Closing Wynkoop To Cars Could Give Denver Its First True Pedestrian Only Plaza

Denver’s Union Station underwent a $500 million renovation as part of Denver’s FasTracks project, opening in 2014. It immediately became the crown jewel of downtown Denver. The station and the immediate surrounding area has everything, from shops to hotels, restaurants to office space.  Oh, and there are trains now.  By the time RTD’s North Line to Thornton opens next year, Union Station will expect to see over 100,000 commuters a day passing through the station. That number is expected to double by 2030.

The Union Station neighborhood was envisioned as a new Denver, a Denver which would be pedestrian friendly and accessible. It is a densely populated neighborhood with attractions at all hours of the day, and there are pedestrian bridges over the tracks at 16th and 18th. Transit can take you to any part of the city.  King Soopers opened the first downtown grocery store last year, and Whole Foods is expected to open later this year. The plaza in front of Union Station is long and well populated, but one problem remains. What to do with all of the cars?

17th Street 2.jpg
17th Street leading into downtown from the intersection at Wynkoop Street

Wynkoop Street is only four blocks long through downtown Denver.  There is a small cul de sac at the South end and Wynkoop Street is already closed to traffic North of 19th Street.  All of Wynkoop Street is planned to become a pedestrian-focused greenway in the next few years.  With such a short street and such a popular pedestrian area, some people have been wondering why Wynkoop Street isn’t closed off to cars.

Cities around the world are famous for pedestrian plazas.  Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia and Piazza Navona in Rome are just a couple of plazas which provide large, pedestrian-friendly spaces which are also traffic free.  Denver’s Union Station Plaza could be among these spaces but dodging cars on 17th street prevents the plaza from reaching its full potential.

Denver Urbanism looked at the intersection of 17th and Wynkoop Streets in 2015 and said it may be the most important intersection in downtown Denver. It is, after all, the first two streets many people see in Denver when they arrive from the airport or the suburbs. How would closing it to cars be of benefit to people and the city?

17th Street 1
Though the neighborhood was quiet when this photo was taken, the intersection at 17th and Wynkoop often has traffic backups.

From a driver’s standpoint, it makes sense. With one lane each way, the drive down the short four blocks of 17th street is tedious, and at times it is nearly impossible. Lights at 15th, 16th, 18th, and 19th streets slow cars down. The intersection at 17th and Wynkoop is a three-way stop, and with so many pedestrians and cyclists crossing, traffic moves slowly. This is good for pedestrians and cyclists, but cars have nowhere to go. This beckons the question, why are cars there at all?  Other than extremely limited street parking, there is no parking for cars on this side of Union Station. The entire station and all the restaurants along Wynkoop have valet parking, and there are only a couple of parking garages, but neither are accessed by using 17th street. Is Wynkoop Street actually needed to access these points? Wynkoop doesn’t connect directly to Speer of 20th, two main roads in and out of downtown. Most cars on Wynkoop are there to access Union Station, but when everyone tries to get to 17th and Wynkoop to drop someone off or valet their car, it just creates a traffic jam.  Closing Wynkoop would actually spread out traffic and have vehicles use three separate drop-off points: Wynkoop at 16th, Wynkoop at 18th, and 17th between Wynkoop and Wazee. Take out all of the taxis, Uber and Lyft vehicles, people trying to valet, and people who are just picking up and dropping off friends and family, and chances are you wouldn’t have many cars left anyway.

From a pedestrian point of view, the area is nice, but it could be nicer. While the plaza in front of the station is large and friendly, cars limit access.  Heavy traffic on Wynkoop limits crossing the street and accessing the 16th street mall and downtown at one of two or three intersections only. As plazas go, the current Wynkoop Plaza is rather narrow. It’s only around 70 feet wide from the front of Union Station to Wynkoop Street.  The length of the plaza, however, is around 750 feet, making it over ten times as long as it is wide, and traffic can limit activities on the plaza.

New York City looked into closing Broadway Street at Time Square, and there was a public outcry, but after testing it, Broadway became a pedestrian-only area in 2009. Locally, Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall is only 4 blocks long (as is Wynkoop), but no traffic allows people, performers, and events to freely take over the area. Denver’s 16th Street Mall was designed for pedestrian use, but constant buses keep people from taking over the street. Denver is considering taking buses off the mall for this reason.

Chris Jones is a self-described Urbanist and video maker. His YouTube channel, Pickled Entropy, creates videos which highlight how to make amazing cities even better. In 2016, Chris put together a video on this very subject:

As Chris points out, Denver’s Union Station Plaza have much in common with the world’s great plazas, but the cars still separate if from the city. It is accessible from Union Station, has features which create a welcoming environment such as density and pavers, and it is within the right size range for a public plaza, albeit on the smaller end.

How would a traffic-free Wynkoop Street look in Denver? There are a few obstacles. First, let’s look at parking. There is extremely limited street parking along Wynkoop. The Northwest side of Wynkoop between 16th and 18th has no parking at all, and many parts of the remaining street are valet or loading zones only. Eliminating street parking wouldn’t actually take away a lot of spaces. Most spaces in the area are in one of three parking garages along Wynkoop. You can see where they are located here. By looking at the map, you can see that there are no parking garages between 17th and 18th streets. There is one garage behind the Icehouse building along 18th Street, and there is an entrance point in the middle of Wynkoop Street between 18th and 19th Streets, but upon closer inspection, you can see that it is actually one large continuous garage which also has entrances at 18th and 19th Streets. If you closed Wynkoop Street from just North of 16th Street to 19th Street, you could still access every garage along Wynkoop without issues.

18th Street Ends
18th Street is used to access parking garages and RTD buses use 18th Street to access the bus terminal in Union Station

Buses use 18th Street to access Union Station and the I-25 HOV lanes enter downtown at 19th Street. There is a large parking lot behind the old Denver Train Station, now Denver Chophouse, and 19th street is also used by Rockies staff for access to the stadium, but closing Wynkoop Street between 18th and 19th Streets would have no impact on this traffic. Wynkoop Street could look like the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder: a few blocks long, no traffic, and 18th and 19th streets would continue to cross the plaza. Again, 19th to 20th is already a pedestrian plaza, and with new development plans at 19th and Wynkoop just announced, the area will become more vibrant and lively.

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A narrow sidewalk lines Wynkoop Street between 18th and 19th Streets. The day this photo was taken, the weather was rainy and the temperature was around 40 degrees.

Wynkoop Street is roughly 50 feet wide from curb to curb and is 1300 feet long from the entrance to the parking garage by 16th street to the beginning of the current pedestrian plaza at 19th street. The sidewalks, however, are rather narrow in places given that this is supposed to be a pedestrian-focused area.  Closing Wynkoop to traffic and allowing 18th and 19th streets to continue across the plaza would add over 1.3 acres of pedestrian space to downtown.

Closing Wynkoop Street to cars would still allow access to all parking garages in the area, Valet stands could still operate, it would spread out drop-off points around the station making it easier for cars to pick up and drop off passengers, and it would create a wide, friendly area for pedestrians, cyclists, and street events. It would provide a continuous connection with the 16th Street Mall from Union Station, allowing people to stroll, shop, and congregate throughout downtown. Bars like Howl at the Moon and Fado’s Irish Pub are already on a closed pedestrian plaza, and they do a lively amount of business. Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall is full of restaurants and coffee shops which thrive on a car-free street. If Denver wants to have a true crown jewel entrance into the city, closing Wynkoop between 16th and 19th would go a long way towards making Wynkoop Plaza a successful location for everyone.

We’d like to know what you think about closing Wynkoop Street to vehicular traffic. Leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts!

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Special thank to Chris Jones at Pickled Entropy for allowing Could Be Denver to use his video. For more from Pickled Entropy, visit their Facebook page.

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