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What Can Denver’s Next Mayor Do to Revitalize the Downtown?

Last year the city’s hotel occupancy rate reached 66.2 percent, up almost 13 percent from the year prior but still below pre-pandemic levels. Experts agree that sometimes the best mayors are simply the best cheerleaders.

A pedestrian walks past the Republic Plaza building in downtown Denver
A pedestrian walks past the Republic Plaza building in downtown Denver on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.
(Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
(TNS) — Weekly Stock Show-style parades. Regular open-air art exhibitions. Outdoor movie screenings. Converting street parking into green space. Tax breaks for artists, poets and other creatives to live and work downtown. More playgrounds, sculptures and parks to entice young families to the city’s urban core.

These are a tiny sampling of the big, bold — and in some cases whimsical — ideas that have been floated for revitalizing downtown Denver over the last few months as Denver’s April 4 municipal election enters its final days.

It may be a secondary issue on most debate stages but the future of downtown Denver is linked with the preoccupying topics of the election; crime, homelessness and the need for more housing. The Denver Post has examined those issues in detail as part of its coverage of the city’s 2023 election.

Office worker foot traffic, a key measure of health of any city’s center, is still roughly half of what it was pre-pandemic, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership.

“We’re looking for the inner city to be the heart of the region like it was before the pandemic,” said Jerry Orten, who helms the Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association. “We really need a mayor and City Council that is aligned in advancing the inner city and all the interests of Denver.”

Downtown Needs a Champion

What role does a mayor play in swaying downtown’s fortunes when cities themselves are often at the whim of business decisions like “Should our company mandate workers return to the office?” or “Where should we hold our next corporate conference?”

The simplest answer may be being a good cheerleader who can get others to rally around a cause.

“No one does anything by themselves,” said Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow with the public policy research organization Brookings Metro who has studied the impact of COVID-19 on city centers. “There is always a need for leadership. It’s a question of being able to get people to work together, whether that’s through inspiration, persuasion or coercion.”

In a few cities that have flipped the script on the pandemic-driven urban malaise, researchers see a common thread of charismatic leaders who have focused on bringing back conventions and visitors., a research project from the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, has been using mobile phone pings to measure traffic in downtown areas in North American cities compared to 2019.

As of last fall — September through November 2022 — Denver’s seasonal average of mobile device density was just 59 percent of what it was in the same time period in 2019, good for the 35th best recovery rate among downtowns studied by the project. Salt Lake City led all cities and with traffic up 135 percent over 2019. San Diego was No. 5 at 99 percent.

It’s hard to draw direct comparisons. Karen Chapple, the director of the School of Cities and a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that Salt Lake City is much smaller than Denver (its population is less than a third the size) and residents there benefit from short drives into downtown. Shorter commute times are one of the key factors in positive recovery rates, according to the research.

And Denver, while home to one of the busiest airports in the world, lacks the direct tourism pull of San Diego, Chapple said. The city has cultural amenities aplenty but is often a pass-through for tourists on their way to mountain destinations. Denver’s economy, with a heavy emphasis on tech and professional service jobs that can more easily be handled remotely, also puts it at a disadvantage compared to cities with higher downtown concentrations of medical and higher education jobs that remain much more in-person focused, Chapple said.

When it comes to how mayors and other elected officials can affect changes in downtown traffic, Chapple said what she has seen in successful cities are leaders that had been vocal in their downtown boosterism.

“I think the champions (component) is really critical,” she said. “Thinking about the cases that have come back, San Diego and Salt Lake have mayors that have been very energetic and upfront about bringing folks back.”

City governments are often among the biggest landowners and employers in their downtowns, Loh noted. That provides an opportunity to directly impact energy in the urban core. Denver has a large office presence on the eastern edge of downtown.

Since November, the Hancock administration has mandated that most city office workers be at their desks at least three days per week, officials said.

But as San Diego’s surge demonstrates, visitor traffic is a critical piece of the puzzle. The Downtown San Diego Partnership shared data showing that hotels in that city’s core sported average occupancy rates of 73.1 percent in 2022. That’s up from 39.4 percent in 2020 and approaching the 2019 rate of 80.9 percent.

“I think the mayor is the No. 1 ambassador for the city,” said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, the city’s conventions and visitors bureau. “The mayor has to believe that he or she can make a difference for downtown.”

During his 20 years leading Visit Denver, Scharf said he has seen the city’s standing as a destination grow. That’s due in part to mayors that fostered a pro-business climate and courted conventions and tourism, he said.

He points to investments started under the outgoing administration, including championing a $233 million expansion of the Colorado Convention Center, as a demonstration of that mindset. Interest in the Convention Center’s forthcoming rooftop ballroom is already driving future business, he said.

Hotel occupancy rates in downtown Denver reached 66.2 percent in 2022, according to data shared by Scharf. That was up almost 13 percent over 2021. Downtown hotels posted a 77.5 percent occupancy rate in 2019.

Mayor Michael Hancock knows it only takes one conventioneer telling friends and colleagues that Denver is dirty or unsafe to undermine even the glitziest new convention space. As covered in The Denver Post’s election story on homelessness, Hancock launched the Downtown Denver Action Team to respond to those concerns, particularly around the Convention Center.

Hancock hopes that his successor will focus on trying to wring a strong return out of the roughly $150 million investment in the ongoing project to overhaul the 16th Street Mall. The mall is downtown’s spine and one of the city’s most visible retail and entertainment hubs.

“I still believe that a store like Apple needs to come to the mall and give us an opportunity to concentrate good retail around that type of anchor. I think even more entertainment along the mall will be helpful.” Hancock said. “We’ve got to make sure it’s activated, we’ve got to make sure it’s safe and we’ve got to make sure that its a place for everyone.”

The prevailing narrative in the mayor’s race is that downtown Denver is in decline. But residents and boosters point to new and exciting businesses that indicate to them a rebound is on the near horizon.

At the top of that list for many is Little Finch which opened at 1490 16th Street Mall at the end of January. The concept, from restauranteur Mary Nguyen, is an “all-day cafe” offering coffee, afternoon snacks and cocktails.

The first few weeks have been stellar, with the varied offerings attracting residents, commuters and visitors alike, Nguyen said.

Having grown up in Denver and spent a lot of time riding the MallRide shuttle buses that traverse 16th Street, Nguyen said she associated the mall with chain restaurants. Now she feels Little Finch could be at the forefront of a new chapter for 16th Street and downtown that highlights the best of Denver.

“I felt like it was a really great opportunity to start changing the narrative,” she said of opening there.

Office Conversions Only Part of the Solution

Leadership can be an abstract concept but one specific idea getting lots of air time in the mayor’s race is converting outdated office buildings downtown into housing.

Other major North American cities including New York City and Calgary, Alberta have embraced and thrown considerable money behind encouraging office building conversions.

Mayoral candidate Kelly Brough, former head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, views office conversions as a means to not only address the city’s affordable housing crisis and revitalize downtown but also reduce pollution by concentrating housing near jobs and transportation.

When Herod came out against Referred Questions 2O, the ballot measure that would open the defunct Park Hill golf course to residential and commercial development, she pointed to office building conversions as one of the places where new housing could be built instead of that 155-acre plot of land.

More than 33,000 people called downtown home as of last year, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership. That’s up more than 2,200 residents from 2020, demonstrating that the pandemic didn’t dampen appetites to live in the urban core even if it has kept office workers away.

But building conversions are not snap-of-the-finger simple, explains Loh, the Brookings Metro researcher.

Even an office market with a 27 percent office vacancy rate — as downtown Denver had at the end of 2022, according to real estate services firm CBRE — is 73 percent full. Working around existing leases could be a costly barrier to reusing those buildings. Downtown should not cede its role as a job center despite the setbacks of the pandemic, Loh argues.

“I think there is kind of rush to say ‘Hey, we can solve the housing crisis by doing this’ but I think that’s because solving the housing crisis is hard,” Loh added. “It’s not a question of office or housing. Successful downtowns have office and housing.”

Denver is already probing the feasibility of converting up to 30 underperforming office buildings into other uses including housing. Parallel to that, the city is launching an effort to support the owners of five downtown buildings who are already pursuing conversions, said Eugenia Di Girolamo, Denver’s chief urban designer. The goal is to identify and knock down barriers to those transformations.

“This pilot program will offer dedicated, one-on-one staff support to help buildings move efficiently through development review and navigate the unique building code issues that may arise when converting an older office building to a new residential use,” Di Girolamo said.

The Downtown Denver Partnership, through programs like Popup Denver which subsidizes rent and support for small businesses looking to locate in the urban core (to mixed reviews from some of the first wave of retailers that participated), has been focused on creating attractions that make people want to come to the city’s core and spend time and money there.

But if downtown is going to be successful, it will need “a multitude of uses,” including office space, said Kate Barton, the partnership’s chief of external affairs.

“What we’re hearing from a number of these mayoral candidates is a shared belief that we need to invest in our center city as a driver for the region and a commitment to do that if elected,” Barton said.

The clock is ticking for some of Denver’s older office building stock. Two of Denver’s most recognizable office towers — Republic Plaza and Wells Fargo Center, also known as the cash register building — now have loans that are in special servicing, according to BusinessDen. That means the owner of those buildings, Brookfield Properties, is at risk of losing them to lenders.

Downtown is A Neighborhood Too

Now that the urban core has thousands more people living in it than when Hancock took office, some of those residents have ideas about how the next administration could use a firmer approach to make their neighborhoods more livable.

Chris Nicholson lives on 17th Street, one of the main drags for Denver office buildings. He moved into the heart of the city in part because he wanted to live a car-free lifestyle and downtown has by the far the best access to transit of any Denver neighborhood, he said.

What makes downtown vibrant is the concentration of great restaurants, bars and entertainment options like the Denver Performing Arts Complex and Coors Field, not just a glut of big employers. It’s residents who keep those establishments humming after commuters go home for the night, Nicholson said.

He’s now in the tech industry but Nicholson has more than a decade of experience in politics, previously working for progressive candidates at the local and state level. The Denver mayor has a big microphone and the power to rally organizations and wealthy residents to causes. But the mayor can also drive policies and regulations that can change the fortunes of a neighborhood.

“We need a mayor with the backbone to say: ‘I know what’s best for the city and this is what we’re going to do,'” Nicholson said, “and the political chops to get it done.”

Instead of incentivizing retailers to locate downtown by subsidized rents, the next mayor could instead push for a vacancy tax, Nicholson said. Landlords with empty retail spaces along the 16th Street Mall would have some added motivation to come down on rents and give more small businesses opportunities to open up there if they faced penalties for long-term vacancies in their buildings. The tax revenues could also be stashed away to support incoming businesses without dipping into other city revenue streams.

When Rob Toftness moved into his building near Coors Field in 2013 he was mostly happy to not have to commute into the city from Boulder anymore. Now he enjoys the benefits of what urban planners refer to as a 15-minute city. By bike or even on foot he can access everything from his optometrist’s office to his barber to a hardware store.

Toftness, a co-founder of the Denver Bicycle Lobby, has appreciated the proliferation of protected bike lanes downtown under Hancock. He’s looking for ideas from candidates that will treat downtown like a neighborhood and not just an economic hub for tourists and workers to flow into and out of.

“I think we need to just look at quality of life things like street lighting, greenery. I’d love to see public bathrooms in downtown so you don’t have to run between hotel lobbies,” Toftness said. “If we are getting really wild — and if we wanted to piss people off — we could pull out all street parking downtown and turn it into parklets, seating, public space for people.”

Enough Doom Saying

Better Together Denver, a political organization that came together in the last two years to focus in part on getting younger, more diverse groups of people engaged with city politics, held an event at a cocktail bar across from Union Station earlier this year called “Dream Big Downtown.” Attendees, including at-large City Council candidates, Will Chan, Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, Tim Hoffman and Travis Leiker, were asked to share big ideas for the future of the city.

Some of those ideas, written on brightly-colored, star-shaped sticky notes, included closing the urban core to all but bikes and providing property tax rebates for residents with children.

“We’re tired of the negative rhetoric around our city and where it’s headed,” said Rachel Marion, a co-founder of Better Together Denver.

Michelle Jackson, a born Denverite who writes the Square State Colorado blog and hosts the Square State podcast, attended the Dream Big event.

Jackson lives in south Denver but comes into the heart of the city a handful of times each week to work at coffee shops or coworking spaces or just to eat at the many establishments around Union Station.

She too has her ears open for an optimistic message.

“Do we need to make a concerted effort to ensure that it is clean and safe and that businesses want to open here? Yes,” Jackson said. “But it’s crazy to suggest that in a town with this much energy and resources and investment and folks that are passionate about things, that we are going to allow that to die.”

Dorit Fischer is a fifth-generation Coloradan who grew up in Denver. She has had an up-close view of the city’s growth and transformation over the last two decades. She is a broker for NAI Shames Makovsky, the real estate company co-founded by her dad, Evan Makovsky. She also serves on the partnership’s Downtown Denver Inc. board.

Fischer lives on the east side of Denver but comes to work every day at her company’s offices on Glenarm Place downtown. Residential density transformed Lower Downtown and the area around Union Station ahead of the pandemic, Fischer said, but housing has been slower to pop up further east which makes problems like crime and homelessness more acute.

She thinks the best way to bring downtown back to its former glory is for the next group of city leaders to be active, visible and accessible in downtown neighborhoods. She also wouldn’t mind if there were some places for kids to play downtown like the animal sculptures children often climb all over on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall.

“When moms are willing to come to neighborhoods and push their children in strollers for activities, that’s when you know you’ve been successful,” Fischer said.

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