Denvers 16th Street Mall is getting a full overhaul, something that could cause short-term pain to businesses

Fencing is already up around portions of the 16th Street Mall, the first visible signs of the three-year, $149 million renovation project that is finally getting underway this month on downtown Denver’s critical commercial drag. It’s a project a decade in the making.

A banner hanging on that fencing near 16th and Market streets reads, “Spread good construction vibes.” It has the image of a front loader with a rainbow emanating from it.

Gabriela Salazar is not feeling good vibes inside her shop, Colorado Artisan Center. The business, which carries goods including jewelry and poster prints from more than 100 local artists, is in the Writer Square development facing the mall between Lawrence and Larimer streets. There are multiple vacancies around Salazar’s storefront, indications of how tough it has been for downtown businesses still struggling to regain their footing in the wake of COVID-19.

“We’re not happy about it,” Salazar said about the project that will touch all 13 blocks of the mall between now and the end of 2024. “The fences make the area look like a third-world country.”

Neither the city nor the Downtown Denver Partnership, the economic development organization working closely with Denver officials on the mall overhaul, have provided businesses with enough information about the project or what support they will be given to weather it, Salazar said. Her sales are still down 50% compared to where they were before the pandemic and foot traffic from conventions and downtown office workers is still well below what she needs to thrive, she said.

“They should spend all those millions in real marketing to bring people back downtown,” Salazar said.

The partnership is touting the message that downtown remains open for business despite a disruptive infrastructure project coming after two years of COVID impacts.

“We just encourage folks to support our local businesses. Over 65% of the businesses on the 16th Street Mall are locally owned,” Kate Barton, the partnership’s executive vice president of special projects, said. “We encourage folks to continue to come down and remember what they love about downtown Denver.”

The mall was designed by architect I.M. Pei and his firm Olin. It opened in 1982 and is already beyond its operable life, Barton said. Its hallmark red, white and gray pavers are sticking up in places, creating tripping hazards. When they get wet, those pavers are dangerously slick. Many of the trees along the 1.25-mile corridor are also at the end of their lifespans. The mall is built over a water line officials estimate is 125 years old.

The timing of the work may be unfortunate but it couldn’t be helped, Barton said. The mall is a transit corridor and required federal approval before it could move forward. It also underwent a review because of its historic value to Denver, she said.

“Bottom line is it’s time,” Barton said. “This is a complete upgrade to all of the infrastructure along the 16th Street Mall.”

One of the biggest changes visitors will notice once the project is complete is that the lanes that carry the Regional Transportation District’s free MallRide shuttles up and down the mall will be condensed in the center of each block. That change will leave more space for pedestrians, seating and activities on either side instead of the buses running along opposite sides of central plazas like they do on many blocks today.

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The city and partnership are working on an aid package for businesses along the mall during construction. The $3 million effort earned approval from the City Council’s business committee on Wednesday and will soon be before the entire council for approval. That package included funding for grants of up $15,000 for small businesses in the construction zone that can demonstrate they lost revenue.

Just across from Salazar’s art shop, the staff at the Blue Agave Grill are more optimistic about getting through reconstruction. That’s despite the fact that the restaurant will lose its sizable patio on the mall for two summers to the project. The city and partnership have been proactive about providing information about the work even if there is still some uncertainty about the exact timeline, assistance manager Eric Engle said.

“This is our breadwinner, our moneymaker,” Engle said Wednesday, gesturing to the restaurant’s large patio. “It’s going to be a hit no matter what. But we’re just super confident in the following that we’ve built up from the last five years that no matter what is going on on the street people will still crave their Blue Agave.”

Cassandra Allen-Brown’s Yarn Shoppe Denver doesn’t front onto 16th Street. Its door is just a few down in the 1600 block of California Street. She still relies on the mall for access and doesn’t know how the construction will impact her bottom line. But she does believe downtown needs the project.

“I think it’s very welcome,” Allen-Brown said. “I think it will bring more revitalization to downtown Denver so people will want to come and hang out downtown.”

For more information about the 16th Street Mall project visit denvergov.org/16thstreetmall.

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