Mike Johnston Has $500 Million Plan to Revitalize Downtown Denver | Westword

Mayor Unveils $500 Million Plan to Revitalize Downtown Without Raising Taxes

Right now the Downtown Development Authority can only help Union Station. The mayor wants to free up its resources.
Downtown Denver staples like the Philadelphia Filly Cart have left by the dozen since the pandemic for a variety of reasons, but Mayor Mike Johnston hopes investments into public spaces will help attract unique and popular businesses.
Downtown Denver staples like the Philadelphia Filly Cart have left by the dozen since the pandemic for a variety of reasons, but Mayor Mike Johnston hopes investments into public spaces will help attract unique and popular businesses. Molly Martin
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Denver Mayor Mike Johnston thinks he’s found a solution to investing $500 million in downtown Denver without raising anyone’s taxes.

In a press conference today, May 9, the mayor announced the next step in his Vibrant Denver plan will be extending the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) beyond Union Station. The DDA has existed since 2008, when the city needed to find a way to finance the reconstruction and revitalization of Union Station.

“We would extend the footprint of that authority to cover all of the Central Business District, which means businesses can opt in in that region and we can make investments in that entire region,” Johnston explained.

DDAs are allowed by a state law last updated in 2023 that specifies that each city can select one area in which to collect some of the incremental taxes generated and reinvest those funds into economic development activities within that area. In Denver, when property or sales tax is collected downtown, a portion of those taxes is set aside for public improvements in that community instead of going into the city’s general fund.

Denver's DDA currently only encompasses the area directly around Union Station. Still, that small area has generated $400 million since 2008, funding the historic preservation of Union Station, rail and bus upgrades and improved public spaces and streets around the station.

Johnston hopes to expand the reach of the DDA from Speer Boulevard to 20th Street, and from Union Station all the way up to Grant Street. Because downtown is offset from Denver’s grid, Colfax Avenue also represents a newly proposed boundary, taking over for Speer when the two intersect.
click to enlarge
This map shows where the city proposes to extend the Downtown Development Authority.
City of Denver

The mayor has been vocal about revitalizing downtown Denver, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down commerce and changed how people interact with its business district. There is also an ongoing construction project that has shut down the 16th Street Mall, which has faced delays and a need for additional funding. In a Reddit Q&A on May 8, Johnston estimated that construction would end by the summer of 2025, and hinted that this plan could help businesses impacted by construction.

“This problem was not unique to Denver but we need a uniquely Denver solution,” Johnston said at the media gathering. “Our Vibrant Downtown campaign will bring the same thoughtful, deliberate, inclusive development we've seen at Union Station to all of downtown.”

He pointed to Union Station’s facade and the fountains in front of it where kids play in the summer as two examples of projects the DDA can help fund, saying he wants to view downtown as a neighborhood rather than just a place for businesses or attractions.

“The mistake that many cities have made is to believe that a central business district is just that: only a place for commerce,” Johnston said. “That is no longer our vision for downtown Denver and no longer works for today's cities. Our vision is to create the fastest-growing economic engine in the West, but one that also brings a more diversified central neighborhood district where people of all ages and incomes can make their home.”

Johnston also brought up investing in childcare facilities downtown and building more housing where people who work at the bars and restaurants in the district can afford to live.

“We want to create magnetic public spaces where people want to come and enjoy their time,” he added. “What you see in places like Larimer Square, where you have great, vibrant businesses, you have outdoor activations, you have recreational pedestrian access. We want to help convert some of the existing commercial space that may be underutilized into residential opportunities.”

Johnston said his team has already been speaking with business owners about investments they would like to see, and he’s now ready to get feedback from the entire city, launching a survey people can take to share their ideas for downtown.

“Downtown is the neighborhood for the folks that live here, but downtown is the living room for everyone who lives in Denver,” he said. “We all have a stake.”

The mayor can't just expand the DDA with a stroke of his pen, however. The proposal will need to pass three series of votes: First, Denver City Council will have to vote to refer a ballot measure extending the authority to those who are currently part of the district. Council will also need to update the 2008 language to prepare for the expansion.

At the press conference with Johnston were councilmembers Chris Hinds, Darrell Watson and Amanda Sandoval, all of whom will lead the effort on the council.

Should that effort be successful, residents and business owners in the current geographic area would vote to extend the district in a special election in November, followed by the current DDA board, according to the new DDA website. Residents and business owners in the expanding areas would not be part of the election.

The mayor's office estimates that there are around 100 businesses or fewer currently covered by the DDA.

If the expansion passes all those votes, that office will solicit proposals in the winter of 2025 and plans to dole out the estimated $500 million later that year.

“Having spent the three years before I became mayor running an office right there in Union Station, we knew what was at stake,” Johnston said. “We started with a clear message that we would do whatever it takes to not only protect the downtown we have, but to build the downtown that we always dreamed.”

Share your dreams for downtown in the city survey, which is open now.
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