meeting of disabled vets at the Colorado Convention Center are taking pictures of the sign on the Euflora dispensary that says, “Welcome, Vets! Thank You for Your Service.”
Despite the mall’s reputation for attracting riffraff, there are no panhandlers in sight. And along the entire 1.25 mile stretch, the only people who smell like pot are a raucous bunch of locals who board the mall bus, all wearing bright blue T-shirts announcing that they are part of “Jon’s 4.0” birth day celebration.
Just past noon on Sunday, August 9: Another group — none of them leftover from Jon’s 4.0 — meets outside the Kittredge Building, home of Downtown Denver and ground zero for the more ambitious and comprehensive “The Mall Experience: The Future of Denver’s 16th Street Mall,” to hear about this “comprehensive revisioning of the mall.” But the musicians playing on these blocks are so loud — two dueling pianists marvel that anyone actually hired their “shit show” — that these tourists in their own town have to duck inside the Denver Pavilions to learn the details of the plan. Meet in the Street is just one part of the experimental experience, and this is its last day; tomorrow the buses will return from their temporary homes on 15th and 17th streets. But on this sunny Sunday, the place is packed with more regulars, more tourist families, more vets on another break from the convention. The mall has already surveyed 2,000 people to find out what they think about the Meet in the Street set-up, what they think about the mall the rest of the time, what they’d like to see when they come to downtown Denver.
According to Denver Community Planning & Development, “It’s downtown’s time.”
But which downtown, exactly? The downtown of residents? Visitors? Or planners? “Come back on a weekday,” advises one of the group’s leaders.
High noon on Monday, August 10: The mall is jammed with regulars, more tourists, the last of the disabled veterans from that convention and, for the first time, businesspeople out for a quick lunch, pushing past panhandlers and the petition peddlers hawking Greenpeace or Bible classes. Every seat in the median seems full, and several of the benches by the art pianos are also occupied by ivory-ticklers ranging from a man who’s taken off his suitcoat to bang out a classic to a homeless fellow who’s parked his possessions by his side as he picks out “You Are My Sunshine.”
On a day like this, it’s hard not to love the mall — rough edges (those I.M. Pei-designed tiles were supposed to be reminiscent of rattlesnakes but today only bite women’s high heels), riffraff (a few mall rats lurk in the cool — and pungent — smell of one alley), and all.
Here are just ten reasons to enjoy the 16th Street Mall, right now.
10) Outdoor cafes are everywhere. Even the 7/Eleven on the corner right next to Euflora has seating out front so that you can enjoy your Big Gulp in comfort.
9) History lurks around the next corner. The Kittredge Building is stunning, well-preserved example of the late 1800s architecture that once lined this street. More than thirty years ago, back when the Regional Transportation District was just beginning to turn downtown’s major thoroughfare into a mall, a cult devoted to the Guru Maharaj Ji ran a typesetting service out of the building, working on early editions of Westword. All the workers wore clothes that were the color of the sunrise. They did not charge much.
8) There are still deals to be had. The Republic Plaza food court finally closed this summer — in a true sign of the times, the space is being turned into a fitness center — but Debbie Kuehn is still rising to the occasion at the Santa Fe Cookie Co. On August 15, she’ll mark her thirtieth anniversary in the cookie business; for the last seven, she’s operated in this underground storefront, where she’s usually back in the kitchen, baking cookies that she sells three-for-a-dollar on the honor system.