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Creating safer people-oriented places

Recognizing the opportunity to support restaurant and retail tenants, Larimer Square, in collaboration with Denver, closed the block between 14th and 15th streets to vehicle traffic, allowing more than a dozen restaurants to open their dining rooms into the square and create a safe outdoor dining experience for visitors. Courtesy Captain Colorado Photography

Jon Buerge
Chief development officer,
principal, Urban Villages

We’ve long believed that retail and restaurants are instrumental in creating the character of a neighborhood. Think of the blocks you love most in Denver and chances are you’re imagining a collection of small, independent shops and restaurants with great public spaces. People largely want to live, work and hang out near great retail blocks. Those spaces add incalculable value to our experience of the urban environment, a fact that was made clear the moment we had to hit pause on those experiences.

Now, all over the country, our favorite shops and restaurants are in the fight of their lives. COVID-19 and the (extremely necessary) efforts aimed at containing it have wreaked havoc on brick-and-mortar retail. In-store retail and restaurant sales during this pandemic have plummeted. According to researchers at the University of Illinois, Harvard Business School, Harvard University and the University of Chicago, the U.S. has lost more than 100,000 small businesses so far.

Let’s be clear: The retail and restaurant closures that are sweeping the country hurt everyone. Retailers who put their life’s work into their businesses have found themselves in financial ruin. Employees are out of work and forced to search for new opportunities during a period when few are hiring. Property owners are no longer receiving rent to offset taxes, utilities and other property expenses. Lenders are at risk of having their loans default. And communities are losing the hubs where people gather and socialize.

Over the last decade, Denver historically has fared better than the national average when it comes to the strength of our retail climate, but the challenges we face are unprecedented. The city and county of Denver recently put forward a plan to allow restaurants to apply to expand their patios into sidewalks, parking lots and streets, allowing them to safely serve more guests. That was an important step in the right direction, creating an immediate boost that has allowed many local restaurants to open back up and save their businesses. While this proactive policy doesn’t directly impact retail, it has brought more shoppers out of their homes and into stores.

As property owners and managers, we recognized the immediate need to work with retail tenants to seek new and creative ways to help them through this unprecedented period. Working individually with tenants, we coordinated a multipronged response aimed at supporting the 33 small and independent businesses that call Denver’s historic Larimer Square home. The aim is not only to spur an economic recovery, but also to help repair the social fabric of our city by creating safe and welcoming places to gather.

With the street closed to vehicle traffic, dining rooms have opened
into the street and under the lights of the iconic Larimer
Square. Courtesy Urban Villages

Prioritizing pedestrians. Recognizing the opportunity to support both restaurant and retail tenants, Larimer Square, in collaboration with the city and county of Denver, launched a plan to close the entire block between 14th and 15th streets to vehicle traffic, allowing more than a dozen restaurants to open their dining rooms into the square and create a safe outdoor dining experience for visitors. Importantly, this plan created a draw to the neighborhood that would hopefully benefit retail tenants as well.

The closure is temporary (officially through Oct. 31) but it undoubtedly will serve as an important test case for an urban planning approach that prioritizes the pedestrian over the car experience. By its nature, this shift in priority opens opportunities to redefine the public realm as a place for people, for businesses and for nature.

Early indicators have shown positive results for businesses on Larimer Square. Restaurant sales are climbing back. Retail sales are lagging but improving. The local community is beginning to return to the square. Tourists are returning, and social media is abuzz. A blackboard seeking public comment has been posted to the block by the Architecture & Urban Planning Department at University of Colorado Denver, in collaboration with the city and county of Denver. This feedback effort aims to provide insight into the experience on the block. Anecdotally, feedback so far has been extremely positive.

Creating new, safe open-air experiences. With the block closed to street traffic and restaurants expanded into the open air for dining, the next goal was to ensure the public felt comfortable and welcome in returning. Safety is really the most essential metric in the success of this experiment.

A large-scale street mural was completed by So-Gnar
Creative Division. Courtesy Andrew Brown

At the onset of the street closure, signage was installed throughout the block calling on visitors to wear masks, to maintain a 6-foot distance from others, and to guide pedestrians flow in specific directions in order to reduce physical encounters.

With precautions in place, the next goal was to safely provide the kind of experiences that many people were missing, namely live music and art. Larimer Square put out a call to local musicians for paying gigs every night throughout the rest of the summer and engaged with Pat Milbery and the creative division at So-Gnar Creative to turn the middle of Larimer Street into a massive street mural that celebrates everything we love about Colorado. The mural was completed at the end of July and has transformed walking the block into a participatory art experience for visitors.

Supporting local entrepreneurs. The overall retail strategy for Larimer Square retail always has been to identify a mix of uses that will flourish and then to seek out specific operations that will fit best, with the goal of creating unique shopping and dining experiences that keep people coming back. This strategy has not changed as a result of the current retail landscape, but as property owners and managers, flexibility has become more important than ever, as has meeting entrepreneurs where they are.

In addition to creating new ways to safely welcome pedestrians back, Larimer Square has designated several spaces as retail pop-ups, the idea being to provide flexible, short-term opportunities for entrepreneurs to come onto the historic block, bringing fresh ideas and creative execution that will draw in new visitors. The first pop-up, Buckley’s House of Flowers, opened in July and several more are in the works, including an elevated vintage clothing and ’70s vinyl bar called Garage Sale, a retail bazaar and farmers market, and a Chinese brewery.

While the long-term impact of the pandemic remains to be seen, it is crucial that our local government, property owners and community alike act quickly and together to come up with solutions that work for Denver. Larimer Square and the long-term success of retail on this block hopefully will provide a national example of the power of place-making in supporting recovery in our urban environments.

Featured in CREJ’s August 2020 Retail Properties Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.