Downtown's $650,000 problem

What's wrong with the 16h Street Mall? Here's the answer

When I first came to Denver, in 1973, I often went downtown because of the draw of city centers, and it was, like many downtowns in the early 1970s, in decline. I’m old enough to remember when downtowns were draws, when Petula Clark’s “Downtown” was a national No. 1 song, when downtown was the home of the flagship department stores, when downtown was where you went for a doctor’s appointment or a special night on the town, when downtown was where “the lights are much brighter.”

Downtown Denver was seedy back then, and city, civic and private industry leaders responded, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with such amenities as the Tabor Center, Writer’s Square and the 16th Street transit mall. Many other attractions have been added in the ensuing years, of course, most notably Coors Field, a redeveloped Union Station and rail yards, Elitch’s, the Colorado Convention Center, a revamped Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Pepsi Center, and a plethora of new office buildings and hotels. Not to mention Larimer Square, just celebrated its 50th anniversary, which stood for years as the only bright spot in an otherwise dim locale and remains to this day the brightest light downtown.  

And while Denver seems to be thriving – in downtown and apparently everywhere else – the 33-year-old 16th Street Mall appears to be the lone exception. Oh, as a transit hub, the nexus of downtown light rail service and jam-packed mall buses shuttling thousands of people from everywhere to and from the many attractions and work nearby, the mall is exceedingly successful. But people, at least the kind of people who would be the most desirous, find “lingering” on the mall an anathema.

So the Downtown Denver Partnership and the Denver planning office have launched a $650,000 initiative called “The Mall Experience: The Future of Denver’s 16th Street Mall” to figure out what’s wrong and, presumably, find solutions.

A consultant DDP has hired – from Denmark of all places – has studied the “lingering” times (reporting that only 1 percent of visitors “linger”), and there is another consultant hired for a plan “to more efficiently address security issues on the mall and enhance consumer confidence in the space.” It would seem that the two main identified problems that inhibit are “lingering.”

Security issues, by which I take to mean the riff-raff that do seem to like “lingering” on the mall (are they “mall-lingerers?”), much to the dismay of the non-riff-raff.

The presence of the mall buses that, apparently, sap the space’s vibrancy. 

I would suggest that it doesn’t take that much money or a consultant to discover what’s wrong with the mall. Just use an old newspaper approach: man-on-the-street interviews. I have done this and much to my non-surprise the basic answer is “there’s no there, there.” People “linger” on Larimer Square, or in LoDo, or at Union Station because there is stuff to do there, places to go.  For the central portion of the mall, from say California to Champa streets, there’s nothing there but transit. There are special events – holiday ice rink, New Year’s fireworks, the Parade of Lights, “Meet in the Street” events on five summer Sundays when the buses are idled – but they are temporary, one-off attractions; the rest of the time “there” is missing.

This isn’t the first time that the Downtown Denver Partnership has studied the foibles of the densest part of our urban core. In the late 1980s the essential scheme to revitalize downtown was to attract Macy’s, a folly of major proportions. I suggested at the time that such amenities don’t attract people; rather that people attract such amenities. I offered then that housing should be the solution and the stuff would follow. This has since happened in spades in LoDo and the Central Platte Valley, and nearby in the Highlands and the Golden Triangle south of Civic Center, and “there” has obviously blossomed there. So perhaps more, and more-desirable, residents in the critical mall area would be a good place to start.

Then my wife made an astute observation: What’s wrong with the 16th Street Mall simply being a successful transit corridor? This suggests that the lingering question perhaps should be: Are we looking for a solution to “The Future of Denver’s 16th Street Mall” where a problem doesn’t exist?

Something tells me that $650,000 a “problem” is assumed. I have lingering doubts.

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