The 16th Street Mall will likely never be what it was pre-pandemic and Denver doesn't want it to be.
Activity in Downtown Denver is 59% of what it was pre-COVID as it led to problems such as high crime, low foot traffic and businesses vacating.
Among the empty storefronts on 16th Street Mall, new businesses are popping up. It's part of an effort to create a "new" downtown.
Baking is in Ana Fanakra's blood.
"I come from a long line of bakers and it's just natural to me, I love doing it," said Ana Fanakra, owner of Ana's Norwegian Bakery.
That's why the Norwegian transplant opened her bakery in Centennial in 2021.
"The quintessential Norwegian pastry, it's what you miss when you're not in Norway," Fanakra said.
This summer, she'll open a second location on 16th Street Mall.
"I know once you smell it, you're gonna wanna see it and once you see it, you're gonna wanna eat it," said Fanakra, from inside her future bakery space. "They'll line up here, get their pastries or look at the display cases, and then check out here."
Fanakra's bakery is one of a few businesses hand-picked to join the mall with no rent for six months, in the second round of "Pop-Up Denver" activations.
The hope is to mitigate the impacts of construction on the mall and the pandemic, while helping businesses get a foothold.
"This time around we're really focused on reimagining downtown, creating that neighborhood feel," said Sarah Wievenson, economic development director for the Downtown Denver Partnership.
It's part of a larger effort to revitalize downtown, after COVID brought much of the workforce home.
"We're close to 60% return to office but we don't anticipate that will come back to 100% over time. We would rather be proactive and reimagine downtown as a neighborhood," Wievenson said. "Slowly transitioning from a central business district to a central neighborhood district."
But MSU professor, Darrin Duber-Smith, says the efforts don't address the root cause of problems downtown.
"Nobody likes to live and work in a place where they don't feel safe," Duber-Smith said.
He lived a block from the mall for 12 years.
"I'd say half of the restaurants that were here are gone. The boutique shopping is pretty much nonexistent," Duber-Smith said.
He says businesses left the mall because crime and homelessness, which have decreased foot traffic. It's a trend that's been happening since before the pandemic, but COVID only made it worse.
So, what does Duber-Smith think it would take for businesses to come back to 16th Street Mall?
"Police, security, private security," Duber-Smith said. "You have to have a presence that deters the crime from happening in the first place."
After some businesses in the first round of Pop-Up Denver left due to safety concerns, the program says they're prioritizing security this time around.
"We're providing funding for cameras, for security systems, even speakers with music can help deter behavior," Wievenson said.
Fanakra says she's not worried about safety on the mall and won't be hiring private security.
"I think the focus has been on the bad stuff and not the good things and I'm excited to bring back something that's gonna focus on the good things," Fanakra said.
When construction wraps up on 16th Street (Wievenson says that will hopefully happen by the end of 2024), Denver hopes the area will have more bike lanes, trees, and places for people to congregate. It's all part of creating that "neighborhood" feel.
The Downtown Denver Partnership is also working to convert empty downtown office space into housing.
As part of Pop-Up Denver, the organization also has a workshop with 30 retail businesses to prepare them for a collective it hopes to launch downtown.
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