Change never has been especially welcome at Denver Union Station, the gray stone landmark at the base of 17th Street whose sunlit great hall still evokes the golden age of rail travel.
But in recent months, the sleeping giant has been thrust into a strange new role: as the centerpiece of a real estate boom that has shaken up its own board of directors. Spurred by the construction of Coors Field, the planned extension of the 16th Street Mall, and a slew of projected activity in the Central Platte Valley, lower downtown has become Denver's trendiest hotspot--and whether it likes it or not, venerable Union Station has become a key player.
Over the past two years, half the shares in the Denver Union Terminal Railway Company quietly have been transferred from the railroads that originally built the station to real estate developers. Two of DUT's six ownership shares now belong to Trillium Corporation, the Bellingham, Washington, company that last year asked the Denver Urban Renewal Authority to help fund a massive retail complex along Wynkoop Street that would wrap around the station and require the demolition of the post office's adjacent Terminal Annex.
Recent developments suggest that Trillium's controversial "Denver Union Center" proposal may be running out of steam, at least in its original form. But the Washington company isn't the only developer that now has a say in the depot's future. The second real estate magnate in the mix is Denver's Pat Broe, a successful property developer who picked up the Santa Fe Railway's share in the station last summer in a deal involving his system of short-line railroads. The reclusive Broe, described by some observers as a junior Phil Anschutz due to his railroad empire-building and penchant for privacy, is said to have his own ideas for the 1914-era landmark.
Meanwhile, the Burlington Northern Railroad, whose real estate subsidiary gave up its two DUT shares in a 1991 land sale to Trillium, bought back into the station last summer by picking up the long-defunct Rock Island Line's old share. "I suspect that they looked at the revival of real estate interests going on down there and must have felt it was a good investment," says Charles Albi, a DUT watcher and executive director of the Colorado Railroad Museum.
This isn't the first time that Union Station has found itself in the middle of a speculative binge. Back in the mid-1980s, when Denver was unsuccessfully pushing for the elimination of train service into DUT, it appeared that the entire eighteen-acre terminal property would be open for development. In return for assurances that the train station wouldn't be torn down, says city planner Dick Farley, the city cut a deal giving DUT permission to construct twenty-story office towers on either side of the terminal.
The DUT board, composed of two representatives from each ownership share, never has come close to exercising that option, in part because of market realities and in part because the railroads that owned the station historically were more interested in moving freight than expanding investment portfolios. But to neighborhood groups in the increasingly residential area around the station, the tower zoning combines with the Trillium proposal--a two-block-long behemoth with a projected build-out of 369,500 square feet--to pose a significant threat.
"The impact of this on lower downtown would be overwhelming," says Manny Salzman, president of the St. Charles Neighborhood Group. Now that Trillium also owns a piece of the railroad station, says Salzman, it conceivably could link its planned retail center with DUT's towers to create a truly colossal commercial-retail complex.
Trillium regional vice president Merilee Utter insists her firm has no interest at all in DUT's towers--an assurance that makes sense given the trouble the company has had getting its own project off the ground.
The proposal Trillium hurriedly submitted to the Denver Urban Renewal Authority last May to meet the agency's deadlines called for a partnership with the development arm of AMC Entertainment, the nationwide theater chain. But ten months later, the relationship with AMC has yet to be formalized--even though the initial plans called for the project's "nucleus" to be a 24-screen AMC "Mega-Plex" cinema.
"One way or the other, we're going to have a retail development partnership worked out with somebody," says Trillium's Utter. "Hopefully it's AMC. If not, we'll have somebody else."
Because it owns a healthy chunk of land in the Platte Valley and is projecting healthy sales-tax revenues, Trillium can likely count on support from city officials for its proposal. But the delays the firm has encountered--among other things, it's been forced into city-sponsored mediation sessions with Tattered Cover bookstore owner Joyce Meskis, who submitted her own competing proposal to DURA--have opened the door for other development at the station.
Several private businesses already have contacted the DUT board about leasing space in the sprawling structure, says board president Dave Uhrich, an assistant vice president for contracts and real estate with the Union Pacific Railroad. Most of the proposals call for restaurants, Uhrich adds, and the board also has heard from the Denver Metro Convention and Visitor's Bureau, which is mulling a move from its aging tourist center near the State Capitol.
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In the absence of a specific offer from Trillium, Uhrich says, assembling a hip clientele in the existing structure is the most likely option DUT has for keeping pace with the LoDo boom. And that option, says city planner Bar Chadwick, could be desirable to the four other owners who may worry about emerging as a "stepchild" to the huge Trillium proposal, which among other things calls for Union Station to be sandwiched between two new buildings.
A low-key attempt at station renovation would give the Denver-based Broe more control over his latest acquisition. And it would leave the three railroads that still own shares in the terminal free to concentrate on their bread-and-butter issue: transportation. The station owners recently took part in a six-month study of DUT's potential as a hub for commuter rail, Amtrak trains, local and regional buses and shuttle vans. The Union Pacific has been an avid supporter of the city's vaunted "Air Train," which would run along its tracks; the Burlington has its own visions for commuter lines to the northern suburbs; and Phil Anschutz's Southern Pacific (formerly the Rio Grande) continues to operate the much-loved Ski Train.
The train station's new ownership structure is a "difficult group" that has yet to come to terms with its conflicting interests, notes Trillium's Utter. Her company--which has backed away from its projection of a 1995 grand opening and now says 1996 is "acceptable"--hopes its colleagues on the DUT board will make a decision on the Denver Union Center concept this summer, she says. "Our statements at the DUT board meetings have been, `Just do something, just do something,'" she says. "The building is deteriorating, and there are lots of things they could do--just pick one and do it."
But hurrying things along has never been part of the corporate culture at Union Station. Like the Amtrak passengers who each day line the wooden benches in the great hall, Trillium and the other players in the LoDo scene may just have to get used to waiting.