If workers don’t return to downtown Denver, what will its post-pandemic future look like?

Foot traffic in the heart of the city is still down more than 40% compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the 2021 State of Downtown Denver report released Wednesday.

If and when those numbers will return to pre-COVID-19 levels has yet to be seen. With major companies — like downtown-office-occupying Facebook — embracing hybrid work models if not outright permanent work-from-home options, it’s becoming clearer that that return may have to hinge on things beyond people coming downtown to punch a clock.

The Downtown Denver Partnership, the organization behind the State of Downtown report, is spearheading a business pledge campaign to get more companies and workers to return to their workplaces in the urban core now that vaccination numbers are up and COVID-19 cases are down.

Projections in the report show the average number of people downtown rising this summer to more than 200,000, closer to the 250,000 people-per-day peak seen in summer 2019 before the pandemic. As of this month, the partnership was tracking an average of 148,000 people in the city’s core each day. Most of that traffic is generated by visitors and employees of downtown businesses.

But veteran urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat suggested during an online event hosted by the partnership Wednesday that the pandemic has provided an opportunity to look past jobs as the main driver behind city living.

“If we can’t rely on employment being the pull that it once was into our downtown urban environments, I think we have to double down on all of those other critical urbanist aspects of downtown living,” said Keesmaat, the former chief planner for the city of Toronto. “Fabulous pubic parks. Living in close proximity to a diverse population. Let’s do the best at having a diversity of housing types that could house everyone along the socio-economic strata.”

Providing more attainable-priced housing options came up repeatedly during Wednesday’s event. More than 28,000 people were living downtown as of 2020, according to the report. By 2025, the partnership is projecting more than 34,000 people will live downtown.

The median household income for downtown residents is $98,670, according to the report. The median household income from the city at large, meanwhile, was $68,592 as of 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’ve done a phenomenal job in Denver of really building to the top of the market if you will,” Mark Falcone, CEO of Denver development firm Continuum Partners, said during the web event. “But we’ve really got to be careful not to underestimate the importance of maintaining an incredibly diverse and a shared equity in the benefits that come from all this prosperity.”

Continuum has been working on strategies to create more attainably-priced and workforce housing downtown, including bringing micro apartments to its soon-to-open Market Station project along the 16th Street Mall. Falcone said he is collaborating with Gov. Jared Polis and the legislature on opportunities to accelerate workforce housing development.

Among the many alarming stats in the report this year, the partnership found that downtown retail sales tax collections fell 41.7% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to city records. During an inventory of ground-floor retail spaces downtown last month, the partnership counted 176 empty storefronts, adding up to a 22% vacancy rate in such spaces.

With that in mind, Wednesday’s event closed with a plea from Mike Zoellner, the chair of the Downtown Denver Partnership’s management group. Go downtown and spend money. It’s good for the entire state economy, he said.

“None of us should think our downtown will be a vibrant destination or will be successful without all of our support,” Zoellner said.

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