Downtown was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and the city is still struggling to get people back on its streets. How do we rebuild it for the modern era?
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If you’ve spent time downtown recently, you may have noticed it feels different: quieter, emptier, less vibrant. COVID-19 decimated city centers across the nation as the outbreak spread in early 2020. Denver hasn’t been immune to the ravages. Fewer people meant fewer customers. Shuttered businesses left behind boarded-up storefronts. Streets abandoned by office workers became the domain of an underbelly many Denverites hadn’t seen and raised concerns about safety.
It’s been two and a half years since the Mile High City—and the world—shut down, and while we wish like hell we could say that things are back to normal, they’re not. What we once thought was a temporary shift to remote work now feels more permanent; lingering variants won’t stop, well, lingering; and businesses can’t seem to find the talent they need to thrive. In short, Denver isn’t quite the city we knew in the Before Times.
We can’t place all the blame on a public health crisis, though. In some cases, the pandemic simply exacerbated existing issues. While the 2014 Union Station redevelopment breathed life into LoDo, and downtown’s streets felt lively on many days, Denver’s core has been struggling for years with vacant buildings, homelessness, and drug use. In some ways, the city proper lacks an identity.“There were always problems,” says Matthew Brooks, COO of Crafted Concepts, a restaurant group with four downtown eateries.
It’s not all bad news, though. Developers are building high-rises again, new businesses are opening, and the city remains a hot spot for out-of-state companies lured by our quality of life. In short, we’ve got the tools we need to get the heart of the city beating again. “Downtown is one of our vital organs. Its existence has a bigger impact on the entire city,” says Lilly Djaniants, a principal city planner. “We need to maintain that.”
So, what does Denver’s next life look like? The pandemic offered an opportunity—whether we wanted it or not—to reimagine what a modern, inviting, and globally appealing downtown can be. “We’re creating what, in the end, will be a more resilient city,” says Kourtny Garrett, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP), a nonprofit business organization that helps set the area’s vision. The first step to achieving Denver 2.0 is solving some of the area’s most intractable challenges. Here, we look at eight problems—and some potential solutions.
The center city has two new chief executives: Kourtny Garrett took over the DDP in January, and J.J. Ament was chosen as president and CEO at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce last September. We asked them to outline their visions for a downtown in flux. —DS
5280: Who should we be rebuilding Denver for?
Kourtny Garrett: Put simply, downtown is for everyone. If you look at the history of our downtowns as the civic commons, where people came together and people came to connect, that is truly what downtown Denver represents: a place that is welcoming, offering opportunities for all, whether that’s residents, our workforce, our visitors, our government center. Downtowns are complex and robust and serve a variety of purposes.
J.J. Ament: Downtown Denver is one of many vibrant locations in our metropolitan region where we help companies start, grow, and thrive, and it is central to where we advocate for policy that makes Denver the place to do business for both brand-new entrepreneurs and established enterprises. At the foundation of that is building a community of workers, tourists, families, and lifestyles in the Mile High City that appeals to everyone. Our goal is to keep a multitude of diverse, innovative businesses and industries located and growing in downtown Denver as a hub for the whole region.
What’s the biggest challenge facing downtown Denver right now?
KG: Bringing people back. In a matter of 24 to 48 hours in March 2020, we lost just over 100,000 people from our downtown core. Losing that much activity in that short amount of time is going to reverberate across many different issues. But what it really all comes down to is bringing people back—bringing life back to downtown Denver. We see some great signs of return. We see the interest. We see the drive. Now we need to turn on that weekday daytime [flow of people] to get us to a moment where we can fully move forward.
JJA: Currently, our daily downtown business and leisure visits are below pre-COVID peak, and while some of that is remote-work/return-to-office-related, there is certainly a correlation as well to the rise in crime, drug misuse, and homelessness. We recognize the humanitarian aspect and complexity of an issue like homelessness, but we believe it is vital to enforce existing laws, which can also help direct individuals toward support services. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce also pushed hard during the legislative session to have the Legislature recriminalize drug possession, particularly of fentanyl. The misuse of drugs not only damages the lives of the individuals and their families, but it also impairs our workforce, degrades our public spaces, and ultimately slows our economic recovery.
What is your vision for Denver?
KG: From a short-term perspective, we are hyper-focused on creating a clean, beautiful, safe, and active downtown. That is imperative as we move forward from the pandemic. Long term, we have a fantastic foundation in our Downtown Area Plan [created in 2007]. A vision was set in that document for five pillars: that downtown is distinct, green, diverse, walkable, and prosperous.
JJA: We want downtown to be a center of activity where workers, tourists, families, and community members can go out, be entertained, and learn about our beautiful center city. It should be a destination where locals want to spend their free time and where tourists want to visit. The city and the DDP are currently working on the 16th Street Mall, which will provide that central place for people to do all these things.
Downtown Denver extends well beyond the urban core—encompassing everything from Platte Street to Coors Field to Civic Center Park. The city has further divided itself into micro-’hoods even longtime locals may not have heard of before.
The 16th Street Mall is the most-visited tourist attraction in Denver—but you couldn’t pay a local to hang out there.
Approximately 40,000 pedestrians walk along what should be Denver’s version of Boulder’s charming Pearl Street Mall each day. How many of those promenaders are locals? Our educated guess is not many. Denverites tend to leave the 17-block thoroughfare—with its tourist-trap souvenir shops and boring chain restaurants (ironically, the only businesses that can afford the sky-high rents)—to visitors who don’t know any better. Yes, the northwestern end of the mall got a face-lift and a much-needed energy infusion when the revamped Union Station opened eight years ago, but much of the 40-year-old strip is a wasted opportunity. The pandemic only further blighted the 16th Street Mall, with its underused expanse bearing the brunt of the city’s rise in both homelessness and crime. The DDP has talked about revitalizing the mall since well before COVID-19. For the past decade, the nonprofit has been working on what’s now known as the 16th Street Mall Project, an ambitious, $150 million blueprint to make the area more pedestrian- and family-friendly. Here, five planned efforts to inspire more folks to visit downtown’s central corridor—and five ideas we think could inject vibrancy into the area. —Barbara Urzua
The 16th Street Mall is supposed to be a walker’s haven, but it’s historically been lined with skinny stretches of sidewalk and a 14-foot-wide center median that’s peppered with food stalls and seating areas that dissuade walking. The city is removing the median, expanding sidewalks by two feet on each side, and adding an extra nine-foot buffer zone for lighting, benches, and more breathing room. MallRide buses will resume shuttling people down the middle of the street after the median is removed, likely by the end of 2024.
5280 Bright Idea: The 20-some surface parking lots and garages located directly off 16th Street are eyesores with little upside. When the city of Houston revamped its similarly outdated downtown in 2004, it replaced a massive parking lot with a 12-acre park that lured in pedestrian activity. Dubbed Discovery Green, the site features trails, music stages, dog runs, and playgrounds; more than 1.2 million people use it each year, and it has catalyzed nearly $500 million in adjacent development.
Roughly 150 trees line the mall, but DDP’s Andrew Iltis says to expect an extended canopy by 2024. Another 80 trees will be added—all of which are being grown on a Longmont farm—and the new trees will get an additional 1,000 cubic feet of soil each. “More soil means more room for the tree to expand and grow healthy,” Iltis says. “For us [humans], that means more shade.” He hopes the trees will make 16th Street cooler, breezier, and more attractive to anyone seeking an inner-city oasis.
5280 Bright Idea: In 2007, an Italian architect began work on a prototype he called the Vertical Forest: a pair of residential skyscrapers covered with more than 20,000 trees, plants, and shrubs. The greenery doesn’t just look pretty; it also regulates humidity, generates oxygen, and filters the sun’s rays. With so many buildings going up downtown, maybe one or two could be good candidates for a little, um, sprucing up?
The mall’s original surface is four decades old and wasn’t built with drainage in mind. The granite tiles pop out of the ground as water pools beneath them and then freezes, creating tripping hazards for walkers and a bumpy ride for strollers and wheelchairs. The new pavers—currently being installed with an expected completion date in mid-2023—are designed to allow water to flow through. They’re also made with a grippy material that makes them slip-resistant.
5280 Bright Idea: Heated sidewalks! Yes, there’s a price tag—Holland, Michigan, has spent more than $8 million to create the nation’s largest publicly owned snowmelt system—but the setup could actually save Denver money over the long term by cutting down on the need for plowing and salting and reducing the cost of repairing damage caused by freeze-thaw cycles.
The light fixtures that line the mall are historical but outdated—not just in appearance but also in functionality. By late 2024, DDP will upgrade existing lamps and have the ability to dim and brighten them depending on the time of day, which will save electricity. An unexpected perk: The new technology features a color-changing mode. “We can light the streets orange and blue if the Broncos make the Super Bowl,” Iltis says.
5280 Bright Idea: Fit Denverites could get a free workout if the city installed a streetlight system once proposed by a design management firm in Dallas: Energyme is a system of kinetic-energy-powered lights that are attached to workout equipment. The public can walk, cycle, or row to light the LED fixtures. Calories burned translate into electrical energy; specifically, 488 calories fuels 90 minutes of light.
Alongside improvements that will make the mall safer and more appealing, the city wants to include what it calls “public life elements” that generate “moments of joy” for families. That means picnicking on landscaping and greenery, as well as more entertaining additions: two playgrounds; interactive, light-up benches; and giant abstract fish sculptures that double as seating areas.
5280 Bright Idea: Downtowners often complain about the lack of public toilets. In March 2021, Denver installed a public restroom on the corner of Champa Street, which generated its own complaints and has closed. Denver could look to Tokyo for inspiration for another attempt: Last year, the city finished the Tokyo Toilet Project, which added 17 public restrooms throughout its metro area. The stall walls are transparent until the door is locked—and then they turn opaque. The doors help dispel notions that public toilets are dirty and unsafe.
In August 2019, the city debuted its vision for the 5280 Trail, a 5.280-mile loop around downtown that was designed to be more akin to a linear park than a straightforward multiuse path. “[A project like this] is about placemaking and connecting places,” says Ellen Forthofer, urban planning manager for DDP, which led the development of the planning document. Officials had hoped to complete the route in five to 10 years, but three years in, that timeline seems dubious, even to those involved. Although the trail would add much-needed green space and usable bike paths to the core of the city—and despite the fact that DDP’s Garrett called it a “signature priority”—just 25 percent of the thoroughfare is in some stage of early development. —Nicholas Hunt
Roughly one-fifth of downtown offices are vacant. In buildings that are being leased, only 40 to 50 percent of workers are occupying cubicles on any given day.
The COVID-19-induced rise of remote work was a welcome reprieve from commuting, corporate dress, and banal chitchat for many Denverites. More than two years later, they’re still staying home. The city’s return to in-person work is taking “longer than we thought,” says DDP’s Bob Pertierra. As such, building owners are trying every option in the landlord’s book of tricks to lure businesses back downtown. Incentives such as move-in-ready spaces, free or reduced rent for the first portion of a lease, and increased tenant improvement allowances (funds to help tenants design and spiff up their rental spaces) would have been unheard of pre-2020. Now, they’re commonplace.
Block 162, a new, 606,000-square-foot skyscraper between California and Welton streets, was built with a slew of modern amenities. Still, the developer has had to offer additional tenant improvement allowances, lengthier free rent terms in exchange for higher face rents, and longer lease terms as a commit-now, pay-later strategy to attract occupants. Some are taking the bait. As of June, seven companies had inked contracts. “[Companies] are using their decisions to sign leases at Block 162 as an incentive to get their employees to take a return to the office more seriously,” says David Haltom of the Patrinely Group, the real estate developer that underwrote the project.
Block 162’s success isn’t being replicated uniformly across downtown, though. Office vacancies in the Union Station area sit at 15 percent, while those in the Central Business District are between 25 and 33 percent. “It’s a bit of a tale of two cities,” says JLL commercial real estate broker Janessa Biller. She attributes the disparity to Union Station’s higher concentration of restaurants, gyms, and public transportation, as well as newer builds such as 1601 Wewatta and Union Tower West.
Investors seem to think fancy new digs (“Class A” real estate in commercial office speak) in prime locations are an incentive that will ultimately work. According to DDP, investors are currently pouring eight percent of the $2 billion of new construction into office space, a sign that companies with deep pockets have confidence in Denver’s future. Plus, JLL says firms are signing longer leases: The average lease term in the second quarter of 2022 was about 70 months, up from a low of 38 months in the third quarter of 2020—and higher, too, than the average of 60 months in the pre-pandemic second quarter of 2019. —Jenny McCoy
For those who need to be in the city, getting into and out of the core has become more difficult.
Pre-pandemic, “downtown was the Regional Transportation District’s biggest market in terms of carrying passengers,” says RTD’s Doug Monroe. Not anymore. Five bus routes and two light rail lines from the suburbs to the urban core that were suspended during the pandemic have been discontinued permanently. Several others are seeing reduced frequency. The organization expects systemwide service to top out at 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels until at least 2027. As a result, many workers will have to take multiple buses to reach downtown.
Until demand for RTD’s full suite of services returns, there’s no fix for commuter inconvenience. But downtown could still see a utopian future if another transportation plan comes to fruition. Denver Moves: Downtown, an effort launched by the city and county in 2018 in collaboration with RTD and DDP, outlines a progressive inner city, including 30 miles of new bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly streetscaping, and new loading zones. There’s even mention of a high-flying gondola between Union Station and Highland. It’s the kind of creative thinking any city of the future needs, but especially one whose destiny is a little fuzzy. When Denverites might see results is a guessing game, though: Each project will need to go through its own planning process and secure its own funding. —Nicholas Hunt
More than 700,000 square feet of office space was leased downtown in the last quarter of 2021—more than double the amount leased in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to real estate company CBRE Group. Here, folks in leadership roles at three companies explain why they recently moved in. —Jenny McCoy
Industry: Financial tech
Address: 1755 Blake St.
Square Footage Leased: 36,000
Why: “We’re a company that’s still building our brand and building our culture, and that’s really hard to do fully remotely. We’re very flexible with our employees, and obviously not everyone comes in every day, but we do enjoy spending time with the people we work with and feel it’s important for building knowledge, processes, and culture. This building is very convenient—it’s walking distance to the train and restaurants—and the management has been great. They give us a lot of flexibility: You can bring in dogs and bikes up to the office.” —Shai Fortuna, general manager of the Denver office
Address: 370 17th St.
Square Footage Leased: 48,926
Why: “We feel like there’s faster collaboration, training, and learning in the office. There’s also more serendipitous discovery that happens when employees are together in person, because you overhear conversations from another employee, and you have the ability to very quickly turn around to your left or your right and ask specific questions. These are some of the things that we feel help us to grow very quickly as a company. We looked at a bunch of buildings downtown and in RiNo as well. Ultimately, we tried to pick something that is very central to make it attractive for employees to be able to get there.” —Pascal Schaary, vice president of business operations
Address: 717 17th St.
Square Footage Leased: 46,000
Why: “We’re a clinical research organization, and we hire at all levels of experience, from recent college graduates to experienced researchers. With that, we have to do a lot of mentoring and training of our associates, so we value the in-person model. We chose downtown as an opportunity to recruit talent from many areas around Denver versus picking a specific suburb. Local management gave us the feedback that there are better opportunities for us to hire and find people with an office in this area, and that has proven to be true.” —Chris Pfaff, global head of facilities
If swanky office space can seduce workers, then maybe cooler gathering places could draw revelers back downtown, too?
We hate to say it, but the city center simply isn’t a place where locals hang out. Beyond the Union Station area—where you might string together a couple of hours of fun—downtown Denver lacks the packed vibrancy and appeal that bars, cafes, retailers, and gathering spaces bring to similarly sized cities, like San Francisco and Boston. As it stands, downtown has a few lively pockets—like McGregor and Larimer squares—but there’s not much to entice folks to travel among them. The city needs to encourage new foot-traffic patterns in these in-between spaces. In 2016, Vancouver, British Columbia, implemented a project called More Awesome Now (pictured above) to transform “laneways into places of discovery.” It goes beyond the artwork and seating Denver added to the alley that cuts through the Dairy Block. Instead, Vancouver reimagined each tract with a unique identity: One has basketball hoops; another is a performance venue and art installation. Officials in Vancouver estimate the program could add 30 percent more pedestrian space in the downtown core, and some lanes are seeing more than double the traffic. If done in Denver, it could replace sketchy alleyways with inviting entertainment that might encourage more movement across downtown. —Daliah Singer
In recent months, downtown Denver has been referred to as a “toilet bowl” (by a state representative) and a “hotbed” of criminal activity (by the Denver Post).
Crime is bad for any city’s image. Illegal activities can push businesses to close and workers to feel unsafe. Public transportation becomes a nerve-wracking experience, and tourists begin taking their money elsewhere. Denver long had a reputation for being generally safe, but the pandemic seems to have destroyed that, too.
Of course, the wave of crime isn’t just happening in Denver: Violent crime statewide jumped between 2019 and 2021, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. But as the largest city in the state, its statistics get the most attention—and rightfully so. As the city has grown—roughly 20 percent since the 2010 census—crime in the Central Business District and Union Station neighborhoods has also steadily increased. Between January and June of this year, Union Station and the CBD ranked first and third, respectively, for the most violent crimes per square mile in the Mile High City. —Robert Sanchez
The Denver Police Department is facing the same staffing shortages that are plaguing departments across the country—a situation that has been blamed for increases in crime nationwide. In response, in 2021 the city created the Street Enforcement Team (SET), a first-of-its-kind program designed to free up officers to focus on more serious crimes—such as murder, robbery, and assault—instead of enforcing minor municipal violations, like Denver’s camping ban. Taking their places in those less serious situations are two unarmed, six-person civilian street teams. The initiative has come under fierce criticism from advocacy groups and local politicians, who argue SET is merely a stand-in for law enforcement and isn’t equipped to address complex social issues, such as homelessness and substance misuse. As of June, Denver’s Department of Public Safety reported SET had made more than 2,300 contacts with people experiencing homelessness in Denver—asking them to move on, referring them to services, and, in some cases, getting cops involved.
Yes, there has been a rise in certain types of crime in Denver, but there’s also evidence that expanding the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program is making Denver safer. Since STAR’s inception in June 2020, mental health clinicians and paramedics have traveled across the city handling low-level issues connected to mental health, poverty, homelessness, and substance misuse that previously would have fallen to armed police officers. In the six months following STAR’s creation, STAR-patrolled neighborhoods—including downtown—saw a 34 percent decrease in reports of minor criminal offenses compared with those without a STAR response. Stanford University researchers reported in June that there’s “robust evidence” the city’s program has curbed reports of less-serious crimes while simultaneously saving taxpayer money: STAR lowered the average cost for responding to a low-level offense in Denver to $151—less than a fourth of what a traditional police response costs. In February, Denver City Council awarded the program nearly $1.4 million to expand.
Since late fall 2021, the city has also invested in a more traditional solution: upping arrests and police enforcement after myriad reports of illegal activity popped up around Union Station. Between November 2021 and April 2022, Denver police made 828 arrests and issued 390 tickets in the vicinity of the transportation hub. Most arrests involved drug possession, trespassing, or outstanding warrants—despite an initial stated goal of focusing primarily on violent crime and drug dealing. The outsize police presence may explain why there’s been a jump in reported offenses—DPD data show 1,827 total crimes reported in the area between January 1 and July 1 of this year, compared with 1,260 during the same period last year—but a reduction in actual calls for armed officers, which, per RTD data, have declined significantly, from 2,669 in December 2021 to 1,634 in April of this year.
Can vacant buildings shelter those without homes?
There are two major issues facing downtown: empty commercial buildings and people who need homes. But what if those problems could become solutions? Adaptive reuse—repurposing existing buildings for new uses—is a familiar concept in Denver, courtesy of popular venues such as the Source. It can also be applied to housing. “The opportunity is significant,” says principal city planner Lilly Djaniants. “We could have over 1,000 units in the downtown area that were previously offices.” At least three older buildings—all in need of renovations and less appealing to incoming businesses—have already submitted plans for potential conversion. How much light a building lets in, the presence of elevators and stairs, plumbing, and even HVAC systems impact a site’s potential for this sort of project. Still, there are local examples: The former Art Institute in Civic Center is being converted into 194 market- or below-market-rate apartments. Beyond saving landmark spaces and helping those without homes, adaptive reuse is also easier on developers’ wallets. So, really, it could be a win-win-win. —DS
More than 5,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Denver, a 20 percent increase since January 2020.
Homelessness is always a hot-button issue in Denver, where a camping ban was passed a decade ago, housing has grown increasingly unaffordable, and the pandemic worsened an already troubling situation. The conversation is most heated downtown, where most shelters and service providers are located and where the problem is most visible. So, what can the city do? More of what it knows works—like these two efforts to resolve critical quagmires. —Chris Walker
According to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, first-time homelessness in metro Denver nearly doubled during the pandemic, from 1,273 people who had recently lost housing in 2020 to 2,530 in 2021.
Earlier this summer, City Council passed a measure to motivate developers to set aside units in new housing complexes with 10 or more apartments for income-restricted tenants. The effort was met with criticism by some advocates for people without homes. Why? Because the measures only require property owners to rent those spaces to tenants who make up to either 60 or 70 percent of the area’s median income, which is $56,280 and $65,660, respectively, for a two-person household. Even with these above-poverty-level income requirements, the city’s chief housing officer, Britta Fisher, is confident that the program can help address homelessness. She says people will be able to redeem housing vouchers—which can be challenging to use due to a lack of lower-cost apartments in the Mile High City—at these complexes. They’ll also be aided by a proposed five-year city plan to build and preserve 7,000 affordable homes by 2026, including 478 units downtown.
COVID-19 is more likely to spread among individuals staying at overnight shelters than in outdoor encampments or in individual rooms.
When the pandemic first swept through the city in March 2020, Denver’s Department of Housing Stability began contracting with local hotels and offered nearly 1,000 rooms so that those experiencing homelessness—particularly older individuals, those with pre-existing conditions, and people who tested positive for the virus—could safely shelter. Since then, the initiative has served more than 4,600 people and has helped approximately 448 households make the transition into permanent housing. Denver’s City Council deemed the effort so successful that, in June, it allocated an additional $2.4 million to extend Aloft Denver Downtown’s 140-room contract through the end of 2022. Not everyone is happy about the decision: Nearby residents have complained about drug use, trash, and catcalling outside the hotel. Fisher says those issues appear to be mostly tied to other individuals experiencing homelessness in the area, and not the hotel’s temporary residents.
With foot traffic down an average of 25 percent compared with pre-pandemic days (remember those?) and only 51 percent of workers back downtown at peak hours, the struggle to stay open has been real for area restaurants, hotels, and retail spots.
Plucky businesspeople are launching new concepts, and in doing so, they are attracting people back to the city center. We asked four who started operations within the past year why they decided to set up shop downtown—and how it’s going. —Allyson Reedy
Location: 1801 Blake St.
Why Downtown: “What attracted us to the Free Market [where we sell our leather goods] is the opportunity to build a community with other like-minded brands that are looking for conscious consumers who want to do more than just spend their dollars—they want to vote for a better world with their purchases. That location brings that together in a unique way. It feels very much like a hub for the area where people are gathering.” —Ian Bentley, co-founder/CEO
Location: 1526 Blake St.
Why Downtown: “We are huge believers in the importance of vibrant downtowns. Being in downtown Denver provides our [Pueblo-themed] bar with the widest possible audience. We also know that the Pueblo expat community living in Denver is geographically dispersed throughout the metro area, so having a central location makes the bar accessible…. [We’re] really optimistic for the future.” —Nathan Stern, co-owner
Location: 1250 Welton St.
Why Downtown: “The Slate Denver hotel is owned by Stonebridge Companies, a hospitality company [that’s been] based in Denver for the last 30 years, so it’s extremely important for us to do our part to revitalize this area of downtown, support the local economy, and help restart the meetings and tourism industries. Also, it was important to preserve the historic Emily Griffith Technical College campus.” —Kirby Kiner, general manager
Location: 1661 Market St.
Why Downtown: “The concept and inspiration of Topo Designs has always been based around Colorado. Having physical retail locations helps create brand awareness. The Market Station location gives us a perfect mix of awareness locally for a set of people who frequent the downtown area, as well as those who are traveling [here] and are looking for a local brand that has the essence of Colorado.” —Jedd Rose, co-founder
As of December 2021, 33 percent of the ground-floor spaces along the 16th Street Mall were vacant or temporarily closed.
Before joining the DDP, Sarah Wiebenson wasn’t a fan of retail pop-up programs: Although promising in theory, they didn’t provide enough support for tenants to gain a long-term foothold. But Popup Denver, a new DDP initiative, is different, Wiebenson says.
DDP’s version is currently providing temporary space along the upper section of the 16th Street Mall—roughly from Curtis Street to Broadway—to five retailers as a way to activate unused spaces and entice visitors. The organization thinks it can keep the tenants in business, thanks to funding from the city—$20,000 to each shop to cover startup costs. DDP also connected winners with Tribe Development, which helped them navigate city approval processes and design their spaces. And instead of signing leases, the businesses inked three-month “licensing agreements”; in lieu of rent, they’ll only have to cover expenses, such as utilities.
During the initial agreement window, DDP is collecting data on things like revenue to decipher whether the city sees a net-positive return on its investment. Either way, Wiebenson hopes to use available city funds to expand the program across downtown and increase the number of retailers. —Spencer Campbell
For years, there has been big talk about big ideas to revitalize downtown. When is it actually going to happen?
Large projects that have the potential (we think) to come to life in the next decade.
The chain-link fences that have encircled much of Civic Center Park since September 2021 aren’t exactly welcoming, but it’s been a rough few years for the park, which saw a big drop in daily users and $1 million in damage following the Black Lives Matter protests. Thankfully, a better future awaits what should be one of Denver’s most prized public spaces. The city and Denver Parks & Recreation used the controversial closure to revive the area—restoring grass, cleaning up trash, and cordoning off spots that beckoned lawbreakers. An updated master plan, released in February 2022, will further enliven the green space. “The Greek Theater and the Central Promenade are high priority for us,” says Eric Lazzari, executive director for the nonprofit Civic Center Conservancy. Expect more live performances at the theater, as well as new trees to generate shade. The Promenade, where Civic Center Eats is held every Thursday in the summer, will also get an upgrade. It will be at least 2025, however, before the first parts of the plan are completed.
Downtown is really a college town, though locals rarely describe it that way. University of Colorado Denver, the Community College of Denver, and Metropolitan State University of Denver have a combined enrollment of more than 30,000 students. To build upon the creative work being done on campus and invite more of the community through the institution’s doors, CU Denver is planning an “open innovation district” as part of its 2030 Strategic Plan. “It will be a space where talent and technology align to catalyze new research, commercialize that research, and transmit impactful solutions,” chancellor Michelle Marks says. The venue—expected to be completed within the next 10 years—will be connected to an engineering and design building that’s slated to open in 2025. The innovation corridor will contain labs and maker spaces that are open to the public and encourage collaboration among students, Denver nonprofits, and tech companies. Ideally, it will also inspire more students to pursue STEAM careers and help flip Denver’s current trend that sees out-of-state recruiting to fill in-city jobs that require college degrees.
The South Platte River, which should be an urban gem, has never been given the opportunity to live up to its potential. As it winds its way around downtown, it calls to Denver’s outdoor-loving community—and then chases it away with E. coli. But there are plans in the works to improve the waterway’s reputation: The River Mile development will re-envision one mile of the South Platte (primarily the site Elitch Gardens currently occupies) into a walkable neighborhood lined with parks, shops, condos, cultural venues, restaurants, businesses, and even an elementary school. The hitch: It’s going to take about two decades to finish. —DS
This article was originally published in 5280 September 2022.
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.
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Downtown was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and the city is still struggling to get people back on its streets. How do we rebuild it for the modern era?