An online petition that asks the Denver city council to direct money away from a long-planned reconstruction of the 16th Street Mall toward the city’s school system has received a frosty reception from some council members.
“I've fallen multiple times on the 16th Street Mall — including as a councilperson — because of the broken and uneven tiling on the Mall,” said Councilman Chris Hinds. “Proper maintenance of our Mall preserves that healthy pedestrian environment and ensures that Denver's urban core remains welcoming and safe for all.”
The Change.org petition, which began two weeks ago and has nearly 2,600 signatures, asks the council to send $33 million in tax money away from the renovation project and toward Denver Public Schools.
“We are facing an educational crisis at DPS, and one that impacts 93,000 kids,” the petition reads. “65% of our kids are free and reduced lunch eligible, 67% of our kids are Black and LatinX. Our kids are the infrastructure that needs to be invested in, not the 16th Street Mall. Now is NOT the time to take money from our kids education for a tourist beautification project.”
Late last year, the federal government issued a finding of no significant environmental impact for the Mall project, and the proposed schedule has the council approving an agreement with a contractor by the end of this year.
The city’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure notes that “a poorly constructed and failing pavement system” is impairing the drainage network under the Mall, with maintenance frequently disrupting Free MallRide operations. The city will perform work on the underground piping on behalf of Denver Water, which will consist of replacing two main lines, including one that dates to the 1880s. Workers will also abate lead piping that carries water to nearby businesses.
At a June 16 Finance & Government Committee meeting, Josh Laipply, the chief projects officer for Mayor Michael Hancock, called the 16th Street Mall one of the “shining gems” compared to similar outdoor facilities, but that it currently costs $1.5 million annually to maintain the 400,000 granite pavers.
“For an asset condition, we’re not doing very well,” he said. “You can trip on pavers; pavers are slick.”
The Mall, which opened in 1982, contains five million square feet of office space and sees 14 million passengers annually on the MallRide shuttle, the Downtown Denver Partnership reports. Expanding pedestrian space and enhancing the tree canopy are other goals of the reconstruction.
"If we can leverage other people's money, I'd rather us not have liability. I'd rather us have an amenity that works," said Hinds at the meeting.
The city has secured more than $100 million in funding from various sources. More than half of the identified money is from tax increment financing, a method of generating revenue that relies on increases in property values from infrastructure improvements.
The council committee at the June 16 meeting approved an extension of the deadline from 2022 to 2027 for receiving reimbursements of the $56 million in downtown TIF money. The city expects the Mall reconstruction to finish by 2024, with additional time budgeted for warranties and public art installations.
In response to a question from Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, Tracy M. Huggins, the executive director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, said that should the council opt against extending the deadline, the city would receive approximately $23 million and DPS would receive $33 million if the money collected did not go to payments for the Mall reconstruction.
CdeBaca, who voted against the extension, asked, “Why are we choosing to move forward on this project right now instead of returning these TIF dollars to address the immediate needs of the city in a time of crisis?” She said funds would “immediately” be available for the city and schools with the extension voted down.
“They’re not immediately available. They’re available in 2½ years, roughly,” responded Laipply. Huggins clarified that an underlying contract precluded DURA from distributing the money sooner.
The DPS board of education recently cut $65 million from the system’s budget due to shortfalls from the COVID-19 pandemic. The annual budget is in excess of $1 billion. Carrie A. Olson, the board’s president, wrote in an email later posted to a Facebook education advocacy group that DPS has been in contact with the city about the implications of the council’s vote on the extension.
“As we look to consider our budget it is important to note that while one-time funds are helpful ... the reduction by the state in ongoing revenue will not be fixed with one-time revenue,” she explained.
Councilwoman Kendra Black said in response to the petition that the choice should not be between funding infrastructure and schools. Rather the district, which receives nearly $800 million in revenue from property taxes, could benefit from improvements to the Mall.
“The 1.2 mile stretch of 16th Street Mall properties contribute nearly $75M a year in property, sales, lodgers, and [business] tax revenues – including $29.9M in annual property taxes to DPS,” she wrote in an email, adding that she, her husband and her children were all graduates of DPS. “Voting against this contract – and in essence, this project — in these times forces downtown’s most popular entertainment district to fall into further disrepair, ultimately jeopardizing the city’s financial recovery and future tax revenues for DPS.”
Hinds said that he has received no request from DPS to take a position on the agreement for redirection of the TIF money. He pointed out that the public acknowledgement of safety hazards on the Mall creates liability if the city opts against following through on a remedy.
“We're interested in a positive experience for everyone throughout Denver, but even if we weren't, we should maintain the Mall because any potential lawsuit against the city arising from the Mall's maintenance would also be paid for by taxpayers,” he said. “It's a double win: we'd be doing the right thing (providing a positive experience), and we'd be avoiding doing the wrong thing (costly lawsuits and payouts).”