That the 16th Street Mall is I.M. Pei and Partners only linear landscape? And, the granite pavers are laid in a pattern intended to resemble the scales on a diamond-back snake?
The idea to create a mall on 16th street in Denver began as early as 1959, but was not given serious consideration until 1971. Following years of planning and construction, the 16th Street Mall, designed by the internationally renowned architectural firm I.M. Pei & Partners of New York, opened on October 4, 1982 to a crowd of over 200,000 people. The main features of I.M. Pei’s design include poly-chromatic granite pavers, wide sidewalks, and a central tree lined corridor flanked by iconic lighting fixtures. Now, decades later, the 16th Street Mall has evolved into the veritable “heart and soul” of downtown Denver and a top visitor attraction in the metropolitan area. Its free shuttles serve an average of 55,000 commuters and tourists per day, creating significant wear and tear that jeopardize the original design and materials. However, in May 2008 a panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute declared the 16th Street Mall to be “public art of the highest international quality,” and strongly urged Denver to fix, not physically modify, the Mall.
In recent weeks the 16th Street Mall has been in the news. Reports have shined a light upon our city center, highlighting incidents involving crime and diminished quality of life issues. At the same time the 16th Street Mall is also the subject of positive efforts. A new study and planning effort is currently underway, conducted by Gehl Architects and supported by the City of Denver and partners. Additionally, a new lighting project funded by the City of Denver, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, and the Downtown Denver Partnership will replicate the iconic original light fixtures with enhanced lighting capabilities. Social events on the Mall like “Meet in the Street,” which have been held the past few years, are again taking place several weekends this summer.
Unfortunately, despite these planning efforts, which will result in long-term recommendations for the 16th Street Mall and determine what changes may be necessary or desirable, RTD has independently elected to revisit the idea of replacing the granite pavers with concrete, undertaking a Section 106 historic review over the next several months in which Historic Denver has been participating as a consulting party.
This is not the first time that 16th Street has been at crossroads between the realities of the present and the potential of the future. Ever since the City of Denver expanded beyond Larimer Street and the Cherry Creek, 16th Street has been the backbone of the city’s development. It has been a thread of commerce, retail, and restaurants that connected Denver Union Station to our State Capitol. But by the 1970s, this central spine was struggling both economically and socially. The City’s leaders from City Council, RTD, and the Downtown Denver Partnership (then called The Denver Partnership, Inc.) realized that a grand idea was needed to restore the street to its former glory.
The 16th Street Mall, with its high quality design, transit capacity and unifying function, was the grand idea. After a decade of planning, and two years of design and construction, the 16th Street Mall opened on October 4, 1982 to great fanfare and a crowd of over 200,000. Designed by internationally acclaimed team of architects Henry Cobb, I.M. Pei, and landscape architect Laurie Olin, the 16th Street Mall was masterfully created to connect the City’s two modernist gems at the time, Zeckendorf Plaza (completed by I.M. Pei in 1960) and Skyline Park (completed by renowned landscape architect, Lawrence Halprin in 1976). Today, of these three modernist designs, only the 16th Street Mall remains.
The Mall was designed as a cohesive whole. Its pattern, inspired by southwestern imagery — including the Navajo rug and a diamondback rattlesnake — was intended to dissipate as it stretched toward its edges in order to not distract from the building façades or retail displays within. The pattern, consisting of granite tiles in charcoal gray from Minnesota, light gray from Massachusetts, and Colorado red, helped to ground the surface and reduce material monotony, which can plague streetscape interventions of this size. The lighting was designed to complement the honey locusts and red oaks planted precisely within the field of the paving pattern. The trees provide a highly formalized nod to the natural surroundings both within and near the City, while the lighting provides a unified glow along the promenade that was intended to fade and brighten according to the daily rising and falling of the sun. Each design element on the Mall was special and inter-connected, making planning and problem-solving on the mall particularly complex.
For this reason the mall has sometimes been described as a “Swiss watch.” In 2008, an Urban Land Institute study commissioned by RTD, the Downtown Denver Partnership and the City of Denver proclaimed that “the Mall is a unified concept and public art of the highest international quality.” The panel explained that “the lighting, landscaping and paving all form part of a single unit” and that any changes “must be made cautiously and with full respect for the original design.” It even went on to state that “the panel recognizes the need to address challenges posed by deferred maintenance and failed construction technologies; nevertheless, upgrades and repairs should be made with full respect for the original design.”
The ULI study was further supported by the outcomes of the 16th Street Mall planning process, a robust and transparent public process that took place in 2009-10, co-chaired by Bill James, Bob Kochevar and Bruce James. This process included a detailed technical assessment of the mall’s infrastructure, where a Steering Committee of stakeholders and several expert consultants, including Historic Denver, drilled into the details, assessing the mall and evaluating alternatives. More than 3,600 members of the public participated in the effort. At the conclusion of this process there was wide consensus regarding the importance of the Mall’s overall design, including the granite pavers, recognizing that the Mall is an irreplaceable legacy project. As a direct result of that two year public process, the Mall’s three leading stakeholders – RTD, the City, and the Downtown Denver Partnership – committed to a rehabilitation plan for the Mall.
The decision to reconsider a concrete alternative for the Mall is contradictory to all the previous studies and recommendations, both public and private, and comes at an especially awkward time. It follows an almost two year committee process, of which Historic Denver was a part, to begin the rehabilitation of the Mall. Started in 2013, this project intended to rehabilitate two and a half blocks of the Mall while also upgrading the neighboring intersections. In a parallel process, the Gehl study began in 2015 and has continued this year. Their final report, 16th Street Mall: Small Steps Towards Big Change, recommends the approach of “measure, test, and refine” for the Mall in order to show incremental improvements over the short, middle, and long-term. The recommendations of the report are aimed at providing different experiences along the mall, new transportation choices, lively edges between public and private space, and wider investment. The process would test improvements and either reject, refine, or permanently adopt them, being careful to avoid any major changes that later prove to be unsuccessful.
Historic Denver supports the careful analysis going on now to understand the Mall’s challenges, and remains open to a variety of possible modifications and creative solutions to solve both physical, environmental and social concerns. However, we remain steadfast in our assertion that the mall’s three essential components, the granite pavers, the light fixtures and the trees, are historically and architecturally significant and give the space a sense of quality that will be very difficult to replicate. We have urged RTD to slow down their plans to pursue concrete, and believe that no decision about the Mall’s materiality should be made until the holistic study of the mall is complete and the community has a full sense of the choices that will need to be made.
As many of you know, Historic Denver has been actively involved in the planning process for the 16th Street Mall for several years. In 2010, the Downtown Denver Partnership, along with a Steering Committee of community leaders, city staff, and RTD representatives, released the findings of a technical assessment, which evaluated the mall’s infrastructure and options for rehabilitation.
The result of this study was a recommendation to retain the iconic granite pavers, and to use a two-pronged approach that includes cleaning those in the pedestrian walkways and actually removing, flipping and reinstalling those in the transit-ways, where the wear and tear is greater.
After the completion of the technical assessment the Steering Committee launched a planning process to evaluate the mall’s design and make recommendations on its rehabilitation, all with the aim of making the mall successful for another thirty years.
The Steering Committee and a consulting team then presented three design alternatives. Historic Denver participated in the public meetings and preservation stakeholder sessions on these options, evaluating how to best honor the mall’s significant original design while allowing for desired evolution over time.
This evaluation led Historic Denver to identify the features of the mall that are most integral to its original design and most important to retain. These include:
1) The “carpet-runner” of granite pavers designed to mimic a rattle-snakes back
2) The unique lighting fixtures
3) The pattern of interspersed trees
Because of the importance of these elements, Historic Denver formally endorsed Design Option 1, as presented by the Steering Committee in a letter submitted to the Partnership on June 24, 2010.
Historic Denver 's board reached this decision because we felt Option 1 best respects the mall’s essential and iconic elements, as well as the mall’s varied symmetrical/asymmetrical block structure. Option 1 also leaves room to modify the furnishing plan, improve universal access and upgrade the design and use of the corners where the mall meets the side-streets so that retail upgrades can be accommodated.
On July 23, 2010 the Steering Committee also voted to recommend Design Option 1, based in large part of the extensive public feedback indicating preference for the current block pattern.
On February 5, 2009 the 16th Street Mall was named to Colorado Preservation, Inc.'s Endangered Places Program. Historic Denver nominated the mall last fall due to concerns about the future of the granite pavers, which have suffered significant deterioration. The Endangered Places program was launched in 1997 with the purpose of identifying historic sites throughout Colorado that are in danger of being lost. Modeled after the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, Colorado's Endangered Places program has been touted by the Trust as one of the best in the nation. Since its inception, the program has won the Stephen H. Hart award from the Colorado Historical Society and has been designated as an official Save America's Treasures project. The program has generated interest, recognition and funding for over one-hundred-twenty sites around the state, and has provided intensive technical assistance to seventy-four sites that have made the program's Most Endangered Places List.
Now in its thirteenth year, the purpose of the annual Colorado's Most Endangered Places List is to build awareness of and assistance for endangered historic places. Of the seventy-four places named to the list from 1998-2009, fourteen have been saved, thirty-five have experienced forward progress in the form of rehabilitation, stabilization, protection, preservation planning and/or assessment. Of the other eighteen, twenty-two remain in alert and three have been lost. For more information on the Endangered Places program and to learn of the other 2009 sites, visit Colorado Preservation Inc.