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Let’s save the 16th Street Mall

Don’t look too closely at Denver’s renowned 16th Street Mall. You’re likely to see uneven and worn pavers, aging planters, vacant tree wells and unsafe bus lanes that have frightened pedestrians since the day the mall opened 35 years ago.

Denver and RTD have recommended removing the center median on the 16th Street Mall and adding more trees and more space for pedestrians. A plan to remake the iconic downtown thoroughfare could begin next year and cost between $90 million and $130 million.

RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file

Denver and RTD have recommended removing the center median on the 16th Street Mall and adding more trees and more space for pedestrians. A plan to remake the iconic downtown thoroughfare could begin next year and cost between $90 million and $130 million.

That’s an unacceptable state of affairs for what has become one of the state’s most visited tourist destinations, not to mention a mile-long, heavily used transit corridor surrounded by the city’s economic core.

Yes, it’s time to update the mall.

Fortunately, the City and County of Denver has been diligent — and a little slow — in its approach, spending years studying pedestrian traffic patterns and lingering times, trying alternative substrates and bonding materials for the iconic granite pavers and soliciting extensive public comment.

From that process has emerged a solid plan: reconfigure the mall so the buses run down two lanes in the middle of roadway. Doing away with the 16-foot center median between Tremont and Arapahoe will mean more usable room for pedestrians, sidewalk cafes, benches, trees and planters. It will also allow designers to create natural buffers between where the buses run and pedestrians walk. No more dodging sideview mirrors.

Unfortunately, the beautiful, mature tree canopy that has developed in the center median will be cut down to make way for the bus routes. The honey locust trees have been developing for three decades, and starting over will be a sad return to saplings, though thankfully more of them.

But a transformative project like this should play the long game.

Originally built with the help of federal funds, the process forward is a complex one, requiring that Denver and the Regional Transportation District work together to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. That process will also include the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and the Federal Transit Administration.

Right now, the groups are only considering the reconfiguration of the bus lanes, sidewalks and median. The next step will be far more difficult as the city and RTD grapple with what to do with the historic granite pavers that the world-famous architecture firm of I.M. Pei designed in 1982 as a pattern of black, gray and red squares.

From the very beginning, the structural engineering of the pavers failed, and RTD won a small settlement of a warranty claim to fund repairs. Today RTD spends $1 million a year repairing the granite pavers in its MallRide pathway, while the business improvement district — funded with a special tax on downtown property owners — pays $3.5 million a year maintaining the sidewalks, trees and other amenities on the mall.

Translation: the granite is a grotesque extravagance.

Everyone should be open to the possibility of using another material, especially in the bus lanes, that keeps the mall attractive and is in line with the artistic vision of Pei but is also practical and sustainable over the next three decades.

The estimated cost of the plan — without knowing details of materials and final design — is between $90 million and $130 million. Denver set aside about $13 million of its most recent bond issue for the project, RTD has another $15 million in grants that could be available, and there is an expiring tax increment financing district (originally used to subsidize the Pavilions mall) that could contribute an estimated $70 million.

The time is now to move on this project while those funding streams are still available.

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