Aug 10, 2023 - News

Downtown Denver's post-pandemic recovery continues to lag behind other metros

Downtown Denver foot traffic recovery
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Seasons are March-May (spring), June-Aug. (summer), Sept.-Nov. (fall) and Dec.-Feb. (winter); Visitors determined by counting unique mobile phones in ZIP codes with high employee density; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Downtown Denver foot traffic still lags compared to pre-pandemic levels, despite new development projects, research initiatives and pricey plans from city officials to breathe life into the business district.

Why it matters: Even as COVID ebbs, the era of remote and hybrid work has major implications for the city center, which has historically relied on commuters who spend money before, during and after their shifts.

Driving the news: New mobile phone activity downtown was recorded at 56% of what it was pre-COVID, according to data analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.

  • Although leases for downtown office space are ticking up, the vacancy rate is 28% in Denver's central business district and 13% in Lower Downtown, per a recent analysis from global real estate company JLL.

The intrigue: Vehicle traffic has come roaring back β€” now at just 2% below 2019 levels β€” which ranks the city near the top nationally. But much of that happens on nights and weekends, the latest study by traffic analysis firm INRIX found.

What they're saying: "What that tells me is that a lot of people are coming into downtown for reasons other than the office," Bob Pishue, the study's lead analyst, told the Denver Business Journal.

The big picture: Cities with downtowns that almost exclusively catered to office workers, like Denver, are struggling to recover in the remote and hybrid work era, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

  • But several U.S. cities with diverse downtowns β€” meaning, a healthy mixture of office space, housing, attractions and more β€” have nearly returned to, or even exceeded, their pre-pandemic foot traffic rates.

What's next: Denver Mayor Mike Johnston has pledged to address the decline of downtown and transform it into a space where people live, work and play.

  • City officials are working on a long-term plan to create a central neighborhood to bolster the existing business district with new office-to-residential conversions, retail, restaurants and entertainment.
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