The location drew him in first.
As Scott Schaden scouted spots where he could open the restaurant of his dreams, he found one with views of Denver’s famous Big Blue Bear and theater right out the front door. He edited his concept so it would fit the space, then three months ago, the chef-owner brought Terra Denver to life.
Denver is “such a downtown city,” he said.
Bustling by day and night, Schaden wanted to be in the heart of the excitement. He moved back from Chicago several years ago, where the downtown folded up around 5 p.m., he said.
“And a lot of it was because crime is really bad,” he said. “I’m worried it seems like Denver is starting to become that way.”
A contractor had all the tools stolen from their truck while working at Terra. One prospective employee passed on a job once they learned its address, Schaden said. Then someone grabbed Schaden’s two laptops from his vehicle in the minutes it took him to run inside the restaurant for something he forgot.
Schaden is excited the downtown feels like it’s returning to pre-pandemic levels, but he’s eager for the city to address crime and safety. He thinks one solution will be getting even more people back to the downtown. The more lights that are on, the more business activity there is, the faster safety might improve, he said.
“It’s like reverse broken window theory,” he said.
Safety through urban design
Denver has been rolling out plans aimed at accomplishing that with a focus on economic recovery and environmental design.
In August, the city council approved a $2.4 million contract with the Downtown Denver Partnership to help the downtown economy recover, something city officials say will be crucial in boosting safety.
Half a million dollars of the contract was contributed by the Denver Department of Safety, so that the DDP can specifically pursue crime prevention and safety projects – which, under this contract, it will focus entirely on environmental design philosophies.
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, is used across the country and has been tried in Denver for several years.
Owners and organizations can invite a CPTED certified police officer to survey their property – such as a business, home or neighborhood – and make recommendations about how they can prevent crime through CPTED-approved environmental design.
That could be adding security cameras, installing better lighting, putting up a fence or changing the landscaping. The property or business owner then decides which recommendations they want to put in place, and traditionally, it’s on their dime.
With the first round of ARPA funding, Denver has put $1.5 million toward issuing CPTED grants to lift that financial burden for some, including the $500,000 given to the DDP.
While the DDP is focused on the downtown and managing CPTED projects there, the other vendors deploying the $1.5 million in contracts are RTD at Union Station, an initiative led by Brothers Redevelopment along east Colfax, and another to-be-determined vendor also on Colfax.
Residents and business owners often point to people using drugs in public, appearing to have behavioral health challenges, exhibiting signs of severe mental illness and the high population of individuals experiencing homelessness as the safety concerns they see most commonly in the downtown.
The pandemic also worsened an already upward trend in crime, they said.
In the downtown, auto thefts rose from 50 in 2019 to 71 in 2020, according to uniform crime reporting statistics published by the DPD. Thefts from motor vehicles climbed from 100 to 148. Burglary spiked from 30 incidents to 83. Aggravated assaults also rose, from 85 in 2019 to 114 in 2020. The highest concentration of crimes occurred along 16th Street.
The crime plaguing downtown Denver reflects a broader spike in crime in Colorado from 2019 to 2021. That sharp rise applies to both violent and property crimes. Notably, car theft rose 86% and murder increased 47%.
Policymakers and experts, depending upon which side of the political aisle they inhabit, offer competing theories for crime spike. Supporters of "harm reduction" strategies argue that multiple factors contribute to crime statistics, including population changes. The latter group also argues that America's criminal system incarcerates too many people and offers too few resources to combat recidivism. Advocates for a tougher approach on crime blame what they describe as "criminal friendly" policies emanating from the state Capitol and argue this approach ties the hands of prosecutors and law enforcement.
What they don't dispute is the fact Colorado's crime numbers are among the worst in the country, and metro Denver, particularly downtown, often becomes the epicenter of the crime debate.
The central business district downtown is reporting the highest density of crime among Denver’s neighborhoods this month, according to the police department’s crime dashboard, and is the second highest for the year to date following Union Station.
Not everyone agrees on how the city should be tackling those issues.
Some expressed a desire for greater law enforcement presence and training, while "harm reduction" advocates said the city should be focused on providing social services, not more policing.
Many are optimistic that environmental design improvements through CPTED will help make a difference, if paired with the right menu of other public safety initiatives.
Department of Public Safety Chief of Staff Jeff Holliday said safety challenges in the downtown require a multi-faceted approach, and the city is hopeful the recent investments in environmental design and economic recovery will be one piece to the puzzle.
“When you are right in the thick of it, it can sometimes be hard to see a solution further out,” Holliday said. “I’m optimistic.”
More people, less crime
Kourtny Garrett, president and CEO of the DDP, said the plan laid out in its contract with the city is taking a holistic approach to improving the downtown.
Attracting people to the area and growing the local economy will both play a part in increasing safety, Garrett said.
Foot traffic in the downtown is still down 30% from 2019. About half of the downtown’s workforce is back during the business day, predominantly mid-week, Garrett said. That’s a trend playing out everywhere, not just Denver, and it feels amplified downtown because the area is a job center, she said.
“It is urban planning 101,” Garrett said. “When there are more people present in an area, it positively impacts both the perception and reality of safety.”
Through the CPTED arm of the plan, the DDP will analyze DPD data and statistics from the business improvement district’s security team to zero in on “places where we do see higher crime.” Once those locations are identified, the organization will ask the police department to do CPTED surveys there.
The DDP will coordinate with property owners and the city to put in the environmental design changes, and possibly secure some matching dollars from private property owners to amplify the ARPA grant, Garrett said.
The project is just now rolling out, so it’s also unclear how many property or business owners will participate or how far the dollars will stretch, she said. That depends on what the recommendations turn out to be.
“Those funds are intended to make a tangible difference in the near-term,” Garrett said.
The DDP wants to be “conscious and intentional about the way we talk about crime,” she said, addressing people who “are truly operating with criminal intent” but at the same time being “very sensitive and compassionate to those who are experiencing crisis.”
Issues regarding mental health and substance misuse require long-term, sustainable approaches that “support recovery and support the success of those individuals," Garrett said.
Residents weigh in
Leaders at the Upper Downtown Neighborhood Association have lived in the downtown for roughly a decade and say they watched how the pandemic affected the area’s safety.
The association began forming in 2021 as some residents wanted to address those safety issues, President Lisa Pope said.
What attracted her to the area years ago was its vitality, Pope said. Sports venues, restaurants and bars all within walking distance made the downtown “a very lively, fun place to live.”
“And then of course the pandemic hit, and that affected everyone,” she said.
People stayed home. Businesses went remote. When the downtown’s vibrancy chilled, she watched homelessness, open drug use and litter increase in the area, she said. She thinks those issues worsened because the downtown was empty.
Vice President Ron Townsend said residents report feeling unsafe walking around the downtown at night, particularly single women.
“We have friends who are not as comfortable coming to visit the downtown because of the visible homeless problem, and the perception of crimes,” he said, “And sometimes the perception isn’t reality, but it’s what people think.”
Townsend said the $500,000 going toward environmental improvements is wonderful, but he’s eager to see how the rest of the $2.4 million contract with DDP revitalizes the economy. Crime prevention measures alone won’t improve safety and boosting the economy will play a huge role, he said.
“I think that the two go hand-in-hand,” he said.
The association’s leadership said they would like to see more police officers in the downtown, training for law enforcement in how to handle the social issues, and more funding to connect people experiencing homelessness, mental illness and addiction with resources.
Pope said she’s heard similar stories to what Townsend described. Any perception that the downtown is too unsafe to visit needs to change, she said.
“CPTED is great. We need more police, anything DDP can do to fill up our vacant storefronts, especially on 16th Street Mall,” Pope said.
Effectiveness not tracked
Austen Munson, a community resource officer with DPD’s District 6, is one of the officers who conducts CPTED surveys and has worked with the neighborhood association. He completed the 40-week training roughly three years ago.
Munson said he saw an increase in requests for CPTED visits during the pandemic, when fewer people were visiting businesses or when they were shut down and owners worried about shops being vulnerable while they weren’t there.
Lighting is a major component to good environmental design and crime prevention, he said.
“If we can brighten it up and make it an area where people don’t feel safe to commit crimes, then that can deter some of that,” he said.
Encouraging maintenance is another key part. It’s one thing to put in more cameras, fencing, or signage, “but if you don’t maintain all that, then it can show that you are not really vested,” he said.
While Munson is an ardent believer in the program, the city does not track or analyze what effects it has had on crime to his knowledge.
“Just by implementing some of these things, I think it’s shown across that nation that improving lighting can help decrease crime in a certain area,” he said.
Holliday, the chief of staff with the Denver Department of Public Safety, said the city decided to include funding for CPTED in its downtown revitalization efforts because they’ve seen how the program was used in other parts of the city.
“We used CPTED in our response at Union Station,” Holliday said. “That CPTED that we shared with RTD at Union Station was in relative terms recently completed and it has significantly informed the evolution of development there aimed at reducing crime.”
Holliday also acknowledged the city has not found a means to track the program’s effectiveness but said “there have been nationally good results from the deployment of CPTED.” He also stressed the city is working across departments and using a variety of strategies to address downtown safety.
“I would just encourage folks that, if and as they see things, to not hesitate to continue to reach out to us,” he said.
Debating the right approaches
Terri Hurst, the policy coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said that one of her biggest frustrations regarding safety in Denver is that the LEAD program was not implemented as it was intended to be.
The LEAD program – the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program – aims to lower recidivism by diverting people from the criminal justice system into social services, such as supportive housing.
Hurst pointed to a report from the University of Colorado Denver that showed Denver was the lowest-performing of LEAD pilot sites in the state, Hurst said, adding the program feels forgotten. Among other alternatives to more policing, Hurst urged overdose prevention centers to address open drug use.
“I know people tend to shudder at that thought, but it actually does get people off of the streets,” Hurst said.
When it comes to increasing the law enforcement presence, Hurst insisted that’s not the answer for the specific issues playing out downtown.
“If we are talking about drug use, mental illness, and homelessness, more police officers aren’t going to solve that issue. What’s going to solve that issue is better access to treatment,” Hurst said. “When you look at what actually improves public safety, it’s helping people get out of poverty, helping people get employment, helping people get stabilized if they have an addiction or mental illness.”
Both Hurst and Jill Locantore, the executive director of Denver Streets Partnership, called for continued expansion of the city’s Support Team Assisted Response program, or STAR. The program deploys medical technicians and behavioral health clinicians to behavioral health calls, rather than police.
Locantore said “it isn’t surprising at all that the largest societal issues that we are all grappling with are playing out” in public spaces like the downtown, which should be safe for anyone who uses them – whether people are housed or unhoused, she said.
And Locantore knows CPTED well. She studied the philosophy while getting her degree in urban planning and has followed its implementation across the country.
“Theoretically, there is a core of a really good idea there,” she said.
Like everything, the devil is in the details, Locantore said.
Urban design can be implemented in ways hostile to people experiencing homelessness, she said. Oftentimes, an unhoused person is “just looking for a place to sit,” and strategies like removing seating “degrades the public spaces for all of us,” Locantore said.
The CPTED philosophy does not endorse anti-homeless designs.
Adequate lighting, or adjusting landscaping so that it doesn’t create hiding spaces where people might commit a crime, are “very, very basic things that I’d hope we could be thinking about all of the time," Locantore said. Good urban design shouldn’t require a program like CPTED, she said.
Still, Locantore is optimistic about the DDP managing the upcoming CPTED projects downtown, saying they “care about the quality of the public realm and aren’t just going to want to make the downtown like a hostile environment.”
“I think there can be some real value of that thoughtful application of urban design techniques,” she said.
Former district attorney Mitch Morrissey, a fellow at the Common Sense Institute, said the No. 1 thing that comes to mind when he thinks about improving the downtown’s safety is getting the police department staffed “up to the level it should be.”
The police department, just like every other police agency across the country, is having trouble recruiting, he said, while at the same time seeing “an awful lot of retirements.”
“You just cannot keep a city center and downtown area safe without the right number of police officers,” he said.
Denver should not only increase the number of officers but “also give them the skill and the training that’s necessary to confront the types of issues they are dealing with,” said Morrissey, who specifically mentioned homelessness and mental health.
The department needs officers who can recognize when they are working with someone who is in a mental health crisis, he said.
“It’s not just a sheer numbers thing, although you can get to a point where you are so lean that you cannot even cover the city,” he said.