CollaborEAT Breaks Bread on Downtown Denver's "Main Street"

The third al fresco dinner of its kind aimed to inspire connection, collaboration and creation of a new and improved 16th Street Mall. What's next for one of the country's most iconic pedestrian places?
A typical "night on the town" entails a meal at an established eatery, perhaps some entertainment and good company. But when the folks at the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) put their heads together with other community stakeholders, it's anything but ordinary.

For the third time, DDP initiative CityBuild Denver played host to roughly 200 urban enthusiasts and curious community members Thurs. Sept. 17 for CollaborEAT, an annual family-style dinner and city-building discussion. The signature event gave the space between 15th and 16th streets on Glenarm Place a one-night facelift, crafting a candlelit community dining room, where mostly Millennial men and women gathered and brainstormed "The Future of the 16th Street Mall." 

"We know that the street serves its utilitarian purpose of moving people, but now it's time to ask more of the street," said Analiese Hock, associate city planner with the City and County of Denver. In her address to the audience of eaters, she expressed hope that the bustling retail strip can become an ideal "people place."

"Our goal tonight is to create a conversation to make 16th Street a better place for all of us," echoed Brianna Borin, CityBuild Denver co-chair and the "Mother Hen" HR expert at Snooze, an A.M. Eatery. CollaborEAT creates an environment and a moment in time to "break bread together and activate unique spaces we may not give attention to otherwise," she added.

A networking session -- complete with community drawing board, adult beverages and street drummers -- warmed up the crowd at the start of the evening. Then individuals were asked to take their seats at one of three quarter-block, candlelit tables and directed toward a series of four questions. 

The first query prompted guests to: "Think about places that you like to frequent or visit. What attracts you to this place? More importantly, what about this space makes you stay?"

Scribbled on feedback cards and jotted down on a "DREAM BIG" wall, suggestions ranged from adding outdoor workstations, plazas and patios to offering a farmers market, free Wi-Fi and eliminating panhandling.

In the midst of conversation, attendees were served snacks and a square meal, plus ice cream from several vendors on the Pavilions. 

A lively conservationA 2014 study of the 16th Street Mall indicated that few visitors linger.

Of late, the Mall has been a hot topic among Denver officials and economic development experts, as the DDP in particular searches for answers to bring more people to the Mall and capture them once they arrive. 

When city officials and Denmark-based Gehl Architects completed a study of the 16th Street Mall last year, results indicated that though thousands traverse the Mall each day as pedestrians or via the free transit system, very few lingered to enjoy the surroundings.

Thereafter, Brad Buchanan, director of Denver's Department of Community Planning and Development, shared publicly that the mall serves as a hallway, when city officials may optimistically envision the space as a living room. 

Or, for CollaborEAT purposes, an urban dining room. 

"Millennials are known to be users of third spaces," said David Gaspers, Senior City Planner at City and County of Denver. "This is exactly what they're looking for. The Mall is an authentic Denver experience." 
In 1982, the 16th Street Mall was revolutionary, connecting one end of downtown Denver to the other as one of the longest pedestrian transit malls in the world. The $75 million downtown walkway has fulfilled the vision of its creators to encourage foot traffic by blocking the street off and stimulating commercial interests. Today, after a few additions, it encompasses 16 blocks, more than 200 retail and restaurant locations, 20 street vendors, roughly 30,000 pedestrians and more than 50,000 individuals who use the Free MallRide shuttles daily. 

Yet, as the 16th Street Mall and Denver in its entirely evolve, the mall is at a fork in the road. Should the MallRide continue to run on 16th or be re-routed? Should there be more visible security? What's the ideal retail mix to attract customers to browse? 

The DDP has cemented its commitment to guide improvements, encourage economic activity and establish a welcoming centerpiece to the city's downtown. 

A new look A networking session kicked off the night.

This summer, the DDP and Business Improvement District hosted five "Meet in the Street" events. Feedback informed an ongoing "Mall Experience" study that aims to better understand how people utilize the 33-year-old corridor and identify ways to make it a more of a destination, rather than merely a means for getting back and forth the 1.25-mile stretch. 

"Denver has changed and so its time for us to have a new look at the Mall," DDP Executive VP John Desmond said to the tables of people Thursday evening. 

The 2007 Downtown Area Plan identified that maintaining a clean and safe environment, particularly on the 16th Street Mall, is essential for activity that occurs in the city core, from business to recreation. Reinvestment and restoration, activation and economic development also fall on the to-do list.

Security is a leading concern, considering the multiple violent incidents on the city corridor this summer. Amidst major initiatives and comprehensive plans for the future of the 16th Street Mall, the DDP had never developed a comprehensive strategy until recently joining with stakeholders and consultants to devise the Downtown Security Plan. 

Maintaining the Mall's relevance as times change is a high priority for the City of Denver, the Regional Transportation District -- the operator of the MallRide -- and the DDP. CollaborEAT ultimately served as another vehicle to spur feedback.

In years one and two, CollaborEAT concentrated on Civic Center Park and Arapahoe Square, both considered "underutilized spaces," according to Chloe Rekow, DDP senior digital communications coordinator.

"This year, we're focusing on over-utilized space and bringing attention to the challenges," said Rekow.

"The Mall and downtown isn't for everyone," Gaspers added after the event. "I think the region provides a lot of different lifestyle choices, but I think we do want to try to make Denver a world class city and 16th Street has been our Main Street since day one."

Following CollaborEAT, Hock said she was impressed by Millennials' investment and enthusiasm about the potential for the Mall. 

She added that she considered herself one of the naysayers, ordinarily opposed to spending free time on the Mall.  "But in working on these projects, and seeing what these simple modifications can do, it's challenged my perception of the space and the possibilities. So I challenge the naysayers and re-invite them to see the mall and engage in more opportunities. Let the 16th Street Mall surprise you."

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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