Growth, safety concerns and image: What happened to Denver’s 16th Street Mall?

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DENVER – The 16th Street Mall has seen a lot of change since it opened in 1982. But never has it dealt with an image crisis like the one it’s currently dealing with.

From homelessness to drug use, some say the mall has turned into Denver’s "garbage bag."

“You know, the indicators don’t say that. At the end of the day, do we have challenges along the mall? Absolutely,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said.

Hancock and Denver Police Chief Robert White discussed the issues along the mall. They admit the mall does have a problem, but they say it’s not as bad people think it is.

“Overall, the 16th Street Mall is safe,” Hancock said.

“But you only say ‘overall’” FOX31 reporter Kevin Torres responded.

“Well, I mean overall in the sense there are challenges,” Hancock said.

Challenges come in all shapes and sizes, Hancock said. He and White believe the problem is growing as the city grows.

“Again, Kevin, it’s very important to note – the city of Denver and downtown are seeing more people than ever before,” Hancock said.

Crime grows as more people come downtown

More people bring more crime, Hancock added, which is why the mayor said the city has added more officers to the 16th Street Mall in the past couple of months. On any given day, there are about 36 police officers patrolling it.

“I’m relatively comfortable with the resources we allocate on the mall,” White said.

Being relatively comfortable doesn’t sit well with people like Laura Franks, who was one of four women sexually assaulted on the 16th Street Mall allegedly by the same man in August.

“He grabbed me from the side and tried to lick my neck and was grabbing at my breast area, my butt and all over,” Franks said.

STATS

16th Street Mall crime statistics 2010-2015. Source: Denver Police Department

Statistics from Denver police show aggravated assaults and sexual assaults are higher than they’ve been on the mall in the past five years. In 2015, there have been 11 sexual assaults and 36 aggravated assaults.

“I definitely get anxiety as soon as I pull into the downtown area and start walking around,” Franks said during a recent visit to the 16th Street Mall.

The man accused of sexually assaulting her was a transient and was eventually arrested by police.

Mall visitor: City needs to do more to protect people

Franks is a firm believer the city needs to do more to make sure people are better protected on the 16th Street Mall. She feels the city doesn’t think the problem is as bad as it really is.

“I would just like them to take this seriously. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last. There’s been several since my attack; there’s been several before my attack,” she said.

“What I say to her is I’m sorry it occurred and as a city we’re going to do everything we can to bring to justice to the individual who committed the crime against her -- and then whatever we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Hancock said.

Problem Solvers undercover on the mall

After spending multiple nights on the 16th Street Mall, the Problem Solvers saw what many residents have been complaining about.

Homeless people are spread everywhere, panhandlers are at every corner and in some cases, we witnessed people high on drugs acting violently.

We recorded video of one man who took his belt off and started lashing it at anyone who walked by. At one point, he almost struck a little girl sitting on her father’s shoulders.

“About 90 percent of the people [transients and homeless] carry weapons [out here],” a homeless man who calls himself "Wild Bill" said.

"Wild Bill" said the homeless will do what they need to do to survive. During our time on the mall, the Problem Solvers also had people with noticeable mental health issues shout and lunge at us -- not knowing we were undercover.

“We’re seeing quite frankly increased challenges of mental health issues across this nation,” Hancock said.

Hancock and White said it’s an issue you can’t arrest your way out of. But White said officers respond whenever there’s an issue on the mall.

“I can provide you stats to show you the officers that have been working on the mall have probably made over 20,000 contacts dealing with individuals,” White said.

It’s important to note, 2015 is not the most violent year the mall has seen. Other crimes like homicides, robberies and drug abuse are lower than they’ve been in years past.

“It’s not an unsafe mall. And the numbers don’t bare it out. We are seeing some increase, but I don’t know any city whose urban core isn’t seeing some increase across the nation,” White said.

The chief’s response is debatable. Many would disagree. But the one thing everyone seems to agree on is the fact the mall has an image issue.

Making the mall safer

“No matter how safe a space is, it always has an opportunity to be safer and more inclusive for everyone who wants to come and enjoy that space,” said Tami Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership.

The Downtown Denver Partnership is working closely with the city to make the mall a better and safer place. Hancock said the key to making the 16th Street Mall more appealing is to get businesses and organizations involved.

In a recent survey, the Downtown Denver Partnership discovered people were more concerned about the mall’s image than its safety. The partnership and city are working together to create a security action plan for the 16th Street Mall. It’s currently in its final draft form.

“What do you think needs to be done on the 16th Street Mall that we’re not doing right now that could help make it a better place?” Torres asked?

“We’ve already test-piloted some things around the mall including shutting down the shuttle for a weekend to see how people traverse the mall," Hancock said.

"What you’re going to see us getting serious about in the next 12 to 18 months is how do we move this mall forward in the next 30 years? 'Cause it’s a 30-year-old mall that hasn’t been looked at, at its design, effectiveness and how we make people safe while they’re down there.

Hancock said the city plans to add better lighting to the mall in 2016 and is working with businesses to get them to provide additional private security.

So what does the mall’s future hold? Only time will tell.