Denver International Airport's revised expansion plan cheaper but still flighty

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The good news about Denver International Airport's ambitious South Terminal Redevelopment Program (STRP) is that it's only eight months behind schedule and a projected few million bucks over its half-billion-dollar budget at this point, despite the loss of its "signature" architect, Santiago Calatrava, over artistic (i.e., financial) differences. And the bad news?

It consists of the many unknowns and shifting economic assumptions lurking in the stripped-down STRP.

DIA paid Calatrava around $14 million for his preliminary work on the terminal expansion, including some additonal licensing fees for the privilege of salvaging elements of his design for a train station-hotel-plaza complex. The revised steel-and-glass version has little of the drama of Calatrava's concept -- it looks more like some sleek ski goggles deposited outside DIA's tents. But it does seem more in keeping with the leaner budget for the project, which has seen other cutbacks (a smaller RTD train station, one less floor in the hotel, and so on) to knock the overall cost from $650 million to a bargain $500 million.

Yesterday, Denver auditor Dennis Gallagher released a performance audit of the STRP that, aside from some mild chiding over the "turbulence" involved in a shakeup of the design and program management, was mostly favorable. Still, lots of questions about how soon and to what degree DIA will see benefits from this hefty investment remain.

For instance: a market demand analysis for the new hotel, which DIA will own but will be operated by Starwood under the Westin brand, projects the hotel's net income in its first year of operation will be around $13.4 million, rising to $17 million in its tenth year. But is a two-thirds occupancy rate (going up to 74 percent by 2017) realistic?

Will Mayor Michael Hancock's push for an "aerotropolis" surrounding DIA help boost the hotel project -- or take away from it? And what happens if RTD's expectation that around 8 percent of DIA passengers will take the train to the airport -- that's more than 4 million people a year -- turns out to be way off the mark?

Many of the long-term questions about STRP can't be answered until the project is done (or until the trains start operating, which involves factors way beyond DIA's control). But with much of the tension and recrimination over Calatrava's involvement now in the past, the construction team can get focused on making this baby soar.

Here's another view of the revised station/hotel design, as seen from the south:

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Santiago Calatrava bails on DIA expansion: Paging Curt Fentress!"

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