I first saw Denver on a train coming from the East, as so many people had for almost a century at that point. Overnight, the Denver Zephyr (R.I.P.: 1973) had carried my family across the plains from Chicago, and when we’d woken up that morning, we’d spotted the mountains on the very distant horizon, at first so vague that they looked like a dream, the wishful thinking of flatlanders, but they became more and more substantial before we even spotted the outlines of a city and then finally pulled into Union Station. There was just enough time to explore the gritty realities of downtown Denver — in those days, the 16th Street Viaduct stretched over the Platte Valley before landing at a bustling city street that stretched beyond Broadway; no 16th Street Mall featured both free rides and freeloaders — before we jumped aboard the Yampa Valley Mail, sitting back with the dairy deliveries for our ride to Winter Park.
Fifty years later, I was back on another train, one that pulled out of the renovated Union Station at 5:54 a.m. The University of Colorado A Line was offering free trips to Denver International Airport (and six points in between) all day on Saturday, April 23, and within a few hours, the line of people eager to try the new commuter Train to the Plane (as the route will surely be called, despite CU’s having paid $5 million for a name certain to confuse most tourists) snaked back and forth across the plaza in front of the station. But only a few dozen people boarded this early, many of them train enthusiasts simply along for the ride; a few extremely optimistic pioneers were toting suitcases.
And along the 35-minute route, twenty years in the making, we passed many of the places where Denver will make its mark in the future.
RiNo: The sunrise was changing from purple to Broncos orange as the train passed Coors Field and headed to the first stop, at 38th and Blake in RiNo, a neighborhood name that barely existed a decade ago.(Then again, the nickname LoDo didn’t exist when I first saw Union Station.) These days, the area stretching past the ballpark and east from the South Platte is booming, and the artists/entrepreneurs who founded the River North Art District are fighting hard to keep the arts in RiNo. Which means keeping the artists in RiNo, and the group has come up with some savvy ways to do so, including creating a business improvement district. But at the same time, developers are buying up every available building and patch of property for future projects — and few plan to create an arty, affordable component. For the train’s debut, the district had set up a day of celebrations at the station — but across the tracks you could see Wazee Union, one of the great art incubators of the past few years, fenced off in anticipation of being scraped off.
National Western Center: The train turned just short of the National Western Complex, the focus of one of the city’s next showpiece projects, one taxpayers voted last fall to subsidize with an indefinite extension of the Denver lodging tax. The plan calls for expanding the site from the home of the three-week-a-year National Western Stock Show into a billion-dollar, year-round venue that will have something for everyone, from parks and performance places along the Platte to a state-of-the-art Colorado State University ag center. Already the circa 1906 arena at the edge of the complex has been given landmark status, which secures that building’s future. But many questions remain about this project, including how the rest of it will be financed and how it will fit into the “Corridor of Opportunity,” as Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration has dubbed the route stretching up Brighton Boulevard and all the way to the airport.
Central 70: Opportunities have not been overwhelming for the residents of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, not since many of the factories that sprang up along the railroad tracks closed up, leaving behind tough environmental legacies. How they’ll be affected by the expanded National Western Center is just one of the uncertainties in the area. There’s also the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Central 70 project (formerly I-70 East), thirteen years (and counting) in the making, which calls for replacing the increasingly rickety I-70 viaduct with a new, wider highway, much of it underground and capped to allow the neighborhoods to come together. The train provided a new view of this stretch, one you don’t see in either side’s presentations on the controversial project. CDOT envisions a worry-free superhighway that takes 140,000 cars a day straight to Denver, passing the Purina factory (and, farther south, the golf course that’s the proposed site for a stormwater drainage project that the city swears has nothing to do with the I-70 rebuild) and sweeping by the National Western Center without somehow causing a decade-long construction snarl as many of those cars leave I-70 to head downtown. Meanwhile, those who’d like to “ditch the Ditch” and reroute I-70 around north Denver entirely have created a video with a lovely look at a sweeping boulevard that would replace the highway and somehow absorb all that traffic headed downtown, an animated stretch lined by businesses but few of the extremely modest homes and more modest businesses that now line both sides of the tracks. Take away the highway, and what’s to stop developers from buying out these spots and then filling all the newly empty space with more fugly complexes?
The Denver Jail: Crossing Colorado Boulevard, the train paralleled Smith Road, and the rising sun glinted off the elaborate wire fencing around the Denver Reception & Diagnostics Center — a spot few have seen unless they’re visiting someone inside, or heading there themselves. Before Denver residents voted to fund a new justice center downtown, this was the main Denver jail, run by the Denver Sheriff’s Department, and it’s still the focus of many of the controversial episodes that have dogged that department in recent years. There’s a new sheriff in town, Patrick Firman, but he’s only been on the job for six months, and the long list of reforms suggested by the long list of city-hired consultants isn’t complete. Will Denver get a grip on the proper handling of prisoners and quit making pricey settlement after settlement? That verdict’s not in yet.
Urban sprawl: From there, the train picked up speed — unlike light rail, this commuter train can go well over 70 mph — and zipped past the housing developments that are always marching farther out onto what had been empty space. Three decades ago, when boosters proposed building a new airport, people scoffed at the site 25 miles from downtown. Now downtown is growing ever closer; Stapleton, the former airport, is cited as a model example of new urbanism. A century ago, developers promised would-be homesteaders headed to the arid west that rain would follow the plow; today, municipalities anticipate a rain of new projects following the train.
Denver International Airport: Soon the train passed over Peña Boulevard — sadly, there were no sightings of the buffalo that Mayor Wellington Webb once proposed for this stretch, but we did get an excellent view of Blucifer — and then pulled into the station. A quick thrill ride past new public art up the steep, five-story escalator leading to the plaza outside the Westin hotel, and we were just minutes from the south entrance to the Jeppeson Terminal — and what later turned out to be an epic ninety-minute wait for security at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday. If TSA can’t handle the system now, how will it cope with whatever is to come? This month, the four international applicants that have already qualified will begin submitting proposals for their new concepts for DIA’s main terminal, and although there have been few limits put on their vision, there’s general agreement that security will move outside the area — leaving the stomach-churning possibility that the vast space under the iconic tent could become a giant shopping mall open only to ticketed passengers. Just when the future was looking so full of possibilities, including this:
A day before public officials gathered to toast the inaugural Train to the Plane, they’d gotten word that the Colorado Transportation Commission had authorized a $1.5 million grant to Winter Park, to help build a platform alongside the train tracks, one of the last alleged obstacles to Amtrak starting up a new ski train. Just imagine travelers being able to fly into DIA, then travel by train to Union Station and hop on another train that will speed them past the traffic on I-70 west of the city (that’s another CDOT challenge) to reach the Denver-owned ski resort. It won’t have the charm of changing into our ski clothes amid the mail bags and milk cans on the Yampa Valley Mail, but the A Line will have its own charms...and challenges.
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As we waited for the return trip, RTD’s digital signs noted that the trains were delayed — less than two hours into the day’s schedule — and apologized for the “inconvenience.” Turned out that someone had decided to try to beat the train and gotten his car stuck on a crossing.