In an alternate reality, Denver’s overhaul of the 16th Street Mall would be more than halfway done by now. Retailers and restauranteurs would only have until the end of 2024 to endure dusty, noisy, at times odorous construction work before enjoying the strip’s long-planned update.
As it stands, work on some segments of downtown Denver’s 1.2-mile-long pedestrian mall and commercial nerve center is now expected to carry over into the fall of 2025. The updated schedule was released in July, city officials said.
A tangle of underground utilities, including an active 1880s-built, brick-lined sewer buried under the mall’s 13 blocks of trademark pavers, has been the source of the delays.
Denver officials expected work to be tricky. When the project was formally kicking off last spring, officials talked about a water line estimated to be 125 years old under the mall. But with spotty mapping and documentation of all the utilities added downtown over the decades, things proved even more complicated than hoped.
The biggest hang-up came in the form of a roughly six-month wait for approval from the State Historic Preservation Office for the city to hook into a portion of that brick-lined storm sewer, city officials say.
“During that time of consultation, the sewer pipe was protected from construction activities. We worked around it as best we could — and did some resequencing of work — but the long process of obtaining consensus to tie into that pipe did cause delay,” Nancy Kuhn, the project’s lead spokeswoman with the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, said in an email.
The subterranean complications also contributed to the project’s budget growing from $149 million to $172.5 million, according to the city.
Work is progressing now and is even accelerated in places based on lessons learned from blocks that first went under construction on the northwest end of the mall. That’s a reason for optimism in the eyes of downtown champions like District 10 City Councilman Chris Hinds.
But the delays have also fed worries among business owners as foot traffic in the city’s core continues to lag behind pre-pandemic levels. They’re fighting to hang on until the fencing is gone, new amenities are in place and the mall can — hopefully — return to being a bustling hub of workers, tourists and Denverites looking to enjoy a day or an evening out.
“I feel very confident we’ll be on the other side of it but there is always risk,” said Gary Mantelli, who co-owns the West Saloon & Kitchen at 16th and Glenarm Place with his wife Leah.
Fencing went up on that block between Glenarm and Welton Street in May, according to the city’s website. Right now, that work is focused on the middle of the street where updated utilities are being installed and a new road surface for two centralized lanes for the free MallRide shuttle will eventually be laid.
But the biggest disruptions are yet to come. The city’s schedule calls for Phase 2 work that will fence off the area directly in front of businesses like Mantelli’s restaurant to begin next summer.
“I’ll lose the patio completely next year and when that happens I think that will really demonstrate the difficulties that we have to be ready for,” Mantelli said of one of his 11,000-square-foot restaurant’s big attractions — outdoor dining along the mall. “I just hope we have done enough with our guests and our reputation to get people to come see us without the patio and come inside and eat with us.”
Mayor Mike Johnston vowed in the letter accompanying his proposed 2024 budget to spend $58 million on various efforts and projects to revitalize downtown. The draft budget includes another $1 million for direct support to businesses impacted by the ongoing mall construction.
The city will also spend more than $5 million on leases in downtown office buildings to keep staff downtown while the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building at 201 W. Colfax Ave. is being renovated over the next few years, another plank in the mayor’s downtown strategy.
Johnston and officials with the Downtown Denver Partnership, the area’s economic development organization, are feeling the need for urgency. On Monday the mayor stood alongside Kourtny Garrett, the partnership’s CEO, to announce a $350,000 grant program aimed at bringing special events downtown to drive visitor traffic. Ideally, that well of money would be tapped out before the end of the year, Garrett said.
Asked about progress on the mall project, Garrett said that delays are inevitable with big, complicated infrastructure projects, “but we are on an accelerated timeline now.”
She joins project leaders in trying to steer the focus on the mall to the bright sides as the sounds of jackhammers and backhoes reverberate off of buildings with plenty of vacant ground-floor space.
By the partnership’s count, there are 45 unoccupied storefronts along the mall out of a total of 149 spaces. That’s a roughly 30% vacancy rate. Recent departures include mall mainstays like the Hard Rock Cafe and the Corner Bakery Cafe. In the case of the Hard Rock, business leaders were looking to exit before any construction work began.
Kuhn also pointed to how lessons learned on the first few blocks are spurring speedier progress elsewhere. While portions of the mall will still be under construction in the summer of 2025, Denverites won’t have to wait that long to see what a new and improved block looks like.
That impending second phase of construction that has Mantelli worried is about to get underway on the blocks between Market and Lawrence streets. That work involves installing new pavers from the curb of the centralized bus lanes out to the front of buildings. On those northwestern blocks, Phase 2 should wrap up in the spring of next year, Kuhn said.
At that point, all construction fences will come down and finishing work — like installing seating and play structures — will take place and mall-goers will finally see what the finished product will look like by next summer. The same sequence will then play out on other segments of the mall through fall 2025. A block-by-block schedule can be found on the city’s project website at denvergov.org/16thStreetMall under the “current project activities” label.
So far, the city has provided $727,000 in grants to 61 businesses impacted by construction. Businesses located on blocks on which work has been delayed and carried on for more than 22 months will be given the opportunity to apply for more support, Kuhn said.
Mantelli has applied for and received two chunks of money totaling $17,000, he said. It might sound like a lot, but the West Saloon & Kitchen might clear $20,000 in sales on a busy Friday.
The fencing up in front of the restaurant now has already made a sizable dent in business, Mantelli said. While workers in nearby office buildings or people attending concerts and performances at the Paramount Theatre are important chunks of his clientele, tourists and people attending conferences at the Colorado Convention Center are critical too and they might have a harder time finding his business without clear sight lines across 16th Street. He estimated sales are down 20% compared to the last year. He has had to reduce his staff from around 85 people to 50.
Mantelli gives the city some grace for construction delays, but it doesn’t make it easier to see other storefronts emptying out while work lurches forward.
Right now, daily life on some blocks of the mall is uncomfortable even if still maintains convenient access to restaurants and other amenities, said Liz Lee.
Lee works for Gusto. The online payroll and employee benefits services company keeps offices in two buildings opposite each other at the corner of 16th and Lawrence streets. On that end of the mall, construction fencing narrows walkways in some places down to the point that they can feel claustrophobic or even unsafe, Lee said. Crossing Lawrence can also be a harrowing experience with pedestrians, scooters, cyclists, cars and buses jockeying for constrained space between construction barricades.
“Signage would have been nice,” Lee said Wednesday outside her office as she eyed the hectic intersection. “I would be shocked if somebody hasn’t been hit.”
Some bright spots stick out amid the construction dust. The Kealoha’s BBQ stand, dishing out Hawaiian fare, had its kiosk moved out of the middle of the mall in front of the H&M store to the pop-up park lined with fake turf at 16th and Welton a few months ago to accommodate construction. Co-owner Krystie Campbell said business has been stronger there with other food stalls populating the little park area and actual tables available for customers.
“It actually has been better for all of us to be together,” Campbell said of what now serves as an open-air food court. “Hopefully they keep this as a permanent spot.”
The Museum of Illusions, a chain of experiential businesses focused on providing interactive exhibits that play on the limits of human perception, opened a location on the mall at the corner of Curtis Street in September. Working the front desk this past week, Karl Summerlin said business has been strong out of the gate but people sometimes come in and ask where they can find the 16th Street Mall.
Public safety remains central to the success of the urban core. Mayor Johnston knows it. He has made public note of the economic impacts of street homelessness in the city, a problem that is largely concentrated downtown. An ambitious effort to get people off the street and into various kinds of shelter has been the primary push of Johnston’s first few months in office via his House 1,000 homelessness initiative.
Mantelli wants people to know he has already seen less bad behavior and more police presence along the mall. He hopes the city will invest heavily in a marketing campaign highlighting progress on that front.
“It’s important to make it beautiful and bring great things down here but people still have to feel safe and comfortable,” he said. “It’s not crazy and dangerous or any of those all-of-the-above things people say about it.”
Stay up-to-date with Colorado Politics by signing up for our weekly newsletter, The Spot.