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Paving the Way for Progress: Updating the 16th Street Mall

 MallRide service will be suspended July 20 and August 10 to accommodate Sunday Strolls.

The pavers in the transit lanes need to be replaced, and the estimate is $65 million.

A wide variety of people gather on the 16th Street Mall daily.

The Denver Pavilions have served as an anchor on the southeast end of the mall since 1998.

The Pavilions aims to have the city's first locations for national chains.

Walgreens at 16th and Stout streets is taking over the space next door, formerly Dress Barn.

The 16th Street Mall is in the midst of a makeover, with new pavers, better security and more amenities on the way. The mall served as a major catalyst for the revitalization of downtown Denver, but now that the city center's renaissance has come full circle, what's next for the iconic public space?
In its 31 years, the 16th Street Mall has been anything but boring, from food to fashion, bars to businesses, hotels to urban housing, songs, celebrations and parades of people. The free MallRide pauses for passersby at each intersection between Wynkoop Street and Broadway, and multiple westward extensions have ultimately stretched the auto-free zone to 1.42 miles. 

Strictly speaking, the downtown walkway has fulfilled the vision city leaders had when the project was completed in 1982 for roughly $75 million: to encourage foot traffic by blocking the street from automobiles and stimulate retail and commercial interest. And yet, as newer, trendier hotspots emerge, there's a belief among some that the 16th Street Mall has become rather, uh…pedestrian. 

"I think in the time it was done, the mall was catalytic for downtown Denver," says Paul Tamburello, Owner of Red Chair Realty Advisors and Little Man Ice Cream and the visionary behind the LoHi Marketplace, a hub of retailers and restaurants in the Lower Highland neighborhood. "But downtown Denver has changed tremendously since then."

Maintaining the mall's relevance as times change is a sizable agenda item for the city of Denver, the Regional Transportation District -- the operator of the MallRide -- and the Downtown Denver Partnership.

"There are four critical pieces that determine the success of the mall: reinvestment and restoration, activation, safety, and economic development," says John Desmond, the Partnership's Executive Vice President of Urban Planning and Environment and Executive Director of the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District (BID).

According to Desmond, assessments in 2009 and 2010 revealed the most crucial infrastructural issue is the deterioration of the paving system in the transit lanes on the mall. Estimated cost to mend the problem: $65 million.The pavers in the transit lanes need to be replaced, and the estimate is $65 million.

"The paver project is a huge priority," agreed RTD spokesperson Lisa Trujillo, who pegged weekday ridership of the MallRide at 65,000 boardings daily and more than 14.7 million annually. Last year, RTD received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Transit Administration to restore and upgrade three and a half blocks.

Big ideas

Tamburello, for one, believes the issues with the 16th Street Mall run deeper than the brick pavement.

"No matter how much fancier they make the buses or the pavers, none of that is going to change the feel of the mall," he says.

His two cents: Move the buses entirely.

"People need to accept there's a problem. [The mall] could be the heartbeat, the soul of downtown Denver," Tamburello says. "Let's rethink it and not be afraid. We could have green spaces and pedestrian walkways. All those businesses on California and Curtis and Arapahoe, they really struggle, because there's no reason for anyone to go on those streets. If we got rid of the commuters and moved them to 15th and 17th streets, we could animate the side streets."

But Trujillo says there currently are no plans to change the route for the MallRide. "A redesign would be more dependent on whether the city of Denver redesigned the area," she says. In the meantime, RTD recently launched its Free MetroRide service on 18th and 19th streets, a proactive solution to the anticipated influx of public transit riders by 2016 with the opening of Denver Union Station. 

However, Tamburello's advised alleyway activation is already in the works. Last fall, the Rialto Café coordinated Brewer's Alley, a private beer-tasting event adjacent to the restaurant to coincide with the Great American Beer Festival. Additional programs and events are slated to animate alleys and diminish their negative perceptions with public art and pop-up events.

"The best way to enhance a city is to put more eyes on the street. We're always trying to come up with ways of attracting positive activities into the median," Desmond says. "The Downtown Area Plan suggested: 'creating and enhancing recognizable sub-districts along the Mall.'"

Desmond cites plans for a food-centric block between California and Welton streets, with a variety of vendors set to open for business in June, complementing the existing Garden Block and seasonal mini-golf and ice skating at Skyline Park. "We are focusing on providing distinct physical identities in the central blocks…and providing different vending and permitting activities in other blocks of the mall to provide unique uses."

MallRide service will be suspended July 20 and August 10 to accommodate Sunday Strolls, which will turn the full length of the mall into a walkable, bikeable promenade. Moreover, the Your Keys to the City program will resume for its fifth year as local art arrives visually and musically with painted pianos peppering the mall's medians.

As of mid-May, Mayor Michael Hancock asked City Council for $1.8 million to address an uptick in demands and issues in Denver Police District 6, which covers downtown. The funding -- up for committee consideration this Wednesday would pay for 10 additional officers to add to the existing 34. According to the Partnership's Vice President of Public Affairs Brittany Morris Saunders, the request is "likely to be approved by the end of June."

Given the number of people on the mall, the crime rate is "very low," says Morris Saunders. However, "It's a place where a lot of people gather. We've got everyone from CEOs to street-sweepers."

Tamburello doesn't see increased security as the solution. "It makes it worse," he says. "You need a mix of socioeconomic groups for people to escape their homogenized neighborhoods but still feel safe."

Among other security initiatives, the DPD's presence is augmented with off-duty officers, outreach workers from St. Francis Center and yellow-shirted downtown ambassadors.

Staying freshThe Pavilions aims to have the city's first locations for national chains.

"I think the 16th Street Mall is a critical component of downtown Denver," says Mark Sidell, President of Gart Properties, which has owned the Denver Pavilions since 2008. He calls the retail development between Tremont Place and Welton Street the "largest, most productive retail asset on the mall," while noting, "The success of the mall and the success of the Denver Pavilions and downtown Denver are all bound up together."

A key strategy for the Pavilions is the introduction of first-to-market retailers and restaurants to craft a "uniquely Denver" experience, Sidell says. Hence Colorado's first H&M, 5280 Burger Bar and soon-to-come Henry's Tavern and IT'SUGAR, a specialty candy shop.

"People are concerned when spaces become vacant and then we refill," Sidell says. "But really we need about a 5 percent turnover every year to stay fresh and relevant."

Though Newmark Grubb Knight Frank pegs the central business district's vacancy rate at below 5 percent as of first quarter 2014, a major focus remains attracting additional national tenants to the existing 300 shops and 50 restaurants on the mall.

"As we build our core neighborhoods along the mall, we want to provide more options, hitting a diversity of ages and demographics," Desmond says. Though downtown has been unsuccessful in its attempts to lure Target for the last decade, community surveys have revealed the desire for additional general merchandise retailers on the mall.

Walgreens located at 16th and Stout streets, is taking advantage of turnover by assuming the ground-level space next door that formerly housed Dress Barn.

"Having run numerous stores, this is the most diverse store I've ever run," says Walgreens Store Manager Shawn Horst, adding that the 16th Street location is the fourth-oldest store in the entire company. The expansion will give Walgreens an additional 7,000 square feet of selling space, and Horst mentioned an expanded grocery line with the potential for a fresh food license.

While the 16th Street Mall is reputedly the No. 1 tourist attraction in Denver, the numbers don't sway Tamburello, who nonetheless adds, "I think we have a real opportunity here to get everyone at the table."

Gart Properties' Sidell offers his "pie-in-the-sky" vision: "If you asked me what nirvana looks like, I could imagine a future 16th Street Mall where the transportation element of the mall was in and of itself a tourist attraction. Think the San Francisco Trolley, maybe even solar-powered."

While a solar trolley would admittedly be exponentially pricier than the $65 million needed to replace the pavers, the vision would allow for the old bus lanes to become wider, people-friendlier sidewalks, he adds. "Your transportation then is in the middle of wider sidewalks that are filled with outdoor cafes and more space available for programming, and you can still accommodate the transportation."

In the shorter term, it's about increasing mall-goers' options. "Our goal is to provide more choices to more people," Desmond says. "Give people more reasons to come down. The mall is about movement, but we want to draw more people at more and different times of the day and get them to linger a little longer."

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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