Denver’s ‘Main Street,’ the 16th Street Mall, gets ready for a face-lift

A key environmental approval means the long-awaited rethinking and rebuilding of the 16th Street Mall cityscape could begin construction by this time next year, project officials said this week. 

Federal, regional and local partners have worked for a decade on plans to refresh “Denver’s beloved Main Street,” as one urban designer put it, and last week received Federal Transit Administration (FTA) checkmarks on the environmental assessment (EA) of the selected design. Environmental clearance through a process consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), such as an EA, is required for all projects seeking federal funding. The “Finding of No Significant Impact,” or FONSI, constitutes project approval and means that local partners can start seeking a design/build contractor for the mall.

The currently favored proposal would solve multiple problems: a busy transit corridor that places the mall’s heavy pedestrian traffic in undesirable mid-street “islands”; the deterioration of signature granite pavers with high maintenance costs; and too-narrow sidewalk spaces for businesses, festivals and other “activation” efforts that the public enjoys.

RTD officials called the latest approval an endorsement of the multiagency planning cooperative that has addressed mall issues over the years. RTD has worked closely with the City and County of Denver, the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and others to find consensus on design and construction plans.

“It’s been that great balance of interests,” said Susan Wood, planning project manager for RTD. “The cultural resources, the long-term maintenance, the funding, the transit, and balancing all of these interests and finally arriving at a solution.”

“It takes a long time to ask all the right questions,” said Adam Perkins, senior manager of urban planning for the Downtown Denver Partnership. “We weren’t twiddling our thumbs for 10 years.” The pilot studies on new paving materials alone take years to expose to weather and transit conditions, he noted.

In addition to being one of Colorado’s primary tourist attractions, the mall is also RTD’s busiest transit corridor. RTD runs the free mall shuttle buses between Civic Center and Union Station, and about 40,000 people a day use the service. Riders include downtown workers on commutes or lunch breaks, tourists, and crosstown riders connecting to light rail or bus hubs. 

Now 37 years old, the pioneering transit and pedestrian-only design hosts 200 shops and restaurants, 1,400 hotel rooms, and residential buildings now grown to 1,250 units along 18 blocks and 1.2 miles. 

Many urban enthusiasts love the original design of the granite pavers by famed architect I.M. Pei’s firm, which laid out colorful patterns for both sidewalks and roadways. But the pavers have been problematic and expensive from the start: They were installed without enough drainage, and freezing water expands to break the tiles, endangering vehicles and people alike. Maintenance has grown beyond $1 million a year just for maintenance of the pavers, Wood noted. 

The project, which could cost beyond $100 million to complete, will be funded by a combination of FTA grants, Denver bond funds, and tax-increment financing through DURA. The rebuild would likely take two to four years, depending on the construction methods chosen by the partners, businesses and other stakeholders. Preliminary work could begin in late 2020, with major construction planned for 2021. 

Features of the new design include:

  • Elimination of the pedestrian “islands” that exist on many blocks in favor of bus lanes in the middle, as well as wider sidewalk and public use areas.
  • Landscape, planting and design features to further activate different blocks along the mall and provide opportunities for business expansion and public events.
  • Installation of new pavers with a better drainage system and a no-slip surface that makes them safer for pedestrians; the replacements will retain the original overall design pattern that residents love. 

There’s no escaping the reality of disruption from the pending construction project, taking place along one of the busiest transit and commercial corridors of the metro area. Extensive outreach to and input from local businesses and other users will continue throughout the project, including during the design phase, officials said. Choices include whether to rebuild the whole stretch at once, or to embark on a longer block-by-block rebuild that would disrupt fewer users at a time.

“Construction is never easy, but there’s a lot to gain from the pain,” Wood said. The cooperative effort is a great model for future projects, she added, and will “elevate the mall as a wonderful place to spend time. It is that today, but it could be so much better.”