No More Studies — Denver’s Finally Going to Make Decisions About the 16th Street Mall

A reconfiguration of the mall could eliminate this center strip and widen the sidewalks on either side. Photo: David Sachs
A reconfiguration of the mall could eliminate this center strip and widen the sidewalks on either side. Photo: David Sachs

When it opened in 1982, the 16th Street Mall didn’t really resemble the transitway and pedestrian street we know today. There were fewer people, fewer buses, and just not as much going on.

As Denver grows, the mall has to change along with the city. Though many people use the mall, few treat it as a public space where they want to spend time, especially after work hours, one study found.

How can the mall become a better place for people to walk, shop, and linger, while still serving the 45,000 daily bus passengers who ride the transitway?

Denver has been trying to figure out what to do for nearly a decade. Now some concrete decisions seem to be on the horizon. Yesterday, reps from Denver Community Planning and Development, RTD, Denver Urban Renewal Authority, the Downtown Denver Partnership, and the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District said the time for studies is over. They are going to finalize a plan for the mall. They swear.

“This isn’t starting from scratch,” said DDP President and CEO Tami Door. “We have done countless plans, there’s no question, and each of those have helped us evolve.”

There’s some time pressure to spend the $68 million allocated for the rehabilitation and transformation of the 1.2-mile strip. Because federal money is involved in the transitway, there’s a 2022 deadline to complete the mall project (the money must be spent by then, even if the project isn’t technically done).

“This is the most complex urban design and planning riddle I’ve ever seen, which is what’s so fascinating about it and what’s so challenging about it,” said CPD Director Brad Buchanan.

What might the big changes be? It sounds like the option of moving the shuttles to 15th and 17th streets is a non-starter (though technically still on the table).

Image: Community Planning and Development
Image: Community Planning and Development

Proponents of that configuration argued that the mall would be a better public space if it belongs entirely to people. Transit service could be provided in busways on 15th and 17th instead, they said, which would bring more foot traffic to adjacent streets that are comparatively sparse with activity.

Even though a summer’s worth of experiments found that more people walked and biked the mall without the buses on it, research indicates that making it permanent “won’t work” for the transit system, Buchanan said.

The leading configuration seems to be this one: Get rid of the thin center pedestrian strip, so buses operate right in the middle, and sidewalks on both sides of the street can be widened (see the image above). Right now people walk, chill, play chess, eat, and play public pianos in the central space, but it is a bit cramped.

Count RTD General Manager Dave Genova a fan of keeping the shuttles on the mall. He doesn’t want to separate bus riders with impaired sight or mobility challenges from the center of the action, he said.

“Two-way shuttle service on the mall means everything to RTD,” Genova said. “It’s really the backbone of the RTD public transit service plan, as everything that comes into downtown feeds into the 16th Street Mall.”

Technically the new plan doesn’t have to be done until 2020, but we can expect a clearer picture by the end of the year.

  • TakeFive

    Yes, I like the center running design the best.

    LOL, “What a Difference a Day Makes” From Yesterday’s DBJ:
    Denver, DDP kick off new 16th Street Mall study

    The City of Denver’s Department of Community Planning and Development, the Downtown Denver Partnership and Regional Transportation District Wednesday began the first phase of an environmental study mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act. The study must be completed because the original development effort on the mall in the 1980s was completed with federal funding.

    I agree though that is not to decide what they want but merely out of necessity. That said… I couldn’t resist. 🙂

    Have a safe 4th of July everyone. I’ll celebrate with this best theme song of the 2008 elections.

  • acerttr250

    And yet….bikes are treated like a second class citizen. Want more European like walking and lingering? Allow bikes full time. Duh.

  • AndrewZorn

    “He doesn’t want to separate bus riders with impaired sight or mobility challenges from the center of the action, he said.”

    I knew this argument would come up. But buses on 15th and 17th would mean less walking to businesses on 15th and 17th, and now people are a block or less away from destinations on 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th – effectively leading to more access.

    “Two-way shuttle service on the mall means everything to RTD,” Genova said. “It’s really the backbone of the RTD public transit service plan, as everything that comes into downtown feeds into the 16th Street Mall.”

    Uh, so what? The 15th/17th Loop or whatever they want to call it would just be the new backbone of RTD, with literally the same geometric center. Union Station is on 17th – buses that did a big loop from 15th to Wynkoop to 17th would actually make Union Station more integrated.

    I hate the center strip idea. They’ll spend months ripping up pavers and eventually the outcome will be only one loud dirty bus lane instead of two. Maybe an improvement, but still totally breaks up the “pedestrian only” hangout and ruins any semblance of tranquility. They aren’t cool historic trolleys or anything. I’d rather they just put that money toward something else. Rerouting/rebranding the buses for 15th and 17th would hardly cost anything by comparison.

    But nah, I’m wrong, that’s why they do the summer events where they don’t run the buses for a day or two and the mall is PACKED with people and activities.

  • Commonsense

    Ha ha! “No more studies!” Except, of course, for the one launched yesterday, which won’t be completed for another six months of the Mall deteriorating and get worse and worse. Studies are a waste of time because they suggest solutions that the Partnership does not want to do. in a similar situation of inactivity during the Civil War, President Lincoln said to his General, “if you don’t intend to use the army, do you mind if I borrow it?” We need to “borrow” the Mall … and fix it. By the way, Lincoln did borrow the army, and fired the stalling general.

  • vikingbiking518

    Really not a fan of removing the center strip. I live downtown and hang out on the mall probably once a week, eat, shop, have a good time. I like the way it flows now and as a pedestrian and cyclist, the center lane makes me feel a lot safer when the bus is coming.

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