Mayor Hancock on downtown Denver: ‘We know what a dead downtown looks like, and this is not it’

Here’s his plan to make the city center boom: more security and public space, less graffiti and crime, new popup retail and lots of big developments.
7 min. read
A chilly day on the 16th Street Mall. March 10, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

At Thursday's downtown booster event on the 16th Street Mall, Mayor Michael Hancock went off script to blast critics who say that downtown Denver is dead.

"We know what a dead downtown looks like," he said, "and this is not it."

His remarks came a week after he joined RTD leadership and Denver Police Department Chief Paul Pazen in announcing more than 700 arrests at Union Station since the beginning of the year.

Last week, he described how the city is attempting to address a spike in crime and drug use at its major transit hub and one of its premier downtown destinations. Those plans, while ramped up, are still a work in progress.

RTD CEO Debra Johnson and Mayor Michael Hancock discuss crime at Union Station, March 30, 2022. Credit: Kyle Harris / Denverite

This week, the day before Rockies Opening Day, Hancock had a different message to share: Downtown is alive and well. Come see for yourself.

In part, he said, that's because his administration has ramped up policing and security downtown as part of his citywide safety plan. The city will also continue to support efforts to shelter unhoused people, expand Glenarm Plaza for festivals, and increase public space, he said.

As he sees it: Things are looking brighter.

Some downtown workers who worked from home during the pandemic are beginning to return. Auraria Campus students -- some 45,000 in total -- are out and about. Next week, the City will break ground on the 16th Street Mall renovation.

"The way many of us work has changed since the pandemic, and vacant office space is an opportunity," he said. "It's an opportunity to create more affordable housing for our residents and downtown workers, more neighborhood spaces for people to live, shop, gather, and again party."

For Hancock, downtown isn't just a commercial district.

"It's a neighborhood," he said. "And it should be a complete neighborhood, a central neighborhood district."

As he spoke, he was flanked by sports mascots Bernie the St. Bernard and Rocky the Mountain Lion, entrepreneurs and graffiti-artist and muralist Jolt of Guerilla Garden, the Downtown Denver Partnership's new executive director Kourtny Garrett, Rachel Benedick of Visit Denver, and other boosters of the downtown economy.

Garrett delivered a slew evidence that she said suggests downtown is rebooting: 40% of the workforce has returned at peak times, traffic is nearing pre-pandemic levels, and the city is in the top-five in the nation for the return of restaurant reservations. Sales projections, she said, are up -- at least, that's what business owners are telling her.

She cited 26 new projects -- $1 billion in new development -- that were completed or begun in 2021, including the Thompson Hotel and McGregor Square. Over 4,000 new residential units have been added since 2018 and more than 2 million square feet of office space.

"All of that momentum continues today with projects that are being planned or under construction," she said, pointing to the River Mile, the redevelopment of the Greyhound site, Sakura Square, the 16th Street Mall reconstruction and future plans for Skyline Park and Civic Center Park.

Both Garrett and Hancock touted the 5280 Trail, a five-mile trail which will give people the ability to walk, roll and bike through various central Denver neighborhoods, according to city plans.

Garrett also touted upcoming block parties, a roller skating rink, fresh landscaping and signage, and artists working live on the mall.

A mural by Jolt on a new housing project at Laradon in Globeville. Nov. 8, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The signature project of the summer will be Popup Denver, a collaboration with the City, Downtown Denver Partnership and landlords, to activate empty spaces.

"We wanted to really provide an opportunity for local businesses to help reinvent retail downtown by setting up in some of the vacant spaces right here in upper downtown," she said. "Those businesses that have been picked for the program will receive $20,000 in interior design, setup and merchandising support, as well as be able to set up, rent free, for a minimum of three months as a donation from building owners."

The first round of recipients of Popup Denver funds included Travel Posters, Guerilla Garden, IEM Designs, Tea With Tae, and the Museum for Black Girls.

Jolt, the head of Guerilla Gardens, spoke about his memories of downtown and what the project means for him.

"As a North Denver native, somebody that grew up with the culture of 16th Street Mall, I remember coming down here to Woolworths and getting pizza with my grandma," he said. "I remember being a little boy trying to figure out if Robo Mike was a robot or a man. I remember Skyline Park before Denver had these incredible skate parks, which created all these legendary skaters that came from here. I remember the B-boys and B-girls, the breakers and the buskers out on the mall and just the culture of coming downtown.

"I remember coming here from North Denver and meeting people from different neighborhoods. This was a hub for culture and community, which it still is," he continued. "What we hope to do is take what created us, the culture of Denver, something from the deep underground, the roots of this city, and being able to take it on a worldly level. We aspire now to have a flagship here in downtown Denver and to share that art, and to share where we have taken it and to also keep it right here, keep it mobile, keep it right here on the 16th Street Mall."

One part of Jolt's culture that won't be tolerated: graffiti.

Denver Police Sgt. Brian Conover speaks with a woman who approached him on Wynkoop Street by Union Station to talk about government surveillance. Sept. 1, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Garrett discussed the Downtown Denver Partnership's efforts to keep the area safe and clean.

"We're also launching the Downtown Action Team to address environmental issues, including vandalism and graffiti, as well as adding additional feet on the streets to identify and address issues and to help us support businesses," Garrett said. "More eyes and ears. More attention."

Part of that is the Clean and Safe App. Here's how its described on the app store:

Like Jolt, Hancock had his own downtown memories, too. He recalled when the economy was in a slump during the oil bust of the 1980s and people couldn't find a restaurant to make a reservation. Downtown has been in a challenging position since the beginning of the pandemic, but the area has not been as bleak as it was back then, he said.

As he sees it, downtown is thriving, echoing Garrett's claim that the city center has one of the fastest recovering economies in the country.

After all his boosting, Hancock had a message for his internet detractors: "Before you hit social media, trust and believe: There isn't anyone around here who truly believes in Denver that believes our downtown is dead. We've been through challenges, but we're not dead. And just like our Broncos found themselves on the second-yard line in 1987: 'We got 'em right where we want 'em.'

"Downtown is back," Hancock said. "Like a phoenix, we're gonna rise again."

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