New retailers are replacing stores that have closed

Mile High City’s 16th Street Mall is having an uncomfortable rebirth. Structural transformation plans are drawing newcomers into the corridor, but the number of businesses forced to close by the pandemic-induced slowdown is a reminder that in these uncertain economic times, even once-successful retail outlets can fail.

Two and a half years into the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Michael B. Hancock called the 16th Street Mall project “an important part of downtown’s comeback.” It started in April and is expected to be completed by the end of 2024.

But the corridor has suffered a weighty loss of business since the first COVID-19 closures. Today, lockout signs remain on the front doors of several stores, including 7-Eleven at 401 16th St. Mall, Protein Bar & Kitchen at 1755 16th St. Mall, and Tokyo Joe’s at 1001 16th St. Mall.

Still others are confident enough in the future of 16th Street Mall to put down roots, like Dragonfly Noodle, which recently opened, and Little Finch, Sofia’s Pizza, and CAVA.

“It’s more important than ever that we stand behind the companies that are making Downtown special and ensure they have the resources they need to thrive during construction,” said Kourtny Garrett, President and CEO of Downtown Denver Partnership.

Business closures, openings

National chain Jason’s Deli closed its 16th Street Mall restaurant in August 2020, which first opened circa 2008.

“It was a good location for us until the COVID-19 pandemic started,” said Anne Rowland, vice president of Jason’s Deli of Colorado.

But the company has been “hit hard by the government shutdowns.” Even when mandates were lifted, sales were struggling to bounce back, she added, citing the lack of downtown office workers.

The Jason’s Deli team made “the difficult decision to file for bankruptcy and close the downtown location along with two other of our eight locations,” she said. Now the brand operates five restaurants in Colorado — one in Fort Collins and four in the Denver area — with recovering sales.

The Sunflower Bank at 1573 Market St. closed in April 2021. “Fewer customer visits” – spurred by an upsurge in online and mobile banking – prompted the decision, spokeswoman Jeanne Lipson said.

The site along the mall served primarily commercial customers and a small retail presence, she added, but the bank still sees commercial customers in its corporate office suite on the building’s second floor.

Two retailers at the Denver Pavilions mall at 500 16th St. Mall also closed their doors forever: Banana Republic in September and Uniqlo last year.

As some owners leave the corridor, others have rushed in to take their places.

Oraga Amador prepares noodles in the Dragonfly ...
Oraga Amador prepares noodles at the Dragonfly Noodle restaurant on 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver on Thursday, October 27, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Dragonfly Noodle recently held the grand opening of its second restaurant at 1350 16th St. Mall on Oct. 7, said Noah Glovsky, director of operations. The first is in Boulder at 10th St. 2014.

Business at the new joint is steadily increasing over the weeks — and it’s doing so without a focused social media and marketing presence, Glovsky said. Instead, they’ve attracted customers through word of mouth and Google reviews.

The team behind Dragonfly Noodle also runs Zoe Ma Ma, which offers Chinese street food at two locations: Boulder at 2010 10th St. and Denver’s Union Station at 1625 Wynkoop St.

Glovsky described the area around 16th Street Mall and Larimer Street as “the nexus of LoDo” — and one of the centers of Denver’s food scene.

“When we saw this location, we were very, very excited for the opportunity to come back here and also help revitalize the 16th Street Mall area,” he said, adding that the return of office workers is a bonus.

Dinner at Dragonfly Noodle Restaurant from...
Dragonfly Noodle Restaurant at 16th Street Mall in Denver on Thursday, October 27, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Ongoing construction has limited the restaurant’s visibility to guests — “even from across the street from the hotel” — so Glovsky notes his eagerness to complete the project.

Little Finch plans to open at 1490 16th St. Mall in early December. Owner Mary Nguyen describes her business as a “hybrid,” serving breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks as a café by day, and wine, cocktails and desserts by night.

She considers the location to be “a great first location” for Little Finch due to the mall’s revitalization and its proximity to downtown residents.

“The downtown LoDo area has always been a place to eat and drink, where consumers can find everything they are looking for – high-end restaurants for lunch and dinner, fast-casual concepts, bars and cocktail lounges and more,” Nguyen said.

Sofia’s Pizza is also in the process of securing a spot at 1530 16th St. with a pending license application filed with the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. A public hearing for the motion was held on Oct. 25, spokesman Eric Escudero confirmed.

A new CAVA restaurant is under construction at 1460 16th St., serving quick Mediterranean fare.

16th Street Mall Construction Site...
Construction on the 16th Street Mall project in downtown Denver will resume on Thursday, October 27, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

“A 21st century street is a place”

Allison Berry, VP of CBRE, which specializes in downtown office leasing, pointed to “a wave of new retail openings or plans to open near 16th Street and Market/Blake Street.”

CBRE, a commercial real estate services and investment firm, leases five office spaces, two retail projects and one office and retail property along the mall beginning October 21.

“Presumably, these retailers believe that the larger sidewalks, urban tree canopy, and improved lighting provide an ideal retail environment,” Berry said. “This retail revival is a bonus to office leasing efforts as employers look to motivate their employees to return to the office in larger numbers.”

JLL, another commercial real estate services company, also has listings along the mall, including restaurant and retail space in multiple locations, according to agent Sarah Alfano.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce expects the 16th Street Mall project “will accelerate the return of tourists, families, workers and businesses to downtown.”

At the onset of the pandemic, average daily users in downtown Denver fell by more than half, with more than 264,000 in April 2019 and about 49,000 a year later, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership’s High Frequency Economic Update. In 2021, the number rose again to an average of around 145,000 daily users over the course of the year, with a jump to around 183,000 this year.

“We are all aware that the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on downtown user numbers,” the chamber’s team wrote in a statement. “We hope for further growth and continued development to get back to pre-pandemic numbers and beyond.”

On a weekday morning in October, a stroll along Denver’s famous pedestrian boardwalk means joining a stream of tourists, office workers and homeless people, with the background soundtrack of construction work.

The mall’s project is considered the first major renovation since it opened in 1982, according to the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. It is primarily focused on repairing the deteriorating infrastructure, but will also shift transit lanes, sidewalks for pedestrians widen, expand the treetops and much more.

Fences for the construction site of ...
People walk past fences along the construction site at 16th Street Mall in Denver on Thursday, October 27, 2022. The multimillion-dollar project will replace failing infrastructure, including upgrading power, sewage and water lines. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

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