Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

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

Next year, RTD will extend its light-rail line from the Auraria campus to Union Station, serving the Pepsi Center, Mile High Stadium and Elitch Gardens along the way. A new facility for bicyclists is slated to open a year from now at 16th and Wynkoop streets. It calls for bicycle rental, a full-service repair shop, secure parking and shower facilities, all of which are intended to make bicycling a viable option for commuters.

"The intent is to provide a place that would foster the culture of bicycles," says Gwen Anderson, director of the Union Station Transport Development Company, a nonprofit group promoting reuse of the station.

To do all of this, RTD will need help. So several other government agencies will be involved, including the Denver Regional Council of Governments, which plans to channel $20 million of federal highway money toward the project, and the City of Denver, which may give as much as $10 million of surplus TABOR tax revenues that voters approved last year. RTD would fund the balance.

Anthony Camera
Joanne and Manny Salzman have lived on Wynkoop Street for two decades.
Anthony Camera
Joanne and Manny Salzman have lived on Wynkoop Street for two decades.

"The city will put up a substantial amount," says Wayne Cauthen, the mayor's chief of staff. "We have a lot invested in that part of town, and we feel an intermodal facility would allow us to meet regional transit needs."

But an agreement to buy the station will have to be made first, a goal that may be difficult now because of the deal that the city made with the station's owners in 1988.

Denver in the 1980s was a sad place.

The oil and gas industry, a major employer, went into a depression. After years of speculative construction, the real estate market crashed, and thousands of homes went into foreclosure. A house just minutes from downtown could be had for $40,000. Office buildings sat half empty, companies laid off employees, local governments slashed their budgets.

Denver was in the dumps.

Desperate to turn things around, Mayor Federico Peña's administration frantically tried to stimulate the economy. A huge new airport was planned, as well as a new convention center. The city also turned its attention to the dusty railyards along the South Platte River. For years, people had talked about redeveloping the railyards, which were no longer heavily used. Now the city wanted to show that something could happen there.

"Denver was really in a situation similar to other cities like Chicago and Boston, where we were trying to redevelop the center city," recalls former Denver planning director Bill Lamont.

The key to opening up the valley was to get the cooperation of the railroads. If they hadn't been willing to work with Denver, notes Lamont, today there would be no Elitch Gardens, Pepsi Center or Coors Field.

In order to do this, however, the city had to make some sacrifices.

In addition to redeveloping the Central Platte Valley, the city also wanted to create a historic district in lower downtown, one that might create a real estate buzz and eventually inspire investments and tourism.

The idea was a radical one at the time, and most property owners opposed it, including the railroads that owned Union Station. Former Denver planner Dick Farley, who now works for the landscape architecture firm Civitas, says the railroads were adamant about being kept outside the historic district. Plans called for moving the tracks away from the station and into the valley and building a makeshift shelter for Amtrak and Ski Train passengers. That would have taken Union Station out of service, says Farley, and "the owners were making threats about what they might do to the building. They'd say, 'You don't want to see this thing boarded up or left to the whim of our real estate guys.'"

This prompted the negotiations that led to the 1988 deal. In return for agreeing to preserve the main building and the two wings of Union Station, the owners won the right to build two 250-foot towers behind the station, as well as smaller buildings along Wynkoop Street. They also remained outside of the historic district. "We didn't want to lose the building," Farley says. "We were playing poker with a really valuable part of our history. It's tough to play hardball at that point. I think it was the right thing to do at the time. It kept Union Station an active and beautiful building."

Lamont agrees, saying the railroads were powerful enough to have killed the idea for the historic district. He also points out that the city needed their cooperation in order to open up the Central Platte Valley. "If this hadn't happened, the redevelopment of the Central Platte Valley and LoDo wouldn't have been jump-started."

The agreement makes it clear, however, that should the city try to change the zoning and take away the right of the owners to build the two towers, the owners can demolish the station.

"A breach or default by the city...shall be defined as zoning, land use or historic preservation action, direct or indirect, taken without Denver Union Terminal's consent," the document reads. "It shall be an additional breach of this agreement by the city if, after termination by the DUT for a breach or default by the city, the city prevents demolition of the station by means of the application of any ordinance, resolution, rule, regulation or other city-imposed control."

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