If travelling through Colorado, make time to enjoy Downtown Denver. With five hours to kill last week, I did just that. I can’t say this was enough time to uncover benchmarks and best practices. But it is hard not to be inspired by the small things that add up to be one impressive place.
Arriving in Denver was equal to or possibly less pleasant than arriving in Memphis. Airport and rental car experience was typical. The drive into town was along a wide, congested and slightly confusing series of highways. The view from the highway was not green… in color or environment. Everything in winter was dead, mud brown and covered with a film of salt. The scenery was of factories, warehouses and the traditional expressway accessory… chain-link & barbed wire fence.
A map of Denver shows a grid that looks simple enough but in reality was a strange maze of one-way streets leading to loops and triangular intersections. The best thing to do was park.
Once out of the car, we realized that this wasn’t the wild-west. This was a city. The State Capitol lacked diversity in Memphis terms but was obviously a place where many people come together. The National Western Stock Show was in town, ads for the Colorado School of English were prominent, Qwest Communications was atop one of the tallest buildings and outdoor enthusiast retailers like Patagonia rounded out an interesting mix.
This was a pedestrian city. Couldn’t tell from the highway but people were walking. A lot of people were walking. It was Colorado in winter and people were strolling on a weekday as if it were Sunday afternoon in May.
In addition to walkers, you couldn’t help but notice Vespas and other scooters parked at meters, bike racks and in parking garages everywhere.
We explored a number of parks but unfortunately never made it to the famed Denver Skate Park. Honestly, this town may not need one. Skateboarders were riding with book bags on sidewalks, with suit jackets in streets and along a riverfront path. Skating was apparently transportation in Downtown Denver.
We saw a light rail train but never used it. However, we did use the FREE Mall-Ride travelling 16 full blocks in around five minutes. This was farther than riding from Westy’s in the Pinch to Pearl’s in South Main on the trolley. The Hybrid-Electric bus had two doors opening at the intersection of every block. People jumped on and off every single time with no driver interaction. They came frequently… spaced about one every other block. I’m not certain, but the lights may have been timed to keep the buses in almost constant motion. About halfway into the journey, our bus was full but comfortable.
Downtown Denver was full of Public Art. Abstract sculptures of ballet dancers, wood carvings of Native Americans, a horse standing in a giant red chair. These were not typical murals or busts you’d see in anycityusa but all sorts of interesting/unusual pieces. More importantly, these pieces were not just there to be gazed upon respectfully or hiding something ugly but were part of a moving landscape.
There was a mall… actually a few of them.
The 16th Street Pedestrian Mall was about as old, and a bit longer, than the Mid-America/Main Street Mall in Memphis. I don’t know how Coloradoans feel about it but it looked successful. No cars but lots of chairs, stores, kiosks and people. I don’t think it really was, but the 16th Street mall felt like the spine tying together museums, offices, apartments and restaurants with a bunch of retail activity. My wife and I did an informal survey. Against all conventional wisdom, where there were no cars there was a great deal of activity. Locations across from or surrounded by parking and with greater vehicular access had a lot of for-lease signs in the windows and very little foot traffic passing by.
There appeared to be a Peabody Place-esque retail and entertainment center and some additional indoor shopping.
A few blocks off of the pedestrian mall was one block of simple urban perfection. Between 14th and 15th Streets was Larimer Square. Not a square at all but a street with a complete, uninterrupted stream of historic buildings, 30-foot-wide storefronts, bars, restaurants and on-street parking.
Some neighbors lived in upstairs units. There were both historic conversions and new high-rise construction in the core. Pedestrian bridges linking other neighborhoods were terribly interesting though. These were not the zoo-cage bridges I grew up with crossing over I-40. These were restoration projects and art projects and inviting places even if they didn’t go anywhere.
Flanked by a very wide rail yard, Downtown was physically cut off from the Platte River. Undeterred, Denver Millennium Bridge was built connecting Downtown to Commons Park and the Central Platte Valley neighborhood. An additional pedestrian bridge then spanned the river connecting yet another infill project to Downtown overlooking the west bank of the river.
Nice Knowledgeable People
In a small neighborhood grocery on the mall, I asked the young lady at the register of Cook’s Fresh Market who her customers were and if this was part of a larger chain. Not only did she politely hook us up with a fabulous breakfast, she pointed to the owner and recounted when, why and how the independent store was founded. And she did it with unsolicited gusto.
We stopped in Loft-22 for an unfortunate going out of business sale. There was a 2007-Business-of-the-Year award on the wall. Being a rude out-of-towner, I asked the clerk what happened. While helping my wife with a compact-mirror selection, she explained that the landlord found someone willing to pay more for the space. Not bitterly though, she talked about the tough retail market and this being an opportunity to try something else. The positive attitude in Downtown Denver was infectious.
Where the Buffalo Roam was the local tourist trap. The staff were outstanding… polite, helpful, fun sales people. More than that, they knew their city. Go quiz them. Nearest post office? Next bus? Public restroom? Try it and see what happens.
For a late lunch we went to Earls. This place was the height of trendy. Not terribly different than The Majestic or Flight or Felicia Susanne’s. Turns out, to our disappointment, this is part of a Canadian chain of restaurants. To our delight, the people in this place were amazing. Hostess, manager, waitress, busser… we interacted with them all and would invite any of them to a dinner party. We also noted that we were the out-of-place tourists. Young men (and some women) in business attire packed this place. If there was a deal to be struck, loan to be closed, tech-company to be launched, it felt like it was happening here.
There was a beautiful historic City-County Building still decorated from the holidays that I found interesting both by its physical presence and because of the public statement of cooperation that it made.
This is not likely the only reason for success in Denver. But considering the connective design, transportation options, artistic representation and openness of the people it is easy to imagine what can be accomplished when diversity, cooperation and inclusive density is embraced.