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Looking to Union Station's past, Denver hopes to bring $500 million to revitalize downtown

The idea is to extend the Downtown Development Authority, first established to fund Union Station transformations and bring millions of dollars of investments over the next 10 years into downtown.
Posted: 11:42 AM, May 09, 2024
Updated: 2024-05-10 07:33:19-04
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DENVER — Four years after the start of the pandemic, Denver Mayor Mike Johnston on Thursday announced an initiative to help revitalize downtown Denver as businesses continue to shutter as hybrid work has taken a toll on commercial vacancies and safety concerns have reduced overall foot traffic.

“Those challenges create their own doom loop. More vacancies meant less activation meant more homelessness meant more crime and meant more vacancies, meant less activation and the pattern continued,” said Johnston. “This problem is not unique to Denver, but we need a uniquely Denver solution.”

Standing outside Union Station, flanked by council members, city leaders hope to chart a new path forward for downtown by looking back at the transformation of the rail station.

The idea is to extend the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), first established to fund Union Station transformations and bring millions of dollars of investments over the next 10 years into downtown.

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“It was designed to capture additional revenue that was generated from incremental tax revenue that came after the Union Station effort was launched. That incremental revenue comes back to invest in infrastructure,” said Johnston. “

If approved by council and the DDA board, the taxing authority would extend beyond Union Station into the broader downtown area to finance improvements.

“We will extend the Downtown Denver Authority, a financing stream that was put into place to support the infrastructure and vision for Union Station,” said Johnston. “If we successfully activate that tool, that will allow us to invest more than $500 million into the investment in downtown.”Johnston said the investments would come to downtown without new taxes.

“This is a taxing authority that was in place to finance the infrastructure on Union Station and we would extend the footprint of that authority to cover all of the central business district, which means businesses could opt in that region and we could make investments in that entire region,” said Johnston.

The proposed expansion of the DDA investment area stretches around 6 blocks from 14th Street across to 20th Street and south of Union Station from around Wynkoop Street to Colfax Avenue.Portions of North Broadway to N. Grant Street would also be included in the expansion.

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Proposed expansion of Downtown Development Authority

The mayor hopes to extend the DDA to an additional 15 years, but it would take three steps to make the change, starting with action from Denver’s City Council.“The council will lead an effort for a vote to ratify and extend the Downtown Denver Authority and will work with commercial and residents in the initial footprint to approve that extension,” said Johnston.

Following council approval, the board of the DDA would need to make an official decision to extend the boundaries beyond Union Station followed by approval from the initial group of electors that established the DDA footprint 15 years ago.

That vote by a group or residents and businesses to extend the boundaries would happen in November.

If those three steps happen, the mayor said funds could be redirected next year.

“If all of those are successful, by the end of 2024 we will be prepared to start making investments in the first quarter of 2025 to turn this into what will be the most vibrant downtown neighborhood in America,” said Johnston.A website will launch on Thursday seeking input from residents across Denver on what improvements Denverites would like to see in downtown.

“This campaign will start with a conversation with downtown residents, starting today we will go public with a website on which every Denverite can chime in with their own hopes and dreams for what they want from downtown,” said Johnston. “That would result in a criteria for investment that would come out at the end of this year that would guide the investment we would make in downtown,”

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The mayor said he hopes the funds would create more housing, childcare options and bring Denverites back to downtown.

“We want to create magnetic, public spaces where people want to come and enjoy their time – some of what you see in places like Larimer Square where you have great, vibrant businesses – you have outdoor activations, you have recreational and pedestrian access,” said Johnston. “We want to help convert some of the existing commercial spaces that may be underutilized into residential opportunities,”

Denver7 in February reported on several downtown businesses that closed their doors including Three Saints Revivial, Avelina's Kitchen and Bar and Ana's Norweigian Bakeri.

Owner Ana Fankara said her business was forced to shut down three months after its grand opening due to what she cited as insufficient foot traffic during the winter.

“February 3rd was our official last day... I closed at noon that day because we had made less than $100. And that, I think, says a lot,” Fanakra said. “It was a consistent issue.”

While crime and homelessness were often cited as reasons fewer people come to downtown Denver, Fankara told Denver7 neither were factors in her decision to close the business. Instead, she blamed a long permitting process that pushed back the bakery's open to November of 2023.

She said she felt her business would have survived if it opened during the hustle and bustle of the summer months.

Mayor Johnston announces $500 million plan to revitalize downtown Denver

Denver7 reported in February 2024 that Denver had a net loss of 11% of its restaurants between July 2022 and July 2023, according to data from he Colorado Restaurant Association. That loss translated to 222 restaurants that closed across Denver.

By comparison, before the pandemic, Denver typically showed 3% to 5% restaurant growth each year.

Despite the loss of restaurants, Kourtney Garrett, executive director of the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) said data showed an increase of weekly foot traffic to downtown Denver since 2021.

“The last 18 months have almost been a tale of two cities,” Garrett told Denver7. “We see these positive trends, yet we know that the environment still is not what it was pre-pandemic, particularly in the retail and food and beverage industry, which is already a difficult industry to begin with. We do see that there’s a continued challenge.”

Over 30,000 fewer employees were working in downtown Denver in early 2024 when compared to 2019, according to data from DDP.

The drop translated from 83,785 average weekday employees down to 50,300.

On the desire for housing in downtown Denver, The DDP said "demand for downtown and city center apartments remains strong," heading into the early part of 2024. It said there were 66 more occupied apartments in downtown and 141 more in Center City in January when compared to December 2023.

An interesting way to track people returning to downtown areas across the country has been to analyze cellphone usage post pandemic.

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The University of Toronto released data analyzing 64 cities in North America which showed 50 cities had increased cellphone usage from March 2023 to March 2024.

While Minneapolis, Chicago, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Jose, Boston and Washington DC showed double-digit increases in phone usage - and ranked in the top 10 cities analyzed, Denver ranked at #28 on the list with a 13.6% increase in year-over-year cellphone usage.

Johnston said downtown Denver has been slower to rebound from the pandemic than other parts of the metro.

The DDA, first created in 2008, raised over $400 million in revenue through property and sales taxes collected near Union Station and Market Street Station, according to the city.

Without the expansion of the DDA, the current structure would continue to only support investments around Union Station.

“We know we cannot have a thriving Denver without a thriving downtown. We can’t have a thriving Colorado without a thriving Denver. We cannot have a Rocky Mountain west that thrives without a thriving Colorado,” added Johnston. “Which means the economic recovery of 10 states starts in this neighborhood.”

A new million-dollar plan to transform downtown Denver

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