In the 35 years since it was created, Denver’s 16th Street Mall has morphed from the heart and soul of downtown Denver into a sometime civic embarrassment showing its age.
The mall is an important transit corridor, with up to 45,000 riders using the Regional Transportation District’s Free MallRide each weekday; it’s still one of the metro area’s biggest visitor attractions. But Denver boosters worry that it hasn’t reached its full potential as a welcoming place with great pedestrian infrastructure, seating areas that are inviting, or spaces that function well for special events.
The city has wrestled with the issue of how to improve the mall’s image for years, commissioning study after study in its quest for answers to problems along the mile-long corridor. Making real improvements always seems to come down to money. Fortunately, some is available — even if the right ways to spend it are not readily apparent.
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 (see “Lost Denver”).
The TIF was created in 1992 to repay $60 million in bonds that funded projects in the Downtown Urban Renewal Area. They included the redevelopment of the Denver Dry Building and Mercantile Square, and construction of the Adam’s Mark (now Sheraton) hotel and the Denver Pavilions.
DURA finished repaying the bonds in 2013 but has continued to collect taxes for the full 25 years that the TIF is authorized.
“We make those strategic investments, and after it’s no longer as risky, the market does what the market does, and development occurs,” says Tracy Huggins, DURA’s executive director. “When that development happens, we are the beneficiary of those taxes. Those revenues come to DURA.”
The excess funding generated from the TIF district could be spent on the mall or any number of amenities downtown. DURA already has helped with such projects as public parking in lower downtown, the King Soopers building at 20th and Chestnut streets, and a downtown school. Under its agreement with DURA, the city must submit projects it would like funded no later than June 30, 2020.
In the meantime, Huggins says, reinvesting the TIF money in the mall is a no-brainer.
“The shine is off the mall,” she adds. “This excess TIF money can be used for the elimination of blight. We need to address improvements on the mall.”
Building the Mall
Before the 16th Street Mall was built in 1982, all local, express and regional buses ran on downtown streets.
Buses dominated 16th Street during rush hour, and narrow sidewalks discouraged walking around downtown. In 1977, RTD engaged I.M. Pei and Associates to design the pedestrian mall and transit paths where free buses would run. The following year, voters approved the Mall Maintenance District to clean, maintain and police the mall.
“I.M. Pei was world-famous by that time,” says Jim Johnson, founding principal of Johnson Nathan Strohe Architects and a fan of the mall.
In 1980, 16th Street was permanently closed to traffic, and construction began. The street and sidewalks were demolished, and underground utilities were renewed. The concrete road base and granite surface were installed.
At the time it was built, the 16th Street Mall connected two modernist gems in Denver: Zeckendorf Plaza, completed by I.M. Pei in 1960; and Skyline Park, completed by renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin in 1976. Today, Zeckendorf is gone and Skyline bears little resemblance to the initial park.
Over the years, many people have looked at ways the mall could be improved. One result has been to fill the space between the transit lanes with kiosks selling everything from tacos to trinkets — a move Johnson says destroyed the elegant simplicity of Pei’s design, which was intended to provide views of Longs Peak and the State Capitol Building.
“The answer to some of these problems is not adding physical stuff to the mall,” says Johnson, who was co-chair of the 16th Street Technical Committee that created the 16th Street Urban Design Plan in 2010. “Crime and a lot of these problems is promulgated by all this stuff. It gives bad guys a place to hide.”
Over the years, numerous studies have been conducted to assess the mall’s condition and evaluate ways to improve transit, pedestrian and leisure activities along the city’s spine. Recommendations have ranged from new lane alignments for the free MallRide to sidewalk enhancements and expanded seating. “There are no new ideas about the 16th Street Mall — it’s been studied so many times,” says Brad Buchanan, executive director of Denver Community Planning and Development. “It’s a world-class space, and it has to be the 16th Street Mall when we get done.”
But as you walk along the mall today, you’ll find scores of panhandlers. Well-cared-for properties like the Sage Building and the Denver Pavilions are interspersed with dingy-looking hulks in need of a good scrubbing...and good tenants.
Last summer, a report by Visit Denver, the city’s visitor and convention bureau, cited complaints about the “downtown environment” and the 16th Street Mall in particular as the number-one complaint about Denver among convention and meeting planners. The report listed numerous problems, among them “homeless, youth, panhandling, safety, cleanliness and drugs, including public marijuana consumption.”
Visit Denver is supportive of the efforts of the city, the Downtown Denver Partnership and RTD to improve and enhance the visitor experience, says Richard Scharf, the organization’s president and CEO. “The mall is one of the most frequented areas of downtown by our visitors due to its proximity to the Colorado Convention Center, hotels and restaurants,” he adds. “That is why our board and more than 1,000 stakeholders, who gave input on our ten-year Denver Tourism Roadmap, made it such a huge priority. We launched the Roadmap with the mayor last year to identify priorities for making Denver a world-class visitor destination.”
Those priorities include improvements to the mall’s physical infrastructure, safety features and visitor amenities to make it more of an attraction. “It should be Denver’s crown jewel and something visitors from around the world put on their list as a must-see, which is why we are also recommending funding for the mall through the 2017 General Obligation Bond,” Scharf says. The city is currently discussing that measure, which could wind up on the ballot in November.
Small improvements along the mall have been made over the past few years, including the installation of 187 LED lights to improve security. The Downtown Denver Partnership has also blocked the alleys to keep vagrancy down and hired private security guards to supplement the presence of Denver police officers patrolling the mall.
“Obviously, there’s a growing concern about the experience on the mall,” Buchanan says. “That’s a topic that goes back into the ’90s. The questions are around retail, the quality of the retail experience on the mall, the pedestrian experience on the mall, and the transit experience on the mall.”
The city and RTD recently announced plans to expand a federally mandated alternatives analysis for the mall. Recommendations could include everything from realigning the shuttle lanes to replacing the granite pavers with an “alternate surface.” The process, expected to take about a year, could also result in a recommendation to leave the mall as it is.
The pavers have been a point of contention between RTD, which spends more than $1 million a year to maintain them, and Denver’s historic preservation community, which argues that their historic significance outweighs the cost.
“They’re not cheap,” says RTD spokesman Nate Currey. “With as much pressure as they get with the buses going up and down every day, we have to replace quite a few of them.”
RTD filed a construction-defects lawsuit with the contractor soon after the mall was completed in 1982, claiming that the transit lanes, specifically the granite pavers, were flawed. A settlement led to the payment of at least $120,000 a year to RTD for the past thirty years, but that hasn’t covered repairs. The trouble is that when the buses brake, they move the pavers.
There have been discussions about paving the transit lanes with concrete to solve that problem, but it’s a solution that doesn’t sit well with preservationists and design professionals. “To me, that is the cardinal sin,” Johnson says. “It’s disrespectful of I.M. Pei’s design and the 35-year history of the mall.”
Maintenance isn’t the only issue with the pavers. When they’re wet, they get so slick that the buses have braking and traction problems. Pedestrians can wipe out when it’s snowy. And if you’re wearing heels...
“Anybody who travels down here a lot understands how slippery those things can be,” Currey says.
According to Johnson, the granite pavers were originally flame-finished, making them coarser. Over the years, that surface has been smoothed off. To rectify the slickness, the finish would have to be restored.
The mosaic pattern of the 400,000 red, white and black granite pavers was inspired by Southwestern imagery, including the Navajo rug and a diamondback rattlesnake, though Johnson wonders whether it was perhaps also a nod to the angle of downtown’s grid.
“I always question how many people even know that it is that way or even see it,” Currey says. “That’s the part of placemaking that’s a challenge, too. Does that historical thing actually create a sense of place? I would argue that the design of the mall in and of itself does not.”
But Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver Inc., believes that the mall’s original design is important. The organization has said that the mall’s three essential components are the granite pavers, the light fixtures and the trees; all are historically and architecturally significant and would be difficult to replicate. “Planning changes has to be done very carefully to be sure you’re not ruining what is most special about the mall,” says Levinsky.
She points to the 187 new lights that were installed between Market Street and Broadway as a good example of honoring the mall’s history. The fixtures replicate Pei’s design and restore the architect’s distribution and balance of light along the mall. Historic Denver kept a few of the original fixtures, as did the Kirkland Museum.
What’s on the mall isn’t the only concern, though. There’s also the matter of who’s on the mall — and who isn’t.
Fixing the Mall
Two years ago, Denver Community Planning and Development, in collaboration with the Downtown Denver Partnership, enlisted San Francisco-based Gehl Studio to draft a guide to improving the mall. Gehl’s report, titled “16th Street Mall: Small Steps Towards Big Change,” revealed that while thousands of people are on the mall daily, only 1 percent of pedestrians stop to spend time on the street, making it more of a thoroughfare than a destination.
The report made several recommendations that were carried out last year, including Meet in the Street and a Prototyping Festival that invited the community to events and activities. (The call just went out for submissions to the “My 16th Street” Meet in the Street Prototyping Series; the deadline is May 15 at downtowndenver.com.) On the Sundays when Meet in the Street events were held, the free shuttle was relocated from the mall to 15th and 17th streets between Civic Center Station and Wynkoop Street to promote increased pedestrian activity along the mall.
“I think that’s a great idea and should be made permanent,” says Ken Schroeppel, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning. “The mall should be pedestrian- and bike-only from Saturday morning to Sunday evening, and then move the shuttle back onto the mall.”
While there’s been some discussion about relocating the shuttles off the mall, most planners agree that it’s important to keep them on the mall during the work week to transport people through downtown.
“The shuttle is a critically important backbone of downtown’s transit system,” Buchanan says. “It needs to continue to connect Civic Center Station and Union Station. But we also have to be responsive to the pedestrian experience.”
One way to get the shuttles off the mall and save the pavers would be to install a gondola that would run from Civic Center Station to Union Station, suggests Dana Crawford, the preservationist who saved Larimer Square (see “The Bright Side”). Crawford, who credits her son Duke with the idea, says it also would reduce the panhandlers who are so prevalent on the mall. “The buses promote transient behavior because they’re able to stay so mobile,” she notes. But a gondola would not stop at every block, and it would also keep passengers out of the reach of panhandlers.
Gondolas have been successful in cities like Koblenz, Germany; Medellin, Colombia; and La Paz, Bolivia, but in this country, they’re largely confined to ski areas. “I think it would take a civic movement to get it going,” Crawford admits.
While Currey says that a gondola is an interesting idea, it might not make financial sense. “We would be open to seeing statistics on how that would work — it would definitely be an interesting attraction for downtown,” he says. “The biggest challenge you’re going to find is that it takes people off the street level, so it takes away from businesses and retailers.”
The 2010 16th Street Urban Design Plan included a detailed technical assessment of the mall’s infrastructure and evaluation of alternatives. At the end of the process, there was wide consensus regarding the importance of keeping the mall’s design, including the “carpet runner” of granite pavers. “The 16th Street Mall’s pedestrian experience is the highest priority when considering other design and operational features, including but not limited to transit, streetscaping, programming and special events,” the plan notes.
While not specific to the mall, the 2007 Denver Downtown Area Plan, produced by the city’s planning department, outlined a vision for the city that included energizing the commercial core, building on transit, and a comprehensive retail strategy to improve downtown’s overall economic vitality. An Urban Land Institute panel convened in 2008 declared the mall to be “public art of the highest international quality” and strongly urged Denver to fix, not physically modify, the mall.
A Linear Challenge
Moving people and creating a sense of place along an eighty-foot-wide one-mile stretch is challenging, Buchanan says.
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“It’s like having eighteen people at a dinner party at one long table,” he says. “It’s hard to have a conversation. It’s exacerbated by the fact that the shuttles, which started out in 1982 with 10,000 to 12,000 passengers a day, now have 45,000 people a day.”
Though the deadline to spend the $68 million in TIF money before it reverts back to DPS and the city is looming, planners are not yet scrambling. “We have enough time to do the process right,” Buchanan says. “One of the alternatives will be a no-action alternative. But we want to make sure the process is done in a timely fashion so if there is a change, we have ample time to do that.
“I’m feeling comfort in the fact that there is a deadline,” he says. “That deadline helps to put urgency into the conversation, and that’s very helpful.”
What do you like about the mall? What do you loathe? Share your thoughts in a comment, and watch for our list of bright and blight spots.