The 16th at 30
Denver’s mile-long 16th Street Mall celebrated its 30th birthday this week. The Mall is Denver’s #1 tourist attraction, generating almost 50,000 free shuttle rides per day and millions of dollars in revenue for the city. Guest speakers at the party on Tuesday included Mayor Michael Hancock, United States Senator Mark Udall, and the President of the Downtown Denver Partnership, Tami Door. These folks couldn’t use the word “iconic” too many times in describing The Mall’s current civic status.
Westword has a long cover story containing several complimentary vignettes from veteran Mall watchers and neighbors about how The Mall has withstood the test of time and continues to evolve. The Denver Post coverage of the birthday party was more muted, although it contained news that the Denver Downtown Partnership will birthday gift $350,000 toward lighting The Mall’s historic buildings in an “architectural and historic manner.”
Interestingly, The New York Times marked The Mall’s 30th birthday with a much longer story by Jack Healy that recalled the days when Eastern Establishment tastemakers would never miss an opportunity to disparage the “great city” ambitions of towns located in fly-over country:
For all its vitality and new development downtown, Denver is still a city in search of an icon. It has no Golden Gate Bridge, no French Quarter, no Empire State Building. The snow-capped Rockies float like a mirage off to the west, far beyond the city limits. What Denver has, instead, is the mall.
Healy goes on to point out the “mixed relationship” that Denver has with its downtown. He references a column published in The Post back in March of this year, in which resident Jimmy Hayde noted the difference between The Mall of 20 years ago and today:
Back then, you aspired to be the welcoming heart of Denver, a destination for tourists and the center of a revitalized downtown. Instead, living with you these past 20 years has revealed the painful truth that you don’t care about those relationships anymore. Instead, you nurture your new friends: petition-hawkers, sign-spinners, leaflet-distributors, drunkards, buskers, beggars, the homeless and the marauding gang-bangers who prey on your admirers.
All I can say, James, is that if you really moved to City Park to get away from “buskers, beggars, the homeless and the marauding g-b’s who prey on your admirers,” you’re in for one heck of a surprise.
So true. Still, The Mall has its issues. In singing The Mall’s praises the birthday bash’s master of ceremonies reminded the crowd of Jane Jacobs’ belief that downtown is for people, noting that the 16th Street Mall helps make it so in Denver. But Jacobs was also keen on the virtues of using a variety of networked streets to create urban vitality, as opposed to a single, long, wide one. A commentator in Westword channels Jacobs in making this case for improvement:
Rather than concentrating everything on one single street, a better urban design would expand outward, taking advantage of 14th to 18th streets by replacing the shuttle buses with a trolley system using 15th as the westbound corridor and looping over to 17th for eastbound.
That’s a design idea worth considering as a way to enliven an even greater portion of downtown. But perhaps the most important fact that emerges from the back-and-forth about the 16th Street Mall on the occasion of its 30th birthday is captured by Healy’s observation that “…a civic space built to draw all kinds of people will draw, well, all kinds of people.” We inhabit a city. Diversity goes with the territory. Vive la différence.