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.