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#10: Democratic National Convention

Number 10 in our countdown of “Denver’s Top 10 Urbanism Achievements of the Aughts” is Denver’s hosting of the Democratic National Convention. As events go, hosting a national political convention is pretty big. Certainly not Olympic big, but bigger than, say, hosting the Superbowl. Add in the historic significance of Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee, and for one week in August 2008, Denver was in the national and, sort of, international spotlight. Hosting an event like the DNC had its risks. Bad weather, terrorist attacks, rioting protesters, poor planning and/or logistical execution, technical failures… the list is long of the things that could have gone wrong that would have, at a minimum, tarnished the city’s reputation. Instead, a week of perfect weather, a sparkling downtown dotted by construction cranes, and a virtually flawless execution of the entire event sent our guests off with a positive perception of Denver as a beautiful, modern, can-do city, and gave us, hopefully, the inspiration and confidence to continue pursuing big goals.

Additionally, the DNC give us a glimpse of what it will be like when we have another 100,000 people living and working in the Downtown area. The DNC demonstrated that what makes for a great city is not just clean streets and handsome buildings but people, lots of them, and the energy they create through their assembly and interaction. Downtown Denver was teeming with people. I’m sure many of you who spent time Downtown during the DNC contemplated the same thing I did: What if it was like this all the time? The DNC gave us the opportunity to experience Downtown’s future and to understand the benefits and challenges that come along with having such a density of people and activity.

The other thing the DNC illuminated for us about Downtown Denver is the blessing and the curse of the 16th Street Mall. Yes, Downtown was teeming with people, but about 95% of them were concentrated along the Mall. The Mall functions as a mile-long public space that extends its positive attributes across Downtown as a linear path rather than focusing it in one location as a node. That can be a good thing, as it puts all of Downtown Denver within just a few blocks of the Mall’s positive influence. But the 16th Street Mall also hogs most of the attention (and people) from the rest of Downtown. During that busy week, as I walked within the stream of humanity along the Mall, I observed the empty sidewalks of the cross streets and thought to myself: Why would I want to walk down there? There were a few exceptions where the sidewalks off the 16th Street Mall were busy, like in Lower Downtown and around the Convention Center and Performing Arts Complex, but we really must focus our attention over the next 20 years on “spreading the wealth” among all of Downtown Denver when it comes to attractive sidewalks and interesting ground-floor uses that draw and engage people. Fortunately, that is exactly the thrust of the 2007 Downtown Area Plan and other initiatives like Denver Living Streets and the Pedestrian Priority Zone. And when the next wave of development happens, replacing Downtown’s surface parking lots with people-attracting buildings and activities will bring us even closer to the day when we can say: It’s like this all the time.

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6 Comments

  1. Ralph says:

    Also downtown’s streets were jammed with cars making driving through the core much less attractive. A nice negative incentive for people to leave their cars at home.

  2. MyMileHi says:

    Excellent ideas Ken! I too was interested in the affects of the DNC on downtown just as much as the politics. I spent about three afternoons downtown during that week and it was really exciting to see all of the activity. The weather was gorgeous too! Unfortunately, I missed out on the night scene, but I heard that it was incredible.

  3. I’ve been on exile in Tbilisi and noticed the Georgian city style very similar to the Denver style. There are one or two main central avenues in the city, they’re both about 5 miles long, rich and solid with urban development, but going away from them, they just get more and more dilapidated. It’s the same in many of the villages outside. The city building would follow parallel to the river, and just develop along a street, so as no one would be too far from the river, and there would be no real square designs. On the plus side, though it might not be walkable, but there’s also very little need for traffic lights!

  4. MarkB says:

    Imagine this: a full-block square in the heart of the city, with 16th Street as one of its borders. Had such a public square been in place for the DNC it would have been the perfect spot to stage events, see and be seen, etc.

    We actually had this once: Court House Square, between 16th, 15th, Tremont and Court. After the old court house was torn down in 1933 and before William Zeckendorf bought the land and turned it into a full-block parking lot for several years until building a department store on in the late 1950s, it was a public park, complete with mature trees (planted when the court house was built in the 1880s), lawns, and a reflecting pool. Obviously today it would have needed an update for more intensive use, but it was surrounded by office buildings, small hotels, shops, and the YWCA.

    Let’s hope that once RTD moves on, the block that currently houses Market Street Station can be re-fashioned into a great urban square.

  5. Charles says:

    MarkB, we don’t need a square– we already have Civic Center Park. Yes, it has plenty of problems, but it’s nice to see that work on it is being done. It’s such a beautiful part of the city that will begin to serve as the heart of the city once it’s cleaned up.

  6. BeyondDC says:

    Civic Center Park doesn’t serve the same function that a Market Square would. Civic Center is too isolated. With Market Square you’d be getting a node right in the heart of the main activity area of downtown.

    Even if they did serve the same function though, Civic Center and Market Square are a mile apart! That may not be far from behind the windshield of a car, but it’s a different universe for pedestrians.