Back in May 2019, we reported on an ambitious, multi-year plan to update the 16th Street Mall that calls for, among other things, eliminating the median from the 1.2 mile stretch between Market Street and Broadway to make more space on either side of the street.
Since then, 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 (a $1.8 billion contract to renovate DIA's Great Hall was terminated last August) and the Colorado Convention Center (in December 2018, work on a $233 million expansion was stopped when improprieties were discovered).
The city is pushing back against this take. True, a series of meetings taking place today and tomorrow, February 18 and February 19, are invitation-only; they're sit-downs to be attended by various stakeholders. But a public event is planned for February 27, and Julie Smith, a city spokesperson who's serving as head of community outreach and communications for the mall venture, stresses that Denver isn't trying to hide anything.
Told that some Denver City Council members feel a bit out of the loop regarding plans for the mall, she replies: "I'm not surprised, but it's not for a lack of effort. This is an ongoing process, and especially with federal funding, there are so many steps, especially in the environmental phase, that it can feel like there's not a lot of activity and updating. But we're entering a new phase when there will be a lot more going on."
Last year, the price tag on the plan was estimated at $90 million to $130 million. Because the city has just announced the three companies — Ames Construction, Kiewit Corporation and PCL Construction (the latter is also a Convention Center bidder) — that have qualified to submit design and construction proposals, Smith isn't able to offer a more specific price tag beyond projecting that the final cost will be in excess of $100 million.
The approach these firms will be asked to use on the mall is known as a "designed build," Smith says. "The traditional method is that you procure a designer, they design the project, and then you put the design out and receive bids. But with a designed build, the designer and the builder are on the same team and they bid on the same project. This should reduce the time frame, and it also allows you to evaluate as you go. You're learning things about the project that you may not have known in the first design phase, and that should help make things more efficient."
The mall project partners are the City of Denver (via bond funding), the troubled Regional Transportation District, the Downtown Denver Partnership and the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. Because an agreement between DURA and Denver for access to tax-increment financing (TIF) funds for the project expires on December 31, 2022, there's something of a ticking clock on the financing. But Smith reveals that the city is working with DURA to extend the pact "to meet the project's expected timeline." Any change of this sort would be subject to city council approval.
At least two council members are up to speed on these elements and more: Chris Herndon and Candi CdeBaca are part of a group that Smith refers to as the "16th Street Mall Champions stakeholder committee." That gathering also includes "representatives from a wide-variety of mall users, from property owners to advocates for people with disabilities, outreach workers who support people experiencing homelessness, mobility advocates, residents, retailers, restaurateurs and other major employers...and adjacent RiNo representatives," she adds. The Champions met for the first time on December 18, 2019, and got together again on January 30, with a third gathering set for April 8.
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On November 26, meanwhile, the project passed its first major milestone when it received a so-called "Finding of No Significant Impact" in an environmental review mandated by the federal government. Because of the proximity of this date to the Thanksgiving holiday, not to mention the impact of a major storm system that struck Denver, Smith speculates that assorted officials may have missed the news despite the issuance of a press release on December 3. Without this thumbs-up from the feds, Denver would not have been able to move on to procuring a design-and-build combo pack.
Once a winner is selected from the three finalists, Smith says, "Our goal is to start design in early 2021, pending council approval of the contract. Construction would get under way shortly after that, and because you basically have to take the winter off, we're probably looking at 2022 or 2023 before everything is finished. But we hope to find innovative ways to build the project well to the standards the community would expect, and also build it in a way that preserves the experiences that are currently there and gives us an opportunity to build on them once it's completed."
For now, though, the city is concentrating on listening. The stakeholders' meetings today and tomorrow will divide attendees into several categories: "Hospitality & Tourism, Advocacy, Parks, Mobility, Residents & Neighborhoods, Retailers & Restauranteurs, Property Owners & Businesses and accessibility advocates to get input on proposed future experiences on the mall," according to Smith. Then, on February 27, a presentation on the project will be displayed in the atrium of the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building, 201 West Colfax. Staffers will be present to answer questions between noon to 1 p.m. and 5 to 6 p.m.
"We want to keep everyone engaged in this process as we move forward," Smith emphasizes. For example, she notes, "from a safety perspective, we want to understand from people what makes them feel safer and what are some things that currently concern them. And we'll update everyone on all the things we've done and are doing moving forward, so we can capture feedback about how we can make the mall a safe and welcoming place for everybody."