- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

DENVER (AP) - A trio of ambitious and likely pricey plans under development in Denver city offices could transform its prized performance complex and could add new downtown parks.

The projects, in the early stages of planning, focus on revamping the aging Denver Performing Arts Complex and taking stock of downtown’s underused parks, while eyeing spots for new urban green space where apartments and condos are going up.

Planning officials also want to transform the 16th Street Mall - seen as the spine of downtown - into more of a destination akin to New York’s Times Square or Copenhagen’s Stroget pedestrian street, where downtown residents and tourists alike linger rather than simply pass through.

Mayor Michael Hancock, about to start his second term in July, has charged his administration with shaking the cobwebs off some of the city’s most valuable civic spaces, all of them dating to a time when downtown’s lights went out after the workday.

Today, nearly 70,000 people live in city center neighborhoods, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership.

“What we’re attempting to do here this time is to really create better connectivity,” Hancock said.

He said he would like to see ways to increase use of the arts complex, now a ghost town during daylight hours, or possibly renovate the complex’s buildings to make room for a new hotel to serve the Colorado Convention Center across the street.

The undertakings, while building on earlier downtown plans that haven’t fully been carried out, have the potential to set a legacy during Hancock’s second term.

The city is developing them just as Hancock launches another big effort in the decade-long National Western Center plan to expand and re-energize the Stock Show campus.

None of the three downtown-centric ventures is far enough along to have a price tag attached or funding sources pinned down.

But they could draw heavily on public-private partnerships, city officials say, leveraging developer dollars to help cover big costs, similar to how the Regional Transportation District renovated Union Station.

Taxpayers wouldn’t be off the hook, though. They might be asked to pay their portion through voter-approved borrowing in two or three years, Hancock said, or the city could tap into downtown development tax funds.

Downtown advocates say such uncertainties are worth navigating.

“It’s a new way of looking at our downtown and activating our entire downtown - and not just thinking about our downtown in the traditional way, in that the 16th Street Mall is just for shopping and parks are just for picnicking,” said John Desmond, the Downtown Denver Partnership’ executive vice president for downtown environment.

The projects also aim to capture information about public perceptions of downtown and to develop ways to integrate their goals with one another, and also with concurrent projects going on in the area. Those include a potential “festival street” along 21st Street near Coors Field and RTD’s plans to revamp its grimy Civic Center Station.

The arts complex redo could spur the most direct relationship with private developers. City officials hope to bring a larger and more diverse crowd to the 40-year-old complex, while updating some of its buildings and infrastructure.

Denver Arts & Venues began thinking big after a more narrow project to update Boettcher Concert Hall that would have used voter-approved bond money fell apart last year.

Possibilities for revamping the space full-time include developing new theater spaces, which could accommodate smaller and more contemporary performance groups, and adding retail and residential space that would draw people around the clock.

Developers are already showing interest and their financial involvement might help subsidize the cost of new cultural amenities, officials say.

Planners are looking beyond the isolated arts complex to extend its cultural mission to the convention center, Sculpture Park and the surrounding area.

The goal is to unveil a master plan for the complex by year’s end.

“We want the arts complex to be relevant for the next 50 years,” said Ginger White-Brunetti, deputy director of Arts & Venues. “So how do we make sure we do that within a dynamic and changing downtown that’s more sophisticated than ever before, and with changes in cultural consumption patterns?”

The city is working with the New York-based H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture on a plan dubbed “Denver’s Next Stage.”

The challenges surrounding parks downtown are straightforward: existing parks get too little use and too few exist in rapidly redeveloping neighborhoods.

And solving those issues could be tricky.

The park planning effort, called “Denver’s Outdoor Downtown,” encompasses eight neighborhoods and stretches from Interstate 25 to Golden Triangle and will look at everything from park acreage and placement to potential partnerships, including sponsorships of pavilions or recreation equipment.

Denver Parks and Recreation aims to identify reclaimable parcels and purchase them. That’s a daunting task in neighborhoods such as Arapahoe Square, adjacent to Coors Field, and Golden Triangle. Open space is at a premium downtown, while real estate prices skyrocket.

Meanwhile, several existing parks, such as Civic Center and Skyline Park, suffer bad reputations as havens for vagrants except on days when food trucks or big events take over.

“A lot of what we’re focusing on is trying to create a more family-friendly downtown and also a downtown where seniors would want to live,” said Mark Bernstein, the downtown area planner for Parks and Rec. “We’re really looking at all socioeconomic groups and recognizing that each group has its own unique needs.”

Officials, who already have sought some public input, say they plan to deliver a draft downtown parks plan to Hancock by next spring.

Plans to enliven the 16th Street Mall still are in their infancy compared to the other efforts, city officials say.

Droves of people visit the mall for lunch or to take MallRide buses. But Community Planning and Development officials, who are overseeing “The Mall Experience” project, say it’s not living up to its potential to serve not only as a connector of downtown shopping, the convention center and landmarks, but also as a destination in its own right.

It’s also in need of an expensive renovation, for now only partially funded.

This summer, the city will look for lessons from an experiment that started last year. The weekend “Meet in the Streets” event, in which the shuttles use 15th and 17th streets to allow pedestrians to take over the entire corridor, will extend from two to five days , starting June 28.

As it looks to national and international models for the mall, the city has reached wide for advice, bringing in Gehl Architects, based in Copenhagen, as a consultant.

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Information from: The Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com

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