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Are Homeless Ruining I.M. Pei’s 16th Street Mall in Denver?

Are Homeless Ruining I.M. Pei’s 16th Street Mall in Denver?

Can homeless ruin good urban planning? Do you find New York City’s midtown section just a little less enjoyable because of the homeless population? Think of your favorite area in your favorite city: Was there a significant homeless population? The 16th Street Mall in Denver opened in 1982. It was designed by I.M. Pei and

Can homeless ruin good urban planning? Do you find New York City’s midtown section just a little less enjoyable because of the homeless population? Think of your favorite area in your favorite city: Was there a significant homeless population?

The 16th Street Mall in Denver opened in 1982. It was designed by I.M. Pei and his internationally-acclaimed urban planning and urban design firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. It is a 1.25 mile pedestrian and transit mall with over 300 locally owned and chain stores and fifty restaurants.

Pedestrians walk down the 16th Street Mall in Denver, Colorado

It is in the heart of the central business district and draws businessmen for lunch on weekdays, tourists all times of the year, and locals for its shopping and restaurants. By all accounts, it is one of the most popular destinations in Denver.

What has stuck out to me most in recent years, however, is the homeless population (among other ills of the mall, but I digress). Homeless beggers interrupting you for money, seeing them sleeping on the streets, homeless loitering in front of shops, on the sidewalks. They can be aggressive, too. Not to mention the public drug use issues that are attributed to the homeless.

Create more affordable housing, you say? City officials estimate they need at least 25,000 units. The City, though, is only proposing 3,000 over the next five years.

A man sleeps in a public plaza on the 16th Street Mall in Denver, Colorado

And here is another problem: Downtown Denver is booming and people will pay top dollar to live in lofts. Placing affordable units downtown probably isn’t feasible and developers will go down screaming, yelling, and suing if the affordable units are placed in their buildings.

The City also passed an Unauthorized Camping Ban, arguably to clear the homeless from the 16th Street Mall and surrounding central business district. But the Unauthorized Camping Ban is like shoring up ants in your kitchen. Even if you stop them from coming in from one direction, the ants will find a way to your food from another direction. In other words, a camping ban just moves the homeless off the 16th Street Mall. It doesn’t solve the problem.

It’s sad to see homeless on the streets, don’t get me wrong. But what do homeless do to the experience of what is, by all means, a well-planned and well-designed pedestrian mall? Most importantly, what - if anything - can urban planners do about it?

Credits: Images by Jonathan Knight. Data linked to sources.

Intern photo

Jonathan Knight is an award-winning planner and a recent graduate of Kansas State University with a Master's of Regional and Community Planning and Minor in Business. His interest in planning probably came from his avid playing of "Roller Coaster Tyc...

  • Busy With Purpose

    Instead of viewing homeless people as pests that a city can’t get rid of or that are in the way disrupting the flow of urban design, the urban design community can use their ample money flow and innovative design skills to help people who are homeless help themselves. They can do so by incorporating ways to address homelessness in the community development plans they should be creating with the help of members of the homeless community and advocates in the community from the very start of the development process.

    Doing so will help address homeleness in the area by providing the venue to address affordable housing for homeless individuals and families as a start to helping them reenter society where they can become productive and contribute to society again. I say again because many people are only one paycheck away from being homeless in America and people who are currently homeless were most likely productive/working members of society at one point in their lives.

    Therefore the pricey lofts and condos some urban designers and developers are so concerned with building will become a waste of money, time and space because they will sit at half the occupany level because the designers ignored the issues and concerns of the people in the neighborhood such as the human beings dealing with homelessness and lack of safe and affordable housing as well as lack of income during the community development process.

    Nobody is going to care you built a loft or condo if its a money drainer. If all a developer cares about is money their credibility will sank with their development because they didn’t design using a community centric approach for that neighborhood. Working with organizations like One Step Away during the entire process could help the developer be more successful in their endeavors in areas with lots of homelessness.

    • Hi Busy, I think you bring up some excellent points. I am glad you understood that I wasn’t pointing blame on the homeless, rather, bringing up ways Denver has tried to solve its homeless problems but have not found success. And giving a jumping-off point for thinking about how urban planners can address these problems. An excellent response with a very astute perspective. Thanks for reading!

  • Busy With Purpose

    Thank you for responding and for the feedback. Glad you wrote the article and provided a platform for people to discuss important issues surrounding community development all over the globe and provide solutions to address these problems.

  • Tabren James

    I have several points for you to ponder, Jonathan. One, much of the drug issue on the 16th Street Mall hasn’t been from the homeless, but groups of teenagers who have been hanging around the mall, selling drugs and blocking storefronts. Two, the mall is losing much of its appeal due to mismanagement by the Denver Partnership driving businesses out and extremely poor maintenance that has led to a number of injuries. This mismanagement has also extended to them putting inappropriate pressure on local law enforcement to chase the homeless out of the downtown district while totally ignoring the fact that the working homeless MUST pass through the area to catch their buses to work. Yes, contrary to popular belief, many of the homeless ARE working, but at jobs that do not pay sufficiently for them to afford housing that is currently going at a premium across the metro area. Another factor driving businesses out of downtown is the aggressive and often violent conduct of the Denver Police officers. This includes several incidences during the Democratic National Convention where uninvolved persons were arrested without cause and at least one incident where a news producer was arrested for “blocking traffic” after the arresting cop shoved him off the sidewalk and into the street. Both of these facts are well documented. Before blaming the homeless for the 16th Street Mall’s issues, perhaps you should spend some time in Denver to see what is really happening here and stop contributing to the false image that is damaging the efforts to address the needs of the homeless.

  • Cole Brennan

    “Can homeless ruin good urban planning?” This essay is a bit heartless. Aside from equating homeless people existing in public to insects infesting your kitchen, the article does not acknowledge that urban planners might have contributed to the creation of the homelessness problem. Widespread homelessness does not occur everywhere, which means public policy (especially zoning), infrastructure, and laws play a determining role. We have power over those things, and the fact that widespread homelessness exists at all is pretty damning to our profession in the US.

    Instead of asking if homeless people ruin the experience of a public plaza, you should be asking how do we get people into homes? You say that people will pay a lot to live in lofts, but no one *wants* to spend 50% of their income on housing, even if they really like the home. That Denver needs 25,000 affordable units and is only building 3,000 is a sign that the housing development strategy is broken. Homeless people didn’t decide the city would not build enough housing for them, planners did that.

    Whether homeless people live in your favorite park or under your most forgotten freeway, they are the ones struggling without the basic human right to adequate shelter. If homelessness bugs you because you think it looks ugly and not because it’s a human rights violation, that’s on you, not the homeless.

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