Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

Union Station's past will have a major impact on its future.

The first structure opened in 1881, a $525,000 Italianate swirl of pink lava stone from Castle Rock with limestone trim from Manitou Springs. In 1894, a fire destroyed the center section, which was rebuilt with a Romanesque Revival square clock tower. By 1914, traffic had increased to the point that Denver needed a bigger station, so the center section was demolished and replaced with a larger, Beaux-Arts-style building designed by Aaron Gove and Thomas Walsh. That granite-and-concrete masterpiece is now an icon. (Only the building's two wings remain from the original 1881 station.)

Lower downtown grew up to serve the station, offering hotels and restaurants to travelers and storage-and-transfer facilities to businesses moving goods through town. Union Station reached its peak in the 1940s, when more than sixty trains chugged in every day, including a dozen from Chicago. As rail traffic dropped following World War II and the introduction of airplanes and interstate freeways, however, the area went into a decline.

While Union Station has never been as extraordinary as the massive depots in Washington, D.C., St. Louis and other cities, there are several things that make it special. Most important, it survived. Many historic stations in other cities have been torn down and replaced with glorified sheds. And despite years of neglect, Union Station is largely intact. Best of all, it's in a remarkably central location, with easy access to the highways and just steps away from the 16th Street Mall.

Dick Farley is a former Denver city planner.
Anthony Camera
Dick Farley is a former Denver city planner.

"I think the station's setting is very important," says Kathleen Brooker, president of Historic Denver. She says train stations have been at the heart of the historic-preservation movement in many cities. The demolition of New York's legendary Pennsylvania Station in 1963 infuriated thousands of people and led to the passage of the first national preservation laws. Later, a plan to build a skyscraper on top of Grand Central Station in New York resulted in an important 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that local preservation laws were constitutional. Since then, other cities, including Seattle, Kansas City and Los Angeles, have renovated their train stations.

In past decades, Brooker says, few people believed that train stations would ever again be transit hubs. "Twenty years ago, a lot of them became restaurants and historical societies," she says. "It's only now that people are talking about reusing them for transportation."

Just a few years ago, only visionaries could have imagined that Union Station would take on new life as a transit hub. Denver wasn't seen as the sort of place that would ever have the elaborate commuter rail systems found in older cities in other parts of the country. The city's own long-term plan called for preserving the station as a relic, a monument to a lost form of transportation that had created Denver and then became extinct.

Then something happened that changed the minds of powerful people: Denver got stuck in traffic.

The 500,000 people who moved to the area in the past decade brought their cars with them, and the resulting gridlock angered the public. To someone sitting on a freeway, the notion of riding a train to work no longer seemed far-fetched. The opening of RTD's light-rail line to Littleton last year has also made rail seem a viable alternative. Despite the predictions of conservative talk-radio hosts that the line would be a fiasco, it has proven to be popular, with ridership running 56 percent above projections and standing room only on many cars.

With construction about to begin on a second light-rail line down I-25 to Lincoln Avenue, a metro rail network is beginning to take shape. Although it will be years before there is convenient rail transit to places like Boulder and Denver International Airport, the decision to create a metro transit hub at Union Station was a momentous one, and the eventual cost is estimated to be as much as $200 million.

"It will be customer-oriented, a seamless transportation hub," says Marilee Utter, a development specialist with RTD. "To do that, you have to have all the buses and trains there at the same time; you have to have a place where they all come together."

In RTD's grand scheme, Market Street Station would be closed and all its bus lines moved to a new facility underneath the tracks at Union Station. The 16th Street Mall shuttle would run to the station, and a new "intermodal" facility would be built behind the rail tracks. All of the area's light-rail trains, as well as regional buses, would stop at the station. There would also be Greyhound buses, a bike-rental facility, and even an electric-car depot, where visitors could rent non-polluting vehicles for trips around downtown. There are also plans to extend the Platte River Trolley, with its antique street cars, to the station. "We could also have Vespas, vans to Vail, and taxis," says Utter.

Since the metro rail network is still in its infancy, the station would probably cater more to these non-rail uses at first, Utter says. "One of the things it's hard for people to appreciate is the lead time on infrastructure. Until it's being built, it's hard for it to seem real."

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