The Mile High City’s 16th Street Mall is caught in an awkward rebirth. Plans for a structural revamping are attracting newcomers to the corridor, but the number of businesses forced to shutter by the pandemic-induced slowdown are a reminder that, in these uncertain economic times, even once-successful retail operations can fail.
Two and a half years after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Michael B. Hancock called the 16th Street Mall Project “a key part of downtown’s comeback.” It kicked off in April, with plans to wrap up at the end of 2024.
But the corridor has suffered a weighty loss of businesses since the first COVID-19 shutdowns. Today, closure signs remain taped to the front doors of several storefronts, including 7-Eleven at 401 16th St. Mall, Protein Bar & Kitchen at 1755 16th St. Mall and Tokyo Joe’s at 1001 16th St. Mall.
Still, others are confident enough in the 16th Street Mall’s future to plant roots, with Dragonfly Noodle recently opening and Little Finch, Sofia’s Pizza and CAVA in the process.
“It’s more important than ever that we rally behind the businesses that make downtown special and ensure they have the resources they need to thrive during construction,” said Kourtny Garrett, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership.
Business closures, openings
Nationwide chain Jason’s Deli shuttered its restaurant on the 16th Street Mall, which first opened around 2008, in August 2020.
“It was a good location for us until the COVID-19 pandemic began,” said Anne Rowland, vice president of Jason’s Deli of Colorado.
But the company was “hit hard by the government shutdowns.” Even when the mandates lifted, sales struggled to bounce back, she added, pointing to the lack of office workers downtown.
The team at Jason’s Deli made “the tough decision to declare bankruptcy and close the downtown location, along with two more of our eight locations,” she said. Now, the brand operates five restaurants in Colorado — one in Fort Collins and four in the Denver area — with recovered sales.
Sunflower Bank at 1573 Market St. shut down in April 2021. “Decreased customer visits” — spurred by a boost in online and mobile banking — prompted the decision, said spokesperson Jeanne Lipson.
The location along the mall primarily served commercial customers and a small retail presence, she added, but the bank continues to see commercial patrons in its corporate office suite on the building’s second floor.
Two retailers at Denver Pavilions shopping mall at 500 16th St. Mall also locked their doors for good: Banana Republic in September and Uniqlo last year.
As some proprietors choose to make their way out of the corridor, others have rushed in to take their places.
Dragonfly Noodle recently held the grand opening of its second restaurant at 1350 16th St. Mall on Oct. 7, said Noah Glovsky, director of operations. The first is in Boulder at 2014 10th St.
Business at the new joint is steadily increasing as the weeks go by — and that’s without concentrated social media and marketing presences, Glovsky said. Instead, they’ve attracted customers through word-of-mouth and Google reviews.
The team behind Dragonfly Noodle also operates Zoe Ma Ma, which features Chinese street food at two spots: Boulder at 2010 10th St. and Denver’s Union Station at 1625 Wynkoop St.
Glovsky described the area around the 16th Street Mall and Larimer Street as “the nexus of LoDo” — and one of Denver’s food scene hubs.
“When we saw this location, we were really, really excited about the opportunity to come back here, and also help revitalize the 16th Street Mall area,” he said, adding that the return of office workers is a bonus.
The ongoing construction has limited the restaurant’s visibility to patrons — “even from right across the street at the hotel” — so Glovsky notes his eagerness for the project’s completion.
Little Finch is planning to open at 1490 16th St. Mall in early December. Owner Mary Nguyen describes her business as “a hybrid,” serving breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks as a café by day, with wine, cocktails and desserts by night.
She considers the spot “a great first location” for Little Finch, because of the mall’s revitalization and its proximity to downtown residents.
“The LoDo area of downtown has always been a dining and drinking destination, where consumers can find anything they’re looking for — high end lunch and dinner restaurants, fast casual concepts, bars and cocktail lounges, and more,” Nguyen said.
Sofia’s Pizza is also in the process of securing a space at 1530 16th St., with a pending application for related licenses submitted to Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses. A public hearing for the application was held on Oct. 25, spokesperson Eric Escudero confirmed.
Construction is underway at 1460 16th St. for a new CAVA restaurant, which serves fast-casual Mediterranean cuisine.
“A 21st century street is a place”
Allison Berry, CBRE vice president who specializes in office leasing downtown, pointed to “a wave of new retail opening or planning to open in the vicinity of 16th and Market/Blake streets.”
CBRE, a commercial real estate services and investment firm, is leasing five office spaces, two retail projects and one office and retail property along the mall, as of Oct. 21.
“Presumably, these retailers believe that the larger sidewalks, urban tree canopy, and improved lighting provides an ideal retail environment,” Berry said. “This revitalization of retail is a bonus for office leasing efforts as employers try to motivate their employees to return to the office in greater numbers.”
JLL, another commercial real estate services company, also maintains listings along the mall, including restaurant and retail space at several locations, according to broker Sarah Alfano.
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce expects the 16th Street Mall project “will accelerate the return to downtown for tourists, families, workers and businesses.”
The pandemic’s start saw average daily users of downtown Denver fall by more than half, with more than 264,000 in April 2019 and about 49,000 one year later, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership’s High Frequency Economic Update. In 2021, the number climbed back to an average of about 145,000 daily users throughout the year, with a jump to around 183,000 this year.
“We’re all aware that the pandemic took a toll on the number of downtown users,” the chamber’s team wrote in a statement. “We hope to see continued growth and development to return us to pre-pandemic numbers and beyond.”
On an October weekday morning, a stroll down Denver’s iconic pedestrian promenade means joining a stream of tourists, office workers and people experiencing homelessness, with the background soundtrack of construction.
The mall project counts as its first major renovation since it opened in 1982, according to Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. It primarily focuses on fixing deteriorating infrastructure, but will also move the transit lanes, widen walkways for pedestrians, expand the tree canopy and more.
It impacts 13 blocks from Market to Broadway streets, with construction active from Market to Curtis streets, as of Oct. 18.
The plan unfolds in three phases: working on each block down the center of the mall for one year to 13 months, then working adjacent to the buildings for three to four months. Lastly, finishes on the mall’s center will span a final month, said department spokesperson Nancy Kuhn.
She pointed to two grants offered by the Downtown Denver Partnership and Denver’s Department of Economic Development and Opportunity that are aimed at aiding business owners throughout this time. The mitigation grant is meant “to help businesses prepare for the project and potential revenue losses,” while the stabilization grant is offered “to offset demonstrated revenue losses due to project impacts.”
So far, about 30% of eligible applicants have taken advantage of the programs, with a disbursement of over $34,000 so far.
Jason Whitlock, principal city planner of urban design at Denver Community Planning and Development, has been involved with the project for about the past six years.
“We leaned on the past quite a bit” in designing its future, Whitlock said, pointing to the corridor’s proximity to the Mile High City’s modernist and historic buildings. The pandemic also prompted the vision for the renovated mall to include both flexibility and adaptability “to make a better future for our downtown.”
Whitlock highlighted its significance to different users: residents, students, visitors and businesses. He hopes the mall will spark “moments of joy” upon its completion.
“A 21st century street is a place,” he said in a telephone interview. “Downtown is really a complete neighborhood.”