Downtown Denver has it all — fun, food, shopping, entertainment, premier people-watching. And for some patrons, a sense of urban unease. The throngs that give downtown its vitality also can induce intimidation, particularly from individuals who assemble and hang out along 16th Street Mall storefronts.
"Some people are more comfortable in urban environments. They understand that downtowns are urban, diverse places," said Ken Schroeppel, an instructor in the master of urban and regional planning department at University of Colorado Denver.
"But other people see situations like that as intimidating," he said. "It's an experience that perhaps is not as sanitized as some people might want."
Downtown Denver business interests are addressing the issue with increased police patrols and initiatives to provide a better experience on the mall.
Assemblages of street people don't necessarily equate to criminal activity, although it is common for passers-by to see openly conducted drug transactions and illegal public marijuana smoking.
Downtown crime rates have risen sharply this year. That's one of the reasons that merchants and business advocacy groups are paying the tab to put more police on the streets.
While maintaining that the 16th Street Mall is eminently safe, the groups say the increased police presence is meant to "ensure the safety and vibrancy" of the mall.
They are covering the summer-long program with $175,000 of private funding from the Downtown Denver Partnership, the downtown business improvement district and Visit Denver. The off-duty police initiative is in addition to the city's recent $1.8 million appropriation for 10 more police officers downtown.
More cops walking the beat is part of multifaceted approach that includes merchants being asked to report crimes more diligently and to implement preventive security measures.
The safety initiatives are taking place in the shadow of a 78 percent increase so far this year in the number of reported crimes in Denver's central business district.
Largely unreported are numerous daily incidents of people illegally smoking marijuana. While retail sales and possession of cannabis became legal Jan. 1, smoking it in public isn't.
Interactive: Denver Crime Map
Police and Downtown Denver Partnership officials say the overall crime jump should not alarm downtown workers, residents and visitors. Rather, they say, it's a reflection of police making more arrests and merchants pressing charges more often on shoplifting and other petty offenses.
Tony Lopez, commander of police District 6 encompassing downtown, said part of the increase in reported crime stems from the mandate by Chief Robert White for more "officer-initiated" enforcement actions, instead of just waiting for calls to come in.
"The crime rate actually is very low. There are very few violent crimes downtown," said John Desmond, the Partnership's executive vice president of Downtown Environment.
Desmond's contention is borne out by statistics. Crimes against persons, such as aggravated assault, simple assault and sex offenses, represent just 12 percent of all reported downtown crimes for the first five months of 2014. Those incidents occurred, on average, less than once a day throughout downtown.
A much bigger share comes from nonviolent crimes including larceny, drug violations and trespassing.
Statistically unreported is a sense of unease or intimidation felt by some pedestrians as they traverse throngs of street people that assemble at various points along the 16th Street Mall.
The phenomenon is particularly visible when police increase patrols in certain areas, causing a migration of street people to other areas.
Soon after city officials last year announced a plan to clean up criminal activity at Civic Center with an increase in police presence, more people began assembling outside the McDonald's at 16th Street and Cleveland Place, two blocks from the park.
Hanging out in front of a business is not illegal. Denver's loitering law was declared unconstitutional several years ago after a court challenge.
But that creates issues for merchants. Would-be customers who are easily intimidated by a group of people might choose to go elsewhere.
Tom Carlson Jr., owner of the McDonald's on Cleveland Place, said he is not aware of any loss of business resulting from people congregating outside the restaurant.
Carlson said he and his staff tightly control customer behavior inside, but have no ability to disperse groups outside on public sidewalks.
"I don't know of a time that downtown hasn't had its eclectic element. This environment is mall-wide," he said. "But I feel incredibly safe down here. I bring my family downtown all the time."
Owners of the University Building at 16th and Champa streets found an effective way to deal with street people outside the building's ground-floor McDonald's: terminate the restaurant's lease.
"They did not really attract the right clientele for the block," said David Kaufman, manager and co-owner of the building. During a recent renovation of the structure, owners also chose not to renew the lease of Ace Cash Express.
In their place are new tenants Modmarket restaurant, Moe's Broadway Bagels and City Pop popcorn.
The University Building gets high marks from downtown officials for other proactive steps taken to reduce crime and enhance street-level ambience. Among its initiatives are placing alley dumpsters inside a fenced area, reducing the number of trash containers to improve sightlines down the alley, and adding lighting.
In addition to having three off-duty police officers patrolling a three-block section of the mall from Welton to Champa for 12 hours a day, other Partnership initiatives include:
• Continuation of the "Garden Block" between Champa and Curtis with special planters, outdoor seating, vendors and cultural performances.
• Launch of a "food-centric" block between Welton and California with arrays of food carts and seating for patrons.
• Addition of lighting and artwork in alleys adjacent to the mall.
Also new to many downtown storefronts are signs proclaiming, "We partner with the Denver Police Department to prosecute all shoplifters."
Lopez of Denver police said the emphasis on merchants calling in those crimes is reflected in a 49 percent increase in reported larcenies downtown so far this year compared to 2013.
"We really need people to step up and participate," he said. "It's our mall and our neighborhood. We all own a stake in what's going on here."
Steve Raabe: 303-954-1948, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/steveraabedp
Updated: July 13, 2014 at 2:11 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Moe's Broadway Bagels in the University Building.