Denver has emerged as the city of the '80s. In the '60s, it was Atlanta and Minneapolis. Houston was the boomtown of the '70s. In the '80s, the spotlight is on Denver." Such traditional hyperbole, from a promotion piece boosting this city, is best taken with a grain of salt.

Denver, however, may soon show the country something more than the present unbridled growth fueled by a floodtide of energy industries exploiting the Rocky Mountain region. An unconventional focus on downtown development is coming from an unexpected quarter--the city's captains of finance and industry. And it isn't your typical brand of rah-rah boosterism. Instead, this fast-expanding western city is talking about values such as quality urban design, historic preservation, downtown and close-in neighborhood housing.

An advanced form of managing the downtown retailing district is emerging here. Suddenly, it seems fair to say that Denver in the '80s embodies the "state of the art" of planning for more livable, competitive downtowns.

The new approach is sorely needed. Where low-scale development and natural western friendliness once prevailed, Denver banks and corporations have thrown their great marble slabs up to the sky, creating high-rise canyons and oftentimes a repelling street-level atmosphere. With the roaring office space boom, Denver has a ghost-town aura after working hours.

The catalyst for change was introduced two years ago when Downtown Denver, Inc., the city's 25-year-old, traditional trade association, recruited Richard Fleming as its president. Fleming is one of those indefatigable "civic entrepreneurs," timid city establishments hesitate to hire. But he brought with him the kind of experience--the Rouse Co., Central Atlanta Progress, work on the Carter administration's inner-city projects--that helps forge effective public-private partnerships.

Fleming quickly convinced the city's business elite to recast their organizational spructure from the ground up. First came formation of a new private-sector leadership forum, The Denver Partnership, with a board of 110 business leaders (mostly chief executive officers).

Then, under the partnership umbrella, Downtown Denver, Inc., reemerged as the management corporation for the 50-square block district surrounding the mile-long 16th Street pedestrian mall now being completed.

A chief goal will be to attract crowds evening and weekends, not just when the nearby office towers are filled with workers. The corporation plans to sponsor open-air concerts and festivals, arrange for crafts and produce markets, and hire mall attendants to provide cheerful directions and information to pedestrians. Costs will be paid by a mandatory assessment of businesses based on their estimated economic advantage from the new mall.

Consultant Fred Kent, a national expert on inner-city sector management corporations, says few cities even approach Downtown Denver's mix of legal powers, mandatory assessments and strong entrepreneurial leadership.

On the nonprofit side, the Denver Partnership has formed a second subsidiary called Denver Civic Ventures. A charitable, public-purpose group, its mission is to improve the quality of life of the inner city by encouraging high-quality urban design, historic preservation and the development of downtown housing. Already, Denver Civic Ventures' urban design team has proposed major revisions in the long-planned 16th Street Mall, to make it a more lively and attractive place, and for the lower downtown area, the closest thing to a historic district in the center city.

Now the same design team--six architects and planners--offers regular advice to developers on how they can shape their plans to promote mixed use, enhance the cityscape, and build an environment attractive to pedestrians. "We call it a friendly design review," says Fleming; in fact it looks like a tactful way to steer developers away from the sterile, single-purpose office towers that already blight so much of Denver and other city centers.

Sweet persuasion is not the only new tool being applied. There was great fear the 16th Street Mall could become a street-level tunnel between 70-story buildings. So Downtown Denver involved over 100 merchants, developers, architects, property owners and public officials in drawing up a major new zoning code. It rewards developers with greater height allowances if they will include such public-purpose amenities as ground-level, pedestrian-oriented retail space, historic preservation, and open plazas to let in the sunlight. The city council agreed unanimously.

The mall, set for opening next autumn, will have public transit terminals at each end, acting as intercept points for the regional bus system. But fumy buses won't traverse the mall itself; it will be serviced instead by low-slung electric vehicles. Operating every 60 to 90 seconds, they're supposed to match the convenience of elevators, linking the mall's stores, restaurants, offices and a planned Rouse Co. "festival marketplace" bigger than Baltimore's Harborplace.

Denver still faces a myriad of challenges. Heavy auto traffic pollution often casts a "brown cloud" over the city; that and traffic from the mushrooming downtown office concentration makes a regional light-rail system--so far rejected by the voters--virtually mandatory.

A lively 24-hour downtown requires permanent residents. Denver's acute shortage of affordable center-city housing is a serious problem that the partnership is committed to solving--as yet without a clear solution.

Denver Civic Ventures is also going all-out to get local firms (including Denver's 1,200-plus energy companies) to give 2 percent of their pre-tax profits to charity and encourage employe voluntarism. But so far many new raw-and-ready energy firms haven't thought beyond their own profits.

Denver can take hope, though, because it's mobilized the heavyweights in its business establishment to start looking beyond narrow self-interest and to understand the need for planning and careful management--especially in a booming "Sun Belt" city.