The public partnership bringing Denver’s joy — and downtown — back

Daliah Singer - Mar 14, 2024

Customers were used to waiting at Yampa Sandwich Co., a Colorado-born chain that’s served Denver for more than a decade. The LoDo location—just down the street from Denver Union Station—had a constant midday line filled with workers and tourists. When the shop closed around 6 p.m., staff would often notice folks pulling on the front door, hoping they hadn’t missed the cutoff. 

That was pre-pandemic. In 2020, foot traffic and retail visits in downtown Denver plummeted. Restaurants like Yampa cut their hours, entertainment venues paused their calendars, and, over time, numerous shops closed their doors for good, including major retailers like Uniqlo

Like other major metro areas across the country, Denver’s COVID-19 recovery has been slow. Influenced in part by the rise of remote and hybrid work, the Mile High City’s office vacancy rates hit their highest number in decades in the third quarter of 2023. It’s a vicious cycle: With the offices emptier and commercial venues closing, the streets and sidewalks have become quieter, and even fewer people feel drawn to shop or visit.

But the city is stepping up to reverse the spiral. In January, Mayor Mike Johnston announced a six-point Clean and Safe Downtown Initiative, which includes some typical cleanliness and safety policies. But the plan also specifically calls for something unusual for a governmental press release: the “presence of joy.” 

One of the key ingredients of joy is, of course, people. So the Denver mayor’s office has partnered with the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) — the nonprofit business organization that advocates for the neighborhood — and local businesses to tackle components of the plan designed to bring life back to the city’s commercial core. 

To incentivize companies to return, Colorado has already rolled out comprehensive commuter tax benefits, including a tax refund of up to $125,000 per year to employers who offer “alternative” transportation options to their staff. Those include transit passes and bikeshare and rideshare arrangements with services like Lyft.

To complement that existing incentive, the mayor’s office and the DDP have begun to pursue community- and business-led events that bring fun and entertainment to the downtown area. The hope is that if people come to work or shop or experience some activity and have a joyful experience, they’ll want to return again and again. 

So far, the DDP has been working with local partners to create special events, like joining the Latino Cultural Arts Center to put on a mariachi festival in April and bringing back certain amenities, like downtown’s popular outdoor ice skating rink. The city and the DDP have also sponsored a Dynamic Downtown Denver Grant Program that has handed out 27 grants (ranging from $500 to $25,000) to help energize the neighborhood with mural projects, cultural celebrations, youth open mic nights, and more (coming this spring and summer).

But while these targeted, short-term efforts can help, the city recognizes the need to be broad in its scope and vision for longer-term results. Mayor Johnston wants to see downtown’s resurgence extend across all of its blocks and is looking for ways to invest intentionally to, as he says, “make downtown Denver not just a central business district, but a central neighborhood district.” To that end, the city’s plan includes creating more affordable housing (including for unhoused residents), childcare facilities, and pedestrian-friendly public shared spaces.  

Downtown may also get a boost when the first four blocks of the ongoing 16th Street Mall renovation—downtown’s main thoroughfare—opens later this year. (The full $172.5 million project won’t be completed until fall 2025.) “We’re bringing new space to the 16th Street Mall, more tuned toward kids with places to play and what we call moments of joy: gigantic cutthroat trout and fun, interactive art pieces people can sit on and see lights and hear music,” says Andrew Iltis, the DDP’s vice president of planning and community impact. He hopes the transformation will “get people to see downtown in a new light.”

While these improvements are still in the future, Dave Mischell, Yampa’s chief financial officer, is already seeing progress unfurl outside his shop window. “Walking around, it’s cleaner. I’m seeing less trash on the sidewalks. It feels safer. In comparison to the last year or two, [downtown is] definitely much more vibrant. These big initiatives—it’s like trying to turn a big ship. It takes a while. I’m looking forward to the fruition of it all.”