Après ski meets street art: 2020 gave Denver “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to refresh urban culture
Life After COVID
Part 1: Some pandemic-induced changes may persist
Part 2: Work-at-home will stay in play long after the pandemic recedes
Today, we look at how the pandemic has changed the way we use Denver streets.
2020 forced Denver to catch its breath.
It’s not something the Mile High City is used to, having gained record ground in the last decade as population, arts renown, tourism and outside investment soared. But amid the global pandemic and civic unrest, Denverites — especially in the urban core, and robbed of indoor culture — overwhelmingly embraced their parks, patios, bike paths and outdoor murals.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine what we mean by the public realm,” said Laura Aldrete, executive director of Denver’s Community Planning and Development office. “When we talk about right-of-way we think about cars, but this really is about bringing the pedestrian back into that space. We should own it.”
While Denver has long been known as an active, outdoor city, 2020’s restrictions and new routines changed daily life here in ways that could become permanent — and in some cases need to be, according to some civic leaders.
“We’ve tended to look at 2020 as this lost year,” said Gary Steuer, president of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation. “But there’s a lot in terms of urbanism, culture and community that’s actually been positive. And parallel to the conversation around racial equity, we don’t want to go back to normal here.”
As people stuck closer to home, busy downtown roads and streets around major parks sprouted barriers to welcome dog walkers, toddlers and scooter-riders. Tents and plastic bubbles from restaurants with après ski-style perks foregrounded murals ranging from abstract corporate wallpaper to slain Black Lives Matter icons. Social justice protests and encampments of unhoused people snaked through it all, underlining the city’s inequity.
Steuer, whose foundation funded nearly $1.5 million for Denver arts and culture nonprofits in 2020 (not including its normal grantmaking), said that just as Denver restaurants and bars imported après ski-style culture, Denver’s shared streets program, which the city officially started eight months ago, showed the immediate promise of more accessible, less car-centric urban model.
“The reality is that we’ve seen a huge increase in pedestrians and cyclists using the outdoors for commuting, shopping and recreation,” he said. “How do we do that in a more thoughtful, permanent way?”
Denver could learn from the Aspen Institute’s attractive wooden planters, which barricade pedestrian paths on its sprawling grounds, but swivel for trucks and cars. Or Vail Village, where single-lane streets have opened up more pedestrian and biking spaces on either side. Messaging about what’s open and what isn’t, which Denver hasn’t always done well, will be critical, Steuer said.
If Denver officials decide to fully reopen East 11th Avenue or East 16th Street to cars, or the dining- and market-friendly closures on Larimer Street in LoDo and RiNo in the coming months, the loss of that reclaimed space may be permanent, some fear.
“We are wrestling for the soul of our city,” City Councilman Chris Hinds told The Denver Post in September.
Following a request from Hinds and his fellow council members in May, Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration agreed to keep the shared streets open through the winter before deciding what to do next. On Dec. 23, city officials said that some signs designating the shared streets will soon be swapped out with heavier, water-filled barriers and other obstacles that snowplows can more easily maneuver around.
Widespread residential support for the program — despite variances, emergency rights-of-way and zoning laws that must be satisfied — has encouraged Colorado’s largest business improvement district to champion it, too.
“We are having a major cultural shift in what it means to be an outdoor city,” said Tami Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership. “But the reason we’ve been able to transition so fast is because we’re implementing these pilot ideas that have been tried out the last couple of years. It’s an acceleration of where it was already headed.”
Business owners on Larimer Square, which was sold this month for $92.5 million to out-of-state investors, are hoping to keep their block of restaurants and boutiques closed to car traffic — which has been the case since June. Larimer Square is the city’s first historic district, protected by ordinance since 1971, and home to 22 historic buildings.
With a robust outdoor-winter culture influenced by mountain ski villages, Denver businesses have learned that even freezing temperatures don’t have to dampen outdoor dining and drinking. Holiday markets in Civic Center park and Cherry Creek North offered plenty of elbow room — and bars with fortifying beverages — for local artisans and shoppers. And drive-in or drive-to (as opposed to drive-thru) cultural experiences turned parking lots and flatbed trailers into haunted houses, drag shows and indie-rock concerts in the metro area.
No one believes that sorting through what works and what doesn’t will be easy. The city center’s 140,000 office workers will need to return in large numbers to jump-start downtown’s economic engine. Planners know that many won’t, however, owing to remote work policies that suddenly make more economic sense.
That worries Ballpark neighborhood resident Demetria Tarabulski, 30. It’s a short commute to her job at Number 38 social hall in the River North Art District, but Tarabulski feels less secure than at any point since she moved to Denver from Philadelphia 13 years ago.
“That shooting in June changed my perspective,” said Tarabulski, who lives across from the 2900 block of North Huron Street, where a man shot and killed 21-year-old Isabella Thallas over a dog-poop dispute June 10. The crime shocked the neighborhood and left Tarabulski wondering if pandemic and racial tensions had combined into an ugly new look for Denver.
“I just don’t feel as safe to go out, go the grocery store and live my normal life,” she said. “I used to love the nightlife and live music, so I do hope we can get back to that. I don’t think we’ll ever completely go back to what we had before.”
2020’s tourism implosion, which followed years of record tourism growth in Denver, has left parts of the city feeling empty. In 2019, Denver welcomed 17.7 million overnight visitors, including both convention travelers and tourists, who spent $6 billion in the metro area in the form of meals, drinks, transportation and lodging.
Since the beginning of March, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than $500 billion in cumulative losses for the U.S. travel economy, or a loss of about $1.75 billion per day, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Denver tourism boosters have been mum about the city’s losses, but the outlook remains grim for the near future. Last month, a six-month streak of Colorado job gains ended with weak winter tourism hiring, with additional losses expected as tighter restrictions start to weigh more heavily on the economy.
The quiet is palpable, some Denver natives say, reminding them of the way the city felt in the 1980s. During that decade, Colorado lost 48,000 jobs due to successive recessions in 1982 and 1984. Could the gritty Denver of Jack Kerouac still be alive under all these yoga studios and juice bars?
“The ghost town feeling of present-day Denver provided for many surprising delights: beers in the parking lot behind the Nob Hill Inn, Vine Street Pub’s sidewalk grill, La Fiesta’s familiar patio,” wrote Colin St. John, a former Denver Post contributor, of his regular walks around the city. “I rarely feel unsafe here, but there was something very much like a (bad version of) ‘Back to the Future II’ about it.”
“I had great expectations of enjoying downtown activities, festivals, concerts and dining,” said Jill Squyres, 60, who moved from the Vail Valley to Arvada in March. “Thanks to Covid, it’s just been easier to veg at home and wait for things to open up again.”
To revive downtown, planners will need to hold 2020’s pedestrian-friendly ground while rethinking how the city flows, experts believe. Any redesign of public spaces, from commercial plazas to brewery patios and playgrounds, will need to make them more accessible and resilient to catastrophe, downtown leader Door said.
“Experiential retail,” outdoor craft- and farmer’s markets, and experiments such as the Acoma Street Project — an outdoor nightclub with reserved tables, just off South Broadway — point other ways forward.
“It has to be a good fit for people and businesses,” said Community Planning director Aldrete. “But the goal is to make these places to be, not move through. The question is, how are these business districts going to come back after their employees worked from home for so long? That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Reclaiming streets in the same way preservationists reclaimed historic buildings slated for demolition in the late 1960s and ’70s also means offering affordable housing, safe transportation and food options for every Denver neighborhood, she added. That’s a complicated process involving both public and private industries, and lots of money.
The stakes are high, but the solution is not to abandon the idea of a city altogether, Door said.
“The psyche of a community is determined by a lot of these public gathering spaces, whether it’s at a cultural event or art show or just walking around a city,” she said. “What keeps a city mentally healthy is the opportunity to gather and interact with people outside of your social circle, (and) to keep connections fluid and refreshed. That’s what cities provide.”
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