Laurie Dunklee | LaurieD@NorthDenverTribune.com
DOWNTOWN DENVER — The fate of Denver’s 16th Street Mall is again under discussion. The Regional Transportation District proposes replacing the unique pattern of granite pavers with concrete, while historic preservation advocates prefer to rehab the mile-long stretch that was designated “public art of the highest quality” by the Urban Land Institute in 2008.
If this conversation sounds familiar, it’s because a similar proposal to “update” the mall in 2010 was abandoned in favor of saving the pavers.
The 16th Street Mall, Denver’s central spine connecting Union Station to the State Capitol, was designed in 1982 by famous architects I.M. Pei and Partners of New York. “It is a special place in Denver and one of our most iconic,” said Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver. “The three colors of stone are laid in a pattern to resemble a diamondback rattlesnake. The red stone is the local stone used in many buildings. It’s very Colorado in both its Western identity and its modernity. It stands the test of time.”
Levinsky said the mall is eligible for both local and national historic designation. “The national threshold is usually 50 years but this is a site of extreme significance. Now it is more than 30 years old and it requires help, especially the granite pavers in the transit areas. It’s worthwhile to invest in it because of its value for every generation.”
RTD, which runs the shuttle buses on the mall, says the pavers drive up maintenance costs and pose a safety hazard. “It costs $ 1 million a year to maintain the 16th Street Mall, which is a big chunk for RTD, especially with our other major projects underway,” said Nate Currey, RTD’s senior manager of public relations. The concrete alternative is a more sustainable model to make the mall workable for the 21st Century.”
Currey said the stone pavers and curb design present safety hazards for pedestrians. “The material is slick, especially in the rain or snow. The curb is sloped and it takes people down, especially if they’re wearing heels. It’s a problem for those with limited mobility or limited sight.”
The main features of I.M. Pei’s design include the poly-chromatic granite pavers, wide sidewalks, and a central tree-lined corridor flanked by lighting fixtures. The Mall was designed as a cohesive whole, with its Southwest pattern of granite tiles and lighting that was designed to complement the honey locusts and red oaks planted precisely within the field of the paving pattern. “The Urban Land Institute designated it because of the unified concept between the pavers, trees and lights,” said Levinsky. “It really is unique. That’s why we’re cautious about changing the design without holistic thinking about the mall at large.”
A 2009-2010 16th Street Mall planning process—which included RTD, the city, the Downtown Denver Partnership and approximately 3,600 private citizens—included a detailed assessment of the mall’s infrastructure. It was concluded that the Mall is an irreplaceable legacy project and the parties agreed to a rehabilitation plan.
The rehabilitation process—including cleaning and repairing the pavers—was begun in 2013, focusing on several blocks at a time. “Some of it got done and we learned a lot about how to do it efficiently,” said Levinsky. “Cleaning the grime off the pavers alleviates their slickness.”
RTD is again proposing the idea of replacing the granite pavers with concrete, a decision the Historic Denver website says is “contradictory to all the previous studies and recommendations, and comes at an especially awkward time.”
Levinsky said: “This most recent conversation came up because RTD got a bid for the next three blocks of rehab that was much more than they anticipated. Denver is in a construction boom and costs are up. But they got only one bid, and we think it’s important to get additional cost estimates.”
Currey said he wasn’t aware that the price had gone up for the next phase of rehab.
RTD is hosting public meetings to consider alternative concrete designs, including a two-color design in a diamond pattern reminiscent of the existing tiles. “It will look beautiful and honor the original design,” said Currey.
Because the Mall is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, RTD is conducting a cultural resources evaluation under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA). Historic Denver is participating as a consulting party. Evaluation criteria include the importance of the site as it represents the work of a master during a particular period; its high artistic values; and its method of construction.
“We want a more holistic conversation before we change the mall’s materials and alter the physical environment. We want to do it right,” said Levinsky. “We’re introducing alternatives that are not part of RTD’s analysis, that are not about changing the materials. Other alternatives include reducing wear and tear on the pavers by reducing the frequency of buses on the mall, or using lighter buses, or distributing their weight differently.”
Currey said the new electric mall shuttles, rolling out this month, are lighter than the old buses.
A proposal to move the buses off the mall onto 15th or 17th streets isn’t viable, Currey says. “That one-mile stretch is an important circulator that connects two hubs. It would be a struggle for people, especially in bad weather. Also it would require big infrastructure updates on 15th and 17th and who would pay for that?”
He said Denver’s growth is driving the demand for more public transportation. “We’re looking at the new circulation patterns between Union Station and the Capitol. Before the A Line there were 24,000 passengers at Union Station per day; now there are 105,000 coming into downtown at that end. Mall shuttles will run more frequently. People want to get down the mall quickly and it’s our social contract to provide that service.
“Denver has changed over the past 30 years and the question is whether the 16th Street Mall design is an asset or a liability,” Currey continued. “Sixteenth Street makes downtown work. The city, the Downtown Denver Partnership and RTD are working together to make the Mall successful. When it’s healthy it helps our economy.”
Public sentiment is mixed when it comes to preserving the mall’s historic integrity. When a Denver Post opinion poll last month asked whether the pavers should be replaced, the more than 1,800 responses were almost equally divided.
Currey said comments varied at their August 28 public meetings: “The business people who attended the morning public meeting were mostly in favor of replacing the pavers, while the history fans in the afternoon opposed it. So it depends on who you talk to.”
“People who are new to Denver might not understand the significance of the 16th Street Mall and why it’s important to maintain this public realm that is so special,” said Levinsky.
To see the RTD alternatives being discussed or attend a meeting, see rtd-denver.com.
To learn more about the history of the 16th Street Mall and the rehabilitation process, see historicdenver.org.
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