Ten Reasons to Love the 16th Street Mall

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.

7) Sushi at Walgreens! The renovated Walgreens at 801 16th Street is the flagship in the chain, an incredibly clean, streamlined space that looks like it shared an architect with Euflora. And yes, that sushi is made fresh daily; at noon Monday, two sushi chefs are manning the counter.

6) Hospitality is not dead. While Downtown Denver studies the mall, the city itself is studying an amenity in very short supply along this stretch: public restrooms. In another experiment, a pair of bathrooms in the 1500 block of Skyline Park have been kept open for busy days this summer; still, relief can be tough to find to find at night. Although most restaurants are adamant that their facilities are for customers only, the Hard Rock Cafe will take pity on folks who are out on the town Friday and Saturday night — and out of luck when looking for a bathroom. “We’re never going to turn anybody away, especially on the weekends,” promises one manager.

5) The Denver Pavilions in general. After the big department stores disappeared, the mall’s main shopping attractions were souvenir stores with names like “Made in Colorado” — which sell almost nothing that’s made in Colorado. But like Larimer Square, which carefully cultivated a retail/restaurant comeback a decade ago, the Pavilions’ owners have been working hard to bring quality eating and shopping options to the mall, and that includes not just H&M but also two stores devoted to items actually made in Colorado. And there are more delights in store.
4) The sound of music...and money. Not only do buskers provide entertainment for the people on the mall — but playing the mall provides a living for more than a few performers. And much of the music they produce is astonishingly good. “There’s this amazing street scene that people don’t always pay attention to,” says Mark Patterson, who recorded many of these buskers to create the album From Downtown Denver: Street Music. In 2011, Dred Scott, a street performer, even made it to number 14 on iTunes’ singer/songwriter chart.

3) Lower Downtown. When the mall was first created, it stopped at the now-defunct Market Street station on the edge of LoDo. But in preparation for Union Station’s return to its role as a transit hub, the mall was extended several critical blocks, right past our favorite corner. At 1626 Wazee Street, there’s Rockmount Ranch Wear, the Western store that dates back to the ’40s and whose founder, Jack A. Weil, invented the snap-button shirt. And across the street, in the building where a giant painting of a cowboy by former occupant Willie Matthews is fading off the side, is a dispensary. In just a few minutes, you can experience the best of both the old and new West in what we’ve dubbed the Tumbleweed Tour. That will leave you plenty of time to experience the old/new delights of the resurrected Union Station just a block away.
2) People-watching. The 16th Street Mall is the best place in town to watch people. It’s also a place where you’re guaranteed to bump into a person you’re happy to see. On Monday, it’s former Denver Post reporter Lynn Bartels, out for lunch on her first day of her new job at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. And where the action is, of course: On the mall.

1) The mall buses. Nothing has been set in stone — and that includes the uneven pavers on the mall — but there are definitely groups interested in moving the free shuttles from 16th Street; Meet in the Street tested that concept. Still, every visitor we’ve ever encountered on the 16th Street Mall has marveled at those shuttles. Sometimes, the best things in life — or at least in the life of a vibrant downtown — really are free.

What's your favorite thing on the 16th Street Mall? Your least favorite thing? Would you like to see the buses moved? Share your thoughts in a comments section, or e-mail them to me at [email protected] — and read our thirtieth-anniversary love letter here.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun