When I crawl into bed at night, the last thing I see before I close my eyes and fall asleep is the lights illuminating the empty floors of a gleaming new glass office building at 15th and California. The interiors were never occupied or even completed. They’re unused and apparently useless.

So, I wasn’t surprised at the news that the office vacancy rate downtown has hit 30% for the first time since the depths of the oil bust in 1990. In fact, given my vantage point, I had assumed the vacancy rate was even higher.

And while the city’s depressed office market recovered from the oil bust 30 years ago, there’s zero expectation that workers will come rushing back now that they’ve discovered life without cubicles, commuting or even wearing shoes. 

It’s not going to happen.

Downtowns from San Francisco to Philadelphia are struggling, and Denver’s is smack in the middle of the same worrisome post-COVID doom loop. 

It’s not hopeless, though. In fact, unless you’re a highly leveraged commercial real estate developer who speculated on a 40-story glass office building in 2015 betting on a big payday in 2023, the future for downtown is exciting.

But it will be a very different downtown.

The transition won’t be easy or quick, said Meredith Wenskoski, CEO and president at Livable Cities Studio. But it could be way cool.

The secret, she said, is people.

“Downtowns that are designed in a way to attract people of all ages, that are family friendly and multi-generational, that work across the whole spectrum from young children and teens to aging adults and seniors … create a snowball effect” that leads to more vitality and healthy economic activity, she said.

Instead of the old model of an urban workspace that draws office workers in droves every morning and disgorges them each evening to drive alone in their cars to their homes in outlying neighborhoods, the vibrant downtown of the future will be a dynamic 24/7 neighborhood. 

In addition to offices, it will have places for children to play and go to school, sidewalk cafes, bike paths and running trails, and all manner of urban amenities from theaters and museums to ice cream shops, bakeries and dry cleaners.

A good example is Vancouver, B.C., said Rick Petersen, principal at Oz Architecture.

“In Vancouver, there’s a lot of housing mixed into the downtown area amid the office buildings and commercial areas,” he said. “The more vibrant downtowns all over the world integrate workplaces with housing.”

The first step for Denver, he said, is to recognize that a lot of the buildings downtown “are not being utilized today and won’t be in the future.” 

We have to wrap our heads around replacing them with structures that are more useful in 21st-century America. 

A few might be converted to housing. Some might be remodeled into useful spaces for universities or research centers. Others — particularly the wide-bodied office buildings from the ’80s — likely will have to be razed.

“That’s easy to say and hard to do,” Petersen said.

Already market forces have diverted developers from their focus on once-lucrative office buildings to engaging in more residential development — though both Petersen and Wenskoski say not nearly enough affordable workforce housing is in the mix yet.

In cities such as Copenhagen, Barcelona and Vancouver, B.C., the people who care for children and the elderly, those who teach in the schools and work in the restaurants can live nearby comfortably and affordably.

These are templates for modern cities.

In Copenhagen, Petersen said, public bicycle paths weave their way through neighborhoods, passing school playgrounds and commercial areas, winding through parks and alongside office buildings.

“It’s mind-blowing,” he said. “People have eyes on each other sharing the same space, making it safe with people mingling in a more open, porous environment.

“I don’t know if it can apply to us here, but we can be inspired to do some of that.”

In fact, Petersen and Wenskoski said aspects of the Copenhagen urban model are being used in the Sun Valley redevelopment project in Denver.

The old Sun Valley south of Mile High Stadium is undergoing a dramatic transformation to increase housing options and create parks and green spaces throughout.

“Apartments are being shaped in a way to make open space available to the public,” Petersen said. “The old Sun Valley was really intimidating. The new development is designed to be welcoming and accessible. It’s an idea stolen right from Copenhagen.”

The same kind of approach can be applied downtown. 

Wenskoski said looking at downtown through the lens of children is a good place to start.

“The core of what I do is everything that is outside buildings in terms of urban design, amazing public spaces and parks,” she said. “If you made it all about kids and play, it would be awesome.” And not just for kids.

Once downtown starts to draw more people to it as a neighborhood, the pressure to improve stubborn problems like mobility and to provide transit solutions is overwhelming.

The news of the 30% office vacancy rate was a “gut punch,” Wenskoski said, even though it really was no surprise. 

It brings our attention to the parts of downtown that have been neglected or maybe even more to those that have survived against great odds. 

It brings the city’s problems into sharp relief and challenges us to find a better way.

For those of us walking the dog downtown amid the diesel exhaust fumes and occasional plumes of cannabis in the morning, it’s not the smell of a looming apocalypse.

To us, it smells like … opportunity.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

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