16th Street Mall: Are Homelessness, Drugs, Crime on Mall Costing Denver?

The topic of violence on the 16th Street Mall isn't going away. At least not yet.

Shortly after we published a three-part series on the subject in this space last month, Denver officials announced a new $396,000 safety plan for the mall that called for a tripling of Denver police officers patrolling the area. But days later, a video of a pipe attack on the mall went viral — and the subsequent surfacing of a report suggesting that downtown Denver was losing convention and meeting business due to the perception that the 16th Street Mall was unsafe only added to the anxiety of officials and business operators.

Cut to this week, when the Colorado Convention Center is playing host to the annual convention for the Global Business Travel Association, an organization whose members include travel managers for corporations — the very sort of people who decide where to hold large events.

This timing doesn't seem ideal — but Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, the city's tourism agency, isn't panicking. After all, as he points out, GBTA has scheduled two more visits to Denver, in 2020 and 2025, respectively. Moreover, he's pleased with the 16th Street Mall safety plan and thinks there's been an improvement in the area over the past couple of weeks. But at the same time, he's hardly shrugging off the situation.

"I would say it's a major concern for our membership, and we share the same concern that the city and the Downtown Denver Partnership have," Scharf notes. "We have to continue to monitor what the issues are and whether they're getting better or getting worse."

According to Scharf, the aforementioned report, "Impacts of the Downtown Environment on the Tourism Industry and Visitor Perceptions" (see it below), was created at the behest of Denver city councilpersons Robin Kniech and Wayne New and presented in December 2015. And while much of the data dates to 2013 and 2014, the document includes e-mails from meeting planners circa July and August of last year in which the authors mention complaints about safety that convinced them to take their business elsewhere. 

One note features the following comments:
“Denver seems less safe now that pot is legalized.”

“Don't have a meeting in downtown Denver...what a depressing downtown area.”

“The neighborhood had way too many vagrants. I don't remember Denver being that bad.”

“Poor area, lots of crime as we sat outside on a patio on the 16th Street mall on Sunday evening having a beer, I turned my head to look at a television, when I turned back a street person was drinking my beer. I am sure this is not an image Denver wants portrayed around the country."

“I did a meeting in Denver years ago and it did seem to be much cleaner and nicer. It’s a shame because the 16th Street Mall area is so nice but it’s also a small area so it makes it look like the homeless population is worse than it probably really is.”
An excerpt from another e-mail reads: "The Exec. Dir. rarely gives a strong opinion on meetings but is firmly against a downtown property — during a recent visit he found the downtown area to be dirty, smelly, and was really put off by the number of dirty young adults that hang around and panhandle in the parks and the general 16th Street area and I agree with him. (He has lived in NYC and D.C. for his entire life so he is used to city life)."

And then there's this:
I'm sorry but I would never consider putting attendees in danger by holding a convention in your city. We are staying at Embassy Suites downtown on 16th, and last night witnessed a group of about 30 teenagers attack a man walking along 16th street. I am told this is not an unusual occurrence. The homeless situation is very sad, and public streets reek of weed. The Denver police should be more alert to large groups of minors congregating on city streets attacking tourists. My feedback from this meeting will be to never locate here again; I have felt much safer in downtown NYC, Philly, Seattle and Chicago.
Damning feedback — but Scharf says it should be put into context.

"Wayne and Robin wanted to know about the warts" pertaining to the 16th Street Mall, he points out. "They wanted to know about some of the negative issues that were creating bad experiences for our customers — so we didn't present the positive. We just gave them what we were hearing from the surveys that were being filled out about safety" — one of six major areas of inquiry in Visit Denver surveys, along with accessibility, affordability, facilities, service and destination appeal.

He adds that reviews of the 16th Street Mall weren't universally awful. "The mall does show up with positives on surveys," he stresses. "The other day, I got a survey that said some of the things on the mall were a little concerning, but they still said the most positive thing about their visit was the 16th Street Mall."

Under other circumstances, the fact that the e-mails are around a year old would call the continuing accuracy of their observations into question. But when it comes to the 16th Street Mall, plenty of people seem to think conditions actually deteriorated from 2015 to 2016. Scharf isn't sure that's true: "The release of that video [featuring the pipe attack] was almost the crescendo of the issues that have been happening. But I'd say the 2013-2014 data is pretty consistent with what's been going on."

Since then, Scharf says, "we've reached out to our business partners, our 1,200 members and all the hotels, and they're saying that they're seeing a noticeable difference in a positive way" owing to the implementation of the city's safety plan." He praises officials and the Downtown Denver Partnership for moving quickly and for being responsive when it comes to the complaints and data collected by Visit Denver.

Scharf feels that "we're on the right track" when it comes to making sure the 16th Street Mall is safe. But he's under no illusions that the fix will be easy, particularly given that other metro areas are grappling with the same problems. "I served on the board of the Destination Marketing Association International, my industry association, and this is the hottest topic in the top thirty cities in the country, along with the unpredictability of violence and terrorism.

"We've been fortunate to have ten years of record tourism in Denver," he says — and in a 2015 survey by Longwoods International, 79 percent of visitors to the Mile High City "said they'd like to return. That's an indicator that good things are happening."

He hopes that will continue to be the case throughout Denver — including the 16th Street Mall.

Look below to see the December 2015 study, followed by the Longwoods International survey.

Impacts of the Downtown Environment on the Tourism Industry and Vistor Perceptions

Denver 2015 Travel Year: Longwoods International Survey

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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