The 16th Street Mall — the so-called heart of Denver — shares its DNA with Mall of America, downtown Nashville and other tourist destinations throughout the nation.
The nearly mile-long mall is lined with national brands and chains that don’t exactly scream Colorado, places like the Hard Rock Cafe, Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and Walgreens.
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The mall’s tenant mix is partly intentional and partly driven by who can pay rent in one the most expensive areas of the city, said Brian Phetteplace, senior manager of economic development for The Downtown Denver Partnership.
Phetteplace helps connect companies who want to open on 16th Street with property owners who have vacant spaces. Some of the brands he’s actively looking to get on the mall include Target and foreign fashion retailers Topshop, Zara and Muji.
“In some cases, it’s very practical to have larger, well-known stores on 16th Street Mall considering the number of service workers downtown,” Phetteplace said. “It’s convenient to have something like a T.J. Maxx close by.”
“We try to balance providing convenience and access to stores people need with tourism destinations and places to shop just for the fun of it.”
Smaller independent companies might find other spaces in the downtown area. Larimer Square maintains a unique feel with high-end, small chain restaurants like Ocean Prime and boutique shops like Eve. The recently renovated Union Station is also filling its space with Colorado companies like Tattered Cover Bookstore, Snooze and The Kitchen Next Door.
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Managing the 16th Street Mall poses a different challenge compared to places like Union Station and Cherry Creek Shopping Center.
“The Cherry Creek mall owner gets to spend thoughtful time deciding what the tenant mix of the mall is going to be,” said Daniel Miller, senior vice president with CBRE retail services.
“16th Street doesn’t have that opportunity. It becomes the responsibility of multiple property owners to decide what’s going to be acceptable.”
The mall doesn’t necessarily have to be chain-dominated or made up of Colorado companies and small boutiques, said Yuri Horowitz, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Horowitz grew up in Aspen and worked in the hospitality industry there. At Georgetown, he teaches about community engagement, emerging destinations and sustainable tourism.
“There are travelers that look for things that are similar to home and that remind them of home and that they’re comfortable with. Those people are going to seek out brands like Chili’s and restaurants they’ve heard of and are comfortable with,” Horowitz said.
“Others look for things they can only experience in the place they’re traveling. People are looking for that Instagram-able moment where they can remember whatever they’re doing.”
The Downtown Denver Partnership and the city try to create that sense of place through activities and events, not just the tenant mix that goes into vacant spots. There are free concerts, the 16th Street Fair for artists and crafters, interactive art exhibits and The Big Wonderful.
“It really comes down to maintaining a sense of place and being a unique destination that has its own character,” Horowitz said.