Denver residents tend to agree that the 16th Street Mall is due for an upgrade, but some debate has swirled around whether now — amid a pandemic and an economic crisis — is the right time to move forward with a major and long-planned makeover.
Nearing 11 p.m. Monday and after more than an hour of discussion, the Denver City Council decided it is.
The council extended the deadline from 2022 to 2027 for receiving reimbursements of the $56 million in funding secured from tax increment financing, a mechanism of generating revenue from future taxes on a property to pay for its improvements. The city has secured more than $100 million overall through various funding streams to renovate the nearly 40-year-old mall.
The plan includes repairing the run-down, problematic pavement and eliminating the median to expand the sidewalks on either side of the street. The city will also plant more trees along the Mall and replace a centuries-old water line.
In an 11-1 vote, with Councilwoman At Large Debbie Ortega absent, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca of District 9 was the sole dissenting vote. Her decision aligned with the more than 3,000 people who have signed a Change.org petition to redirect $33 million in tax money from the renovation project and funnel it into the Denver Public Schools system, whose budget was recently slashed by $65 million to help cushion the blow of the coronavirus pandemic.
CdeBaca insisted that the TIF dollars should be used to address the “immediate needs” of the city. But Tracy M. Huggins, executive director of Denver Urban Renewal Authority, clarified that the funds would not be available for about 2 ½ years due to an underlying contract that precludes DURA from distributing the money before Dec. 31, 2022.
The city’s transportation department reports that the Mall generates $46 million a year in property tax, with nearly $30 million going toward DPS annually. By improving the Denver business district’s main street, the agency maintains, the long-term gain from increased property-tax revenues will “far exceed” any gain in the short term.
Sources familiar with the issue say there was also a lack of clear interest from the DPS administration to have the funds returned. No DPS official spoke in Monday night’s meeting, nor the week prior when the agreement was up for a first reading.
DPS spokesperson Winna MacLaren told Westword that DPS did not have an official position, but that individual board members were in contact with council members.
The council — a handful of whom said they had “skin in the game” with kids at DPS or being DPS alumni — overwhelmingly agreed that because of the more than two-year wait, the Mall’s “poorly constructed and failing pavement system,” as the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure notes, has remained a safety hazard and liability and should therefore be prioritized.
Councilman Chris Hinds, who represents District 10 in which the Mall sits, uses a wheelchair and says he has fallen “multiple times … because of the broken and uneven tiling on the Mall.”
Councilman Kevin Flynn, who represents District 2 in southwest Denver, maintained that the renovation — which has been planned over a 10-year period — is “needed, and in a time of recession and high unemployment, it provides good-paying skilled trades jobs to working families.”
If council had voted the DURA amendment down Monday, Flynn said it would be “another decade before the funding sources could be assembled again, if at all, while the mall would continue to deteriorate past its 50th year of service.”
Furthermore, Flynn and several other council members pointed out, $20 million in federal funds have been secured “only after substantial struggle and conflict with suburban counties and jurisdictions at the Denver Regional Council of Governments, who wanted those funds to go outside Denver.” By rejecting the DURA amendment, council members said, the federal dollars would be lost and Denver’s credibility for future needed improvement projects could be jeopardized by its decision to down a project in the final hour.
Additionally, they argue, Denver Water would not be able to renovate the 1880s water line that runs under 16th Street, and the Regional Transportation District’s $12.8 million contribution to the 16th Street Mall project through two Federal Transit Administration grant awards would also be lost.
Paul Vranas, a DPS parent who started the online petition, wrote on Facebook following the Monday night vote:
“8 community members bravely showed up to speak at City Council, 3,000 of you signed our change.org petition, multiple newspaper articles were published. City Council asked DPS to attend and literally no one showed up. It was a huge embarrassment for DPS.”