The High Cost of Keeping Pretty, Pricey “Pavers” on the 16th Street Mall

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

Should RTD continue spending big bucks to maintain the aesthetically pleasing but functionally flawed surface of the transitway on the 16th Street Mall?

Nostalgia says yes, but common sense says no.

Here’s the issue: Architect I.M. Pei, of Louvre pyramid fame, and Laurie Olin, of National Mall fame, designed the mosaic of granite tiles that line the 16th Street Mall’s transit guideway. Problem is, those tiles had a lifespan of 30 years. They’re now about 35 years old.

Denver’s freeze-thaw cycle causes the tiles to both jut up and sink, which is unsafe for people walking and taking the MallRide. RTD spends about $1 million every year to repair them, RTD Acting Chief Engineer Jyotsna Vishwakarma told the RTD Board of Directors last night. The City and County of Denver is contracted to pitch in $300,000 annually.

The 16th Street Mall is a thoroughfare for people. When locals and tourists use it, they either ride RTD shuttles — which pound the pavers with more than 600 trips and 40,000 passengers per day — or they walk. If you didn’t know there was anything special about the patterned granite tiles, that’s probably because the public art, which is supposed to resemble the scales of a diamondback rattlesnake, is only discernible from a helicopter or a high rise.

RTD will decide whether to renew a three-year, $3.7 million contract with the company that repairs the pavers next month. Instead of renewing, the transit agency should move ahead with another option it’s considering — concrete, which would be cheaper and more functional in the long term [PDF].

The portion that RTD pays annually could buy much-needed, dignified bus stops for people. The $300,000 that the city pitches in could fill in some missing sidewalks to get people to and from those bus stops.

It’s not that public art doesn’t have a place on the 16th Street Mall. It’s just that people don’t get much function out of these pavers, and RTD would be doing the public a service by allocating its scarce resources to useful amenities.

  • mckillio

    I think you missed a very important point about the pavers, they’re incredibly dangerous when it’s wet, snowy, or icey.

    • surly trucker

      They are SO slick when they are wet….it’s crazy!

  • John Riecke

    I’m going to disagree with you on this one. There is an important qualitative difference between concrete and pavers, one which is needed particularly in our auto-dominated street culture, that makes pavers a better choice for 16th. It tells the public at large and the people who visit the mall in particular that we care about the space and making it beautiful, an experience to be shared more than just any street with shops and restaurants.

    • MT

      This is a good point. Though it might be worth the cost savings to redo the bus lanes with a different material, assuming the buses will remain on 16th.

      It is also true that they are really slippery when wet, which is not the best for walking.

  • spr8364

    FYI: I.M. Pei is an American architect of Chinese ancestry — not a Chinese architect.

    • David Sachs

      Thanks.

  • Benjamin Davis

    I think it would be great to see a cost analysis on how much it would be to convert the brick pavers over to a stamped concrete. While I think the brick pavers have a great look, I think the stamped concrete would be a great solution too with a lot less maintenance cost.

  • Jason

    I would like to see a study of the feasibility of replacing the buses on 16th with a high capacity gondola with limited stops (Civic Ctr, between Stout and California, Market St. and at Union Station). The cost of such a system should be reasonable (look at costs of recent gondola installations in Colorado’s mountains) and it would provide a faster link between Civic Ctr and Union Station. It would also activate the mall without the disruption and damage of the mall buses. Another plus: it would be an iconic part of downtown and I’m sure popular with tourists. If RTD can get its smart card system up and running it could charge the standard rider fee (free for all transfers) and the system could help pay for itself. In the place of the buses on 16th, RTD could run circulators like the MetroRide but in dedicated bus lanes on 15th and 17th.

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