Construction Watch

Denver Close to Settling Railroad Lawsuit at National Western Center

A look at the future National Western Center, with the landmark arena top left.
A look at the future National Western Center, with the landmark arena top left. National Western Center
The City of Denver is close to solving a major obstacle to its billion-dollar National Western Center project.

"This is an exciting moment for the program, a very monumental moment," Brad Dodson, deputy director of the National Western Center at the Mayor's Office, told a Denver City Council committee hearing yesterday, August 27.

That moment came when the city recently agreed to pay the Denver Rock Island Railroad $16.75 million as part of a legal settlement that will allow the city to relocate DRIR tracks at the site of the proposed National Western Center expansion, which is just east of the South Platte River and north of I-70...and right along the railroad. As part of the settlement, the city will receive the property on which the existing railways are located; it will then move those lines, combining them with existing ones away from what are expected to be highly-trafficked pedestrian areas.

"None of the work for phase one and two can continue on schedule without this action," Dodson added.

If approved by city council, the settlement will end a legal challenge that jeopardized the city's planned vision for the National Western Center, which Denver envisions as "a year-round destination that is just as much for the cowboy as for the urbanite."

The fight over the rail lines has been a lengthy one. Although the battle between DRIR and the City of Denver over these tracks moved to the courts in February, the two sides have been negotiating for more than three years.

Currently, DRIR has tracks next to the South Platte River. The master plan for the complex calls for these tracks to be removed so that pedestrians can more safely and easily make use of areas along the river. "There was a vision from the community, from the neighborhoods, that opened up the river and allowed access for people to engage and enjoy the South Platte and engage with nature," Dodson told the committee. Access to the river is also blocked by large wastewater pipes, which council has already voted to relocate and move underground.

There are also DRIR tracks running directly through the future site of the National Western Center, which would have prevented the development of open-space areas on the property.

According to the settlement, both sets of tracks will be removed and relocated to an expanded rail line just southeast of the site. DRIR operations won't be disrupted, since tracks will not be removed until the new tracks are fully operational.

The National Western Center project has been a significant focus of Mayor Michael Hancock's entire tenure in office. Just as he was stepping into his role as CEO for the city in summer 2011, Hancock got word that the National Western Stock Show was being wooed by Aurora. In his first inaugural speech, Hancock said he was going to "find a win-win solution to the challenges and opportunities facing the National Western Stock Show." And that's why his administration decided to extend Denver's lodging and rental-car tax, an initiative approved by voters in 2015, and combine those funds with public-private partnerships to help pay for the gigantic new campus in north Denver.

With the rail issue settled, the National Western Center's construction of the stockyard and stockyard event center is on track for completion sometime in 2021. The equestrian center is slated to be finished in 2022, while the livestock center and refurbishing of the South Platte riverfront should both be finished by 2023.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.