Public transit adds to Denver’s zip
Photo by Nicholas Upton
Stepping off the sleek, new A-line train that swept me from the gates of DIA into the heart of downtown Denver—23 miles away—I was easily impressed by the Mile High City.
This American city, our 19th largest, is visibly bulging at its seams with cranes grappling across the horizon, new towers going up in all directions and a sprawling system of new train lines ferrying its growing hordes of locals and visitors about town.
Denver’s very walkable downtown is the 10th largest CBD in the country, and it’s the fastest-growing American city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. What’s going on here is much bigger than legal weed and 300 days of sunshine: Franchise operators looking for their next big market should book a trip to Denver, and skip the rental car counter in favor of the fancy new train.
I was in town for Franchise Expo West, and my train to downtown had a delightfully loquacious conductor. As the train cars rose skyward to pass over a freeway, he told the captive audience how many feet we were off the ground.
As the Rocky Mountains loomed to the west, he pointed out the beautiful sculpture beyond the east windows. Once wide-open prairie gave way to a crowded city, he pointed out the various stops, neighborhoods and sights until the chrome-dipped train glided smoothly into Union Station at the convergence of Denver’s LoDo and downtown districts.
The RTD’s Free MallRide buses are a hyper-frequent, fast and easy way to get from Union Station to all points downtown, including the Colorado Convention Center.
The platforms were clean and new, and Union Station itself has been spectacularly renovated and filled with shops and restaurants. Once I walked out the doors into the city, the streetlife, abundant construction and free bus service through the heart of downtown made a very favorable first impression on this traveling journalist. I wasn’t alone, as two groups of visitors asked me to take their picture as I marveled at the beautiful station that first opened in 1894.
Most American cities are growing these days, but only the best are using these fat times to place smart investments in themselves. Cities like Denver that are adding new ways for people to get around, focusing on placemaking and public art, and looking out for the little guys with new, affordable housing units, are the ones I suggest you reward with your attention.
Walking down the 16th Street Mall—the heart of downtown—is a lesson in successful urban planning: plazas connecting public and private spaces, passive and active public art, clear way-finding, food carts, easy-to-understand mass transit and franchised businesses interwoven among the variety of stores and restaurants.
While many franchise brands are represented, notably including Mellow Mushroom, Smiling Moose, Tilted Kilt, Tokyo Joe’s, Rock Bottom Brewery, Juice Kitchen and several Corner Bakery Cafes, several brands were notable by their absence. Allow me to officially request First Watch, Another Broken Egg Cafe or any of the new breakfast-only joints, along with a Firehouse Subs and Five Guys.
Of course, rising status begets rising retail and rental rates, with steep competition for prime locations. Turid Nagel-Casebolt, director of business development at the Denver Office of Economic Development, said the city is eager to assist brands looking to move into town.
“We started 2016 with the lowest retail vacancies in 18 years,” she said. “That sounds kind of dire, but on the other hand, we’ve seen incredibly strong development activities with almost a million square feet of retail under construction right now—the greatest amount of retail space under construction since 2010.”
Downtown’s 16th Street Mall and LoDo districts are teaming with retail, but Nagel-Casebolt said there are several other areas that outsiders should consider including Cherry Creek, South Colorado Boulevard and Green Valley Ranch, which is near the airport on the new train line. She added the city has countless opportunities for retail development along its new transit corridors.
“We are a region that has really benefitted from becoming more accessible,” she said. “It’s another nod to Denver being a global city and a city that has many of the amenities that we expect to see in a tier-one city.”
Paul Washington, executive director of the Denver Office of Economic Development, said the city has become one of the top places in the country for attracting millennials—and said the city added 1,400 new business establishments last year.
“We are in unprecedented times,” Washington said. “Denver’s economic boom is the result of decisions made in the short and long terms.”
With 53 million passengers coming through its previously disconnected airport every year—now with a direct connection to a fast-growing, walkable city—it’s a safe bet the future will reward Denver for the bets its leaders placed years ago. Now the private sector just has to hop on board.
Franchise Times’ Tom Kaiser, pictured on opposite page, looks for urban tales in franchising and covers them in this column every issue. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.