Planning Downtown: Creating a Prosperous City

With over 70,000 residents and an economy that employs more than 120,000, downtown Denver is the economic hub for its greater metropolitan area, as well as the Rocky Mountain region -- and business and city leaders intend to keep it that way.
In 2005, two entities -- the City and County of Denver and the Downtown Denver Partnership – developed what would become the 2007 Downtown Denver Area Plan, a comprehensive strategy establishing five overarching vision elements with 19 strategy elements -- all meant to guide decisions and actions affecting the form and function of approximately 1,800 acres divided over eight districts: the Commercial and Cultural Cores, Golden Triangle, Auraria, Lower Downtown, Central Platte Valley, Ballpark and Arapahoe Square.

Combined, these districts are the economic heart of the city. Like any major metropolitan area, though, Denver has faced challenges, including capricious employment rates and bouts of stagnant retail sales. It follows that attracting jobs, businesses and investment has been pivotal in realizing the first prong of the 2007 Area Plan, and making Denver a prosperous city.

The Downtown of the Rocky Mountain Region Denver Startup Week is the largest free entrepreneurial event in North America.

The Area Plan aims to ensure downtown Denver's continued primacy as the business center of the region, and establish its role as a leader in the 21st century global economy.

To that end, it identifies the need to create a program supporting small- and medium-sized businesses.  

As the Downtown Denver Partnership President and CEO Tami Door, puts it, "In economic development, historically, you were always working hard to bring a big company to your city. That's still important, but at the same time we thought it was important to grow our own companies here. We saw a lot of potential with those."

Hence, the Downtown Denver Partnership -- with the support of many public and private sector partners -- instituted two unique offerings: The Commons on Champa and Denver Startup Week.

The former was established to provide resources to startups, early-stage companies and those preparing to move to the next phase of growth. According to Door, "The Commons on Champa is a place where business owners can get information, receive education and be connected to the entrepreneurial community."

The 20,000-square-foot space, located at 1245 Champa Street, opened May 2015 thanks to the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Colorado Technology Association and the City's Economic Development Office, and has embraced 12,000 entrepreneurs with tools, resources and community support. Most services -- events and programming; online resource guides -- are offered cost-free.

The space functions as a coworking facility, too, and strong community spirit has attracted businesses nationwide. "This is a very collaborative and cooperative business environment, where we work together so everyone will succeed," Door says, announcing that the Commons is launching a mentor program this month.

The Area Plan enumerates the need to sponsor a national small business conference. Enter Denver Startup Week, launched in 2012 by the Downtown Denver Partnership and the Colorado Technology Association, with the support of Denver's broader entrepreneurial community.

In 2015, 10,875 attendees showed up, making the weeklong conference the largest free entrepreneurial event in North America. Held at various downtown venues, 235 community-driven sessions addressed every industry receptor, and all stages of startup growth. "It's free," Door reiterates, "and everyone is invited. If you come to Denver and want to start a company, we will do whatever we can to help you grow."

Speaking of growth, the 2007 Area Plan set a goal of adding 35,000 new downtown jobs by 2027. Job growth had remained relatively static, due to economic dips in the 1980s, and the recession in 2008. But, 12,000 new jobs have been added since 2010.  

"We're seeing more small businesses, and we've had a couple of big companies move here, Door says, citing Transamerica as an example of the latter. "Also," she says, "the economy is picking up. All of that creates a perfect storm for job growth." Downtown Denver's industry mix has become more eclectic, too, and diversification, Door says, "creates economic stability."

Energizing the Commercial Core

The Area Plan seeks to "invigorate the Commercial Core by enhancing the pedestrian and transit experiences and creating an economically thriving district for business, retail and tourism."

Currently, business and city leaders are tackling two subsets of this vision: establishing 14th Street as a model streetscape, and strengthening the vitality of 16th Street Mall.  

14th Street was seen as both a challenge and an opportunity. The crux of that challenge involved finding a way to connect the Colorado Convention Center and the Performing Arts Complex to the core of downtown.

"We're still working to answer that question," admits John Desmond, executive vice president of the Downtown Denver Partnership. Even so, he says, "Fourteenth Street has been nothing but a success story."

Desmond and fellow planners dubbed 14th Street "The Ambassador" of downtown. "It's a gateway to downtown," he explains, noting that for tourists and residents alike, the first experience of downtown is often 14th Street.

Along with the City and County of Denver and the newly formed 14th Street General Improvement District funded by property owners along 14th Street -- and thanks to the Better Denver Bond Program and $4 million of private sector contributions -- the Downtown Denver Partnership broke ground on its streetscaping project in 2010. By 2012, they'd planted 170 trees, added pedestrian and in-grade lighting, widened the sidewalk, raised granite planters and seating areas and made space for a bike lane.   

A public art project was incorporated, too, in the form of cleverly placed objects that let visitors look through viewfinders to glimpse historic snapshots of the street and the greater downtown area. "That's one of the hidden gems of 14th Street," Desmond says.

Another is local investment. "We created a strong constituency of people who really care about the street," says Desmond, offering, "It's not just a project where the city spent money and walked away; we have an ongoing entity of stakeholders that's invested emotionally and financially in [the street's] continued vitality." The board overseeing development, in fact, is comprised of representative from four city agencies, plus seven property owners.

Success has fostered excitement and energy. "We're not done," Desmond says. "The next step is to convert unprotected bike lanes into protected bike lanes."

In the meantime, the street is benefiting from three significant projects. The brand new dual branded hotel Hyatt House and Hyatt Place, an extended stay hotel, recently opened with 361 rooms. 1401 Lawrence Street is currently under construction, to become a 22-story, 311,000-square-foot office space. And 414 14th Street -- formally administrative offices for the Denver Art Museum -- is being "substantially renovated," Desmond says, into private offices.

Energizing the Commercial Core also involves strengthening the vitality of the 16th Street Mall, which ultimately means enhancing retail.  

"That's an effort I'm heading up, along with Tami Door," says Brad Buchanan, executive director of Denver's Community Planning and Development Department.

Current challenges include quantity and quality of retail -- they could be greater and higher, respectively, Buchanan says. The mall needs more destination retail, or retail you'd make a special trip to visit, he adds. "Larimer Square has branded itself as a destination retail and restaurant spot. We want to do that -- and more -- with 16th Street Mall."

Landing big national brands such as H&M and Uniqlo "sends a message to the rest of the retail realm that downtown Denver is on their radar," says Door.

Still, Buchanan's careful to note, "I don't believe that if you bring better retail to the 16th Street Mall, then suddenly the mall is better. I believe that if the mall is better, then better retailers will come." It follows that the city's focus has largely been on placemaking, using a multi-faceted approach centered on planning, design and management of public spaces.

In developing a balanced retail strategy, city planners have studied mall infrastructure, and worked with Gehl Architects to assess activity on the mall -- namely, how people are moving through it. The study revealed that about 1 percent of visitors linger on the 16th Street Mall, as compared to the 20 to 30 percent who linger at comparable retail centers in other major cities.

With that information is hand, the city and the Downtown Denver Partnership are in the midst of subsequent testing. Last summer, for example, with the support of the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District and RTD, they conducted five "Meet in the Street" days, where various activities were programmed on the mall. A pocket park was created one week -- "That was very popular," says Buchanan -- and another week ushered in small climbing pieces for kids and adults. Art and music installations were tested, too.

Restaurants expanded their seating, and shuttles ran alternate routes, so mall traffic was solely bike and pedestrian. "That was the biggest experiential game changer," says Buchanan. "It changed the feel from being a place you are walking through to this place you were walking to."

Researchers also collected data on non-programed days, to get a baseline. "We did a baseline to compare what happens when we program activities on the wall, and the impact was significant," Buchanan says, calling this particular planning process "an interactive conversation with those who are experiencing the space in real time."

A comprehensive retail strategy

Economic vibrancy is tied to growing a residential population -- and that's nurtured with a diverse range of retail. The Area Plan, then, aims to add approximately 1.5 million square feet of diverse retail by 2027.

"We currently have 3.328-million square feet of retail downtown, with a 4.4 vacancy rate in retail -- that's extremely low," Door says. Still, she says she'd like to attract more first-to-market retail. She also wants residents to see more residential amenities.  

Opening King Soopers last August-- downtown's first full-service grocer -- was huge, and a 56,000-square-foot flagship Whole Foods Market will be a welcome addition when it debuts in 2017. "This mixed use helps Denver maximize its land," Door says.

The Downtown Denver Partnership aims to strengthen existing retail clusters, too, including Larimer Square, the 16th Street Mall and Union Station, a successful project that brought in local and independent businesses, and an array of chef-driven concepts.

Planners had been looking at developing a new retail cluster at Auraria, with the goal of strengthening connectivity between the college campuses and downtown. That portion of the Area Plan transformed, though, when Auraria created its own master plan.

This inherent flexibility, Door says, "shows how the community can be involved, and how a plan can morph."

Another idea that hasn't quite panned out was adding a European-style public market as a focal point of downtown retail, drawing folks year-round with fresh produce and specialty goods.

The plan looked better on paper: "We've done a number of studies on a public market," says Desmond. "I think there are still components of it that we are very much looking at, but I don't know that it will take the form of a permanent market structure." Even if the public market doesn't materialize, "You may see more elements of public market activities in other sites downtown," he adds.

Stay tuned: Next month we're exploring how city officials and business leaders are working to make downtown Denver more walkable.  

In 2005, the City and County of Denver and the Downtown Denver Partnership developed what would become the 2007 Downtown Denver Area Plan, a comprehensive strategy establishing five overarching vision elements with 19 strategy elements. The aim of the plan: to guide decisions and actions affecting the form and function of approximately 1,800 acres divided over eight districts. In this series, we're examining each of the plan's five vision elements.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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