By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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When Joanne and Manny Salzman moved into their 3,500-square-foot loft on Wynkoop Street in 1980, no one had heard of LoDo. The area was filled with empty warehouses and broken windows, and the couple's former neighbors in Hilltop worried about them walking the deserted streets at night.
But the opportunity to live in the oldest part of Denver was exciting to the Salzmans. They loved the beautiful row of warehouses lining the south side of Wynkoop and the old businesses and restaurants that had managed to survive years of boom and bust. The best part, though, was the graceful, century-old train station across the street, a genuine piece of the city's history that had managed to hang on even as Denver zoomed into the space age.
Widely regarded as the most important building in lower downtown, Union Station occupies a proud place at the center of old Denver. Although it was written off as train travel declined in the last few decades -- only two passenger trains a day enter the station -- the Regional Transportation District now sees it as a future hub for a transit network that would include not just the railroad, but light rail, shuttles, buses and bicycles. It would be Denver's own Grand Central Station. Already in the middle of a surge of new construction in LoDo and the Central Platte Valley, the picturesque depot would be the centerpiece of that plan.
But while many people assume that the landmark is as permanent a part of the landscape as the State Capitol, it actually sits outside of the Lower Downtown Historic District, which protects many buildings from being torn down or severely altered. It is also privately owned. In fact, as part of a 1988 deal to save the station from the wrecking ball, the City of Denver gave the owners the right to put up two 22-story towers behind the terminal.
In cooperation with the city, RTD is currently negotiating to buy the station and sixteen acres around it at an asking price that reportedly begins at $20 million. But the dealings have been complicated by a dispute between the station's three owners. Trillium Corporation, a large real estate company that owns half of the station, would benefit greatly from the sale since it also owns land zoned for high-density development that would suddenly be across the tracks from the best-connected place in town. Sources say the company is ready to make a deal. However, Denver real estate investor Pat Broe, who owns one sixth of the station, and Union Pacific Railroad, which owns a third, are said to be claiming that the property is worth more than RTD wants to pay. The reason: the zoning for the two 22-story towers that Denver approved in 1988, which could add millions of dollars to the value of the property.
The Salzmans, who founded the first neighborhood group in LoDo and played an important role in the creation of the historic district, believe the towers, if they are ever constructed, would be an "obscenity."
"Union Station is a lovely old building," says Joanne, who serves on the powerful Lower Downtown Demolition Design Review Board. "It could be the center again of a lot of wonderful things, but having the terminal next to these huge towers would submerge the whole thing."
Manny, the former chief of radiology at Denver General Hospital, vividly recalls testifying before the city council against the zoning deal that allowed for the construction of the twin towers. He says the owners of the beloved icon will find out just how much Denver has changed since 1988 if they try to press for the massive development now. "It's a different time," he says. "The whole neighborhood would be outraged. I think the whole city would be outraged."
Whatever happens, Union Station is about to become the center of a new wave of development. Its owners have never hesitated to use Denver's affection for the train palace to strike deals, even hinting that they might demolish the building if the city didn't give into their demands. Whether the city can protect its heritage is still open to question.
Union Station was the place where Denver came to be.
In the days when a city lived or died at the whim of the railroads, Union Station was the epicenter, the stepping-off point for every new resident and the only link between the isolated high-plains town and the rest of the country. Done up in granite and wrought iron, two-story-high windows flooding its large waiting room with sunlight, the Renaissance Revival-styled station was designed to impress. Even the warehouses that sprang up across the street were something special, their owners embellishing the brick facades with fanciful stonework and arched windows that seemed to say "You've arrived."
In the chaotic 1870s, Denver was served by eight different railroads, each with its own tiny depot. By 1879, the railroads decided it made more sense to have one station, and they incorporated the Denver Union Depot and Railroad Company to build it. Walter Cheesman, the real estate developer now remembered for the Denver park that bears his name, assembled four blocks for the station between 16th, 18th, Wynkoop and Delgany streets. New York mogul Jay Gould, who controlled the Denver Pacific, Kansas Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, helped finance the construction.