Union Station may become Denver's gateway again -- if it stays on track

Passengers disembark from the rumbling trains by the hundreds, by the thousands. They've arrived at this station from Aurora and Littleton, from Golden and Boulder, even from over the Continental Divide and across the Great Plains. As the trains empty and creep away from the platforms, others pull in, disgorging more passengers.

The new arrivals stream across the yard, under sweeping wrought-iron canopies, through granite arches and into the cathedral-like train room: vaulted ceiling overhead, two-story windows, grand chandeliers. Lines form at ticket windows, out-of-towners stop by information desks and peruse restaurants and gift shops. Beyond it all, through the station's front doors, lies the Mile High City.

Welcome to Union Station, the gateway to Denver.

Such was the scene roughly a century ago. Union Station opened at 17th and Wynkoop streets in 1881 as a consolidated depot for the many railway interests in Denver, and its dramatic proportions — it was the largest building in the city — made it clear that it would be the connection between the young municipality and the rest of the world. Soon the station was welcoming as many as ninety trains a day, bringing with them laborers, merchants and visionaries, not to mention celebrities, presidents and royalty.

But after World War II, rail lines abdicated their reign to freeways and jetliners. Today, Union Station stands as a quiet shell of its former self, its great room often empty save for a straggle of passengers waiting for the two Amtrak trains that roll in each day, or the weekly runs of the Ski Train to Winter Park. While the building remains one of the most recognizable in the city, it has become an artifact, a quaint remembrance of a time when people took the advice of the station's iconic, illuminated "Travel by Train."

But Union Station could once again welcome rail passengers by the hundreds and thousands. In 2001, a consortium of public agencies purchased the station from its private owners in hopes that it would become the central hub of a future transportation system.

That system materialized in 2004, when voters approved FasTracks: 119 miles of new rail lines and 18 miles of bus rapid transit across the Front Range. It was labeled the most ambitious new public transportation system in the country, and Union Station was to be its cornerstone.

Now, after years of planning, financing for the station's redevelopment is nearly in place. A final price — around $477 million — should be set by the end of the year, and construction will begin soon after. Then progress could move quickly — a sprawling new train shed, a light-rail terminal, an underground bus terminal and pedestrian walkway, an extended mall shuttle and a renovated historic station, all surrounded by lively new public spaces — with everything expected to be complete by summer 2012 and ready for the 200,000 daily passengers that FasTracks is expected to bring to the station.

That is, if everything goes as planned.

Though some of the region's most powerful figures and a well-regarded local developer are leading the project, the rebirth of Union Station will be one of the most complex and challenging undertakings ever attempted in Denver: a convoluted labyrinth of rail lines, bus infrastructure, pedestrian walkways and private development that needs to fit into a crowded corner of downtown.

There are passionate and conflicting public opinions on everything from layout and design to parking shortfalls and the social benefits the development should provide. And, most pressing, a gargantuan price tag and limited funding sources in a time of skyrocketing construction costs.

The original Union Station was built in less than two years and cost $525,000. It will take five times as long and cost nearly a hundred times that much to again make it the gateway to the city.

The plan to buy Union Station was radical, even a bit crazy.

For starters, the station had multiple owners: real-estate company Trillium Corporation, the Union Pacific Railroad and local real-estate mogul Pat Broe. And the property surely wouldn't come cheap: The city, in a 1988 deal to save the station from potential demolition, had tweaked zoning on the site to allow for the possible construction of two 22-story towers that added millions to its value. Beyond that, FasTracks had yet to be proposed, or bankrolled. In fact, just three years earlier, in 1997, transit boosters had crafted an ambitious proposal for light rail in and around Denver called "Guide the Ride"; voters had handily rejected it.

"It was a tough, tough time," recalls Regional Transportation District general manager Cal Marsella. "Some [RTD] boardmembers called it a white elephant."

"We left trains behind," says Charles Albi, director of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden and co-author of Denver's Railroads: The Story of Union Station and the Railroads of Denver. "For years and years, they said one more lane on I-25 is going to solve all of our problems. No one was thinking, 'Is there a better way of doing this?'"

But as the metro area's population continued to swell — it now clocks in at nearly 2.8 million people, up from 1 million in 1980 — planners, elected officials and residents realized that highway construction alone wouldn't be enough. A better solution would be to have new rail lines flowing into the city like spokes of a bicycle wheel so commuters, shoppers and those bound for the airport could quickly and easily get around while leaving traffic-snarled freeways and automobile-based suburban sprawl behind. And it was clear that in any such plan, Union Station should be the central axle.

"We needed a hub in the right location," says Marsella, "and, of course, Union Station, in addition to being a city icon, is also in the right position where all the trains come together, and it's blocks from one of the busiest parts of the city and a block from I-25. It was a natural fit."

Many U.S. cities outside the East Coast have long since turned the wrecking ball on their deteriorating grand railroad stations or made them into shopping malls. Denver never did so, thanks in part to nostalgic and forward-thinking civic boosters like "Save Our Station," a citizen group that included John Hickenlooper, years before he was mayor, which helped stave off Union Station's potential demolition in 1988.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for Denver to have a historic building with as much emotional attachment to it and have it so centrally located," says Marilee Utter, president of Citiventure Associates LLC and former RTD development specialist. "Usually when you have a transit center like that, it's in the middle of nowhere."

In fact, the highest concentration of recent investment and infrastructure in the Denver area is in historic LoDo, right around the station, says Peter Park, the city's director of community planning and development. "And if you look at what's happening in the Central Platte Valley and its connections to the Highlands, this development at Union Station will continue to help stitch downtown with the neighborhoods."

These factors led Denver, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to join RTD at the negotiating table with Union Station's private owners and keep them there for more than a year, even as the deal's expected $30 million price tag rose higher; Denver City Council threatened to seize the station through eminent domain to keep discussions going. In July 2001, the parties finally reached a deal: The public agencies would buy the station and the 19.5 acres it sat on for $49.8 million. While the sum was considerable, the purchase would turn out to be a savvy move. In 2004, voters approved FasTracks by the same margin they'd rejected the far less specific plan proposed by Guide the Ride.

And by that point, the public had an idea of what the new and improved station would look like. In September 2004, the Union Station Advisory Committee, a 96-member citizen group, unveiled the Union Station Master Plan, the result of a two-year, $5.3 million analysis of potential redevelopment at the site. This best-case-scenario proposal, which didn't consider time or money constraints, called for light-rail streetcars, heavier commuter rail trains, and RTD and private buses all running beneath the station, at a total estimated cost of $560 million.

Though FasTracks allocated only $208.8 million for the work, the shortfall wasn't a miscalculation. With more than 31 cities and counties involved, "there was a lot of focus on what the transit map would look like," says Roger Sherman, chief operating officer of CRL Associates, the powerful lobbying firm that helped promote the project. "There was a lot of give and take about where the lines go, where the stations end up, what development goes first." So to avoid the impression that Denver would score a fancy new transit hub at the expense of the suburbs, Union Station's redevelopment was purposely underfunded.

"We had a pot of money — not enough, but we had something," Sherman says. "It shifted from just having a vision to 'Now we have to do something.'"

Tom Gougeon and Frank Cannon — the project executive and development manager, respectively, of the Union Station Neighborhood Company, a collaboration of prominent local developers Continuum Partners and East West Partners in charge of redeveloping Union Station — stand in their sleek, modern offices in the heart of the historic station and consider what they've gotten themselves into.

"I spend every hour of every day working on this," says Cannon, who worked for the consulting team that drafted the Union Station Master Plan.

But he and Gougeon, who previously managed the Belmar and Stapleton redevelopments and helped direct the construction of Denver International Airport as a senior aide to former mayor Federico Peña, are passionate: The 16th Street Mall, LoDo, Commons Park and the evolution of the Central Platte Valley were big steps for downtown. But Union Station, Gougeon says, "may be the most transformative, in terms of what it will do."

Of course, they may also be masochists, adds Cannon with a laugh.

In 2005, the Continuum/East West partnership was one of eleven developers vying for the job of redoing Union Station. The plan also called for up to 1.5 million square feet of commercial development, from which sales and property tax would help pay for the underfunded transportation elements and public spaces.

Two of the teams were eliminated because of insufficient proposals (including a meager attempt by the Donald Trump empire), and over the next year, as the magnitude of the job became clear, seven more either joined forces or dropped out, leaving only two candidates: Continuum/East West, the former known for the Belmar redevelopment it had begun and the latter recognized for its Riverfront Park project; and Union Station Partners, helmed by Cherokee Investment Partners, the firm behind the now-stalled redevelopment of the Gates Rubber Factory.

"We have a joke," says Gougeon of the teams that withdrew: "We aren't sure if they were all smarter than us or we were smarter than them. I think the jury is still out."

Both teams faced a daunting task. The redevelopment would be one of the largest publicly supported construction projects in the city since DIA, one that involved cramming two types of railroad lines, a bus terminal, shuttle stops and significant commercial development into a 19.5-acre swath of land saturated with underground utility lines, low-level railroad contamination and stormwater drainage from much of downtown, all without interfering too much with the historic structure, the busy roadways around it or the handful of trains that currently use the site (not to mention the beloved model railroad in the basement, which officials promise will be saved; for more on this, visit the Latest Word blog at westword.com).

As Jerry Nery, RTD engineering manager for Union Station, puts it, "It's kind of like adding ten pounds of potatoes to a five-pound bag."

Union Station Partners stuck with the master plan's suggestion to place all transit underground. They proposed to pay for it by leveraging the tax revenue generated by high-density development that they envisioned around the station, including controversial yet striking 46-story and 36-story towers that would require a zoning variance. "Our view was, this is a project that's really a legacy project for the city of Denver," says Walter Isenberg, president of Sage Hospitality Resources, part of the Union Station Partners team. "It has the potential of impacting the quality of life and the quality of downtown for the next hundred years.... Cost should have been a secondary consideration to design."

Continuum/East West took another approach. "We sat down and said, 'What are we trying to do, and what are the problems with doing it?'" says Gougeon. "To get all of this in one place, you have to cross all these roads, and you can't do that. So you have to put it all underground, and then you hit all these utilities, and it becomes so expensive that you have a problem."

So they came up with the idea for a transit district. "It's not just a station; it's something bigger," Gougeon says. Instead of trying to fit everything onto the Union Station site, the team proposed building the light-rail terminal, where FasTracks' streetcar lines would stop, by the freight railroad tracks that run through the Central Platte Valley, two blocks southwest of the station down 17th Street. The 16th Street Mall shuttle and downtown circulator bus lines would then be extended to the new terminal. That way, there would be more room to build bus and commuter rail stations under Union Station. Furthermore, everything could be built at once, and, most important, the cost was $420 million, considerably less than what Union Station Partners had proposed.

The two plans mirrored the longstanding division in Denver's development circles between those favoring emblematic new skyscrapers and those preferring to focus on lively new urban streetscapes — and in this case, the latter got their way. In November 2006, Continuum/East West, which had assumed the Union Station Neighborhood Company name, won the bidding.

But problems soon developed. The Union Station Neighborhood Company decided to dead-end the underground commuter rail lines at the station instead of a more convenient, yet more expensive, "through-station" rail loop as originally planned. But in October 2007, the Federal Railroad Administration warned that placing the "stub end" terminal underground wouldn't work because of the risk that the trains, running downhill, could lose control and overrun the tracks.

So the commuter rail terminal, which was to accommodate Amtrak trains, the Ski Train and the new FasTracks commuter trains, had to be moved aboveground as well, to a train shed directly behind the station. Now the street-level commuter rails would block 18th Street between Wynkoop and Wewatta streets, a long-severed stretch of road whose unification many saw as important to connecting LoDo and the Central Platte Valley. Not only that, but the commuter rail terminal platforms would be less than optimal lengths for the Ski Train and the Amtrak trains that would also be likely to use them. The revised proposal for Union Station, in other words, looked very different from the starting point that public representatives had spent so long developing in their master plan.

The most controversial change was placing the light-rail terminal two blocks from the historic station. The Colorado Rail Passenger Association "felt that it didn't represent the best interest of people who were making transfers to the light rail from the commuter rail trains and so forth," says Jon Esty, former association president and a Union Station Advisory Committee member. "We really felt that if you are going to have a transit center, you should really bring all the modes together as closely as possible." Continuum and East West also own much of the now-vacant land on either side of this two-block stretch of 17th Street; they plan development there that should benefit from a captive audience streaming by. "If you choose to walk, you will be walking by their commercial establishments," notes Esty. "That's a nice bonus for them."

To expedite people's transit between the two points — and to address complaints — Union Station Neighborhood Company shifted the alignment of the planned underground bus terminal so it ran underneath 17th Street and provided a weather-protected corridor between the terminal and the station, one complete with moving walkways. Now those transferring between commuter and light rail trains would have a choice between walking along a downtown boulevard, traveling through a below-ground passageway or taking the free shuttle bus, an improvement Gougeon calls "a more elegant answer than we even had before."

And for those who still gripe about the distance, Cannon has a patented response: "Let's take a walk." He escorts his guests out the station's front doors and gestures up 17th Street. The corridor, bustling with pedestrians, shoppers and cars, is one of the most lively in the city, and the distance between the station and Blake Street two blocks away — roughly the distance between the station and the future light-rail terminal on the other, now-vacant side of the property — doesn't look far. "Part of the problem is right now the buildings aren't there," he says. "It feels longer than it is. When you make that connection with a vibrant urban street, that experience changes."

Most riders won't need to take the walk along 17th anyway. It's estimated that during the transit hub's busiest times, only slightly more than a thousand people an hour will be transferring between light and commuter rail, a fraction of the nearly 14,000 people an hour who will embark and disembark from the trains and buses flowing into that station during that same time.

The plan has even earned an unlikely fan: Brad Buchanan, principal at the Denver architecture and construction firm Buchanan Yonushewski Group, which helped design Union Station Partners' losing proposal. Yes, Buchanan toiled for eighteen months on the project and still has the model for his bold vision in his office (he still looks at it "every now and then"). But he's come to a sobering conclusion. "You can argue the value of either solution, but in the end, Continuum/East West's solution is more achievable," he admits. We "were just as committed, but I believe our solution would have been substantially more difficult to accomplish."

Then he echoes his former competition: "Some people have asked me, 'Are you disappointed you didn't win?' and I've said, 'I'm not sure I didn't.'"

Beyond the trains and buses, beyond the stores and offices, the rebirth of Union Station will produce some of the largest and most ambitious new public spaces the city has seen in decades, about ten total acres of land where people can shop, eat, congregate and relax.

This public realm includes a new stretch of 17th Street from the light-rail terminal to the station, a broad, two-block promenade lined with shops, restaurants and offices, and adorned with light shafts and portals dropping down into the bus station and pedestrian walkway underneath. Then there's the proposed 18th Street elevated plaza, an expansive pedestrian bridge stretching above the commuter rail lines. Below will be the commuter rail platforms, their sprawling arched roof bringing to mind historic stations such as London Paddington and Paris's Gare du Nord. Most notably, there will be a plaza in front of the station: The parking lots will be gone, replaced by a busy, multi-use piazza dotted with trees and ringed with cafes.

"When the Civic Center was built in Denver, what a huge impact it had," says Dana Crawford, chairwoman of Urban Neighborhoods Inc., who developed Larimer Square four decades ago. "And really, this is one of the great sites in Denver of the 21st century. It will be impossible to exaggerate the impact of it."

The inherent promise of these new spaces — and the restoration of the station building — has struck a chord with many Denverites. Some are inspired by the creation of a great, active train-station neighborhood that will be a social and psychological anchor to downtown. Others are driven by concerns that the design and upkeep of the public spaces and historic station may take a back seat to financial considerations.

Friends of Union Station, a grassroots organization formed in February 2005 to champion the importance of these spaces, called for an urban square, a game area, a public market, information and food kiosks, and an extended plaza across Wynkoop Street to make the thoroughfare more pedestrian-friendly. Over the past year, student teams at the University of Colorado Denver have also developed concepts — everything from a Spanish Steps-like grand staircase leading up to the 18th Street plaza, to public art evoking the immense welcome arch that once stood in front of the station, to a renewable-energy plant built into one of the plaza's side buildings.

All of these suggestions will be taken into consideration by landscape design consulting firm Hargreaves Associates as it develops a general plan for the spaces over the next few months, says Mary Margaret Jones, a senior principal at the firm. That plan is estimated to cost around $28 million.

A major sticking point, however, caused a rift inside Friends of Union Station, and the coalition crumbled this past March. The issue was whether to support the developer's plan to build wing buildings on either side of the station, development that would cut into the land available for the front plaza.

Some of the members formed a new alliance, the Open Space Initiative Group, which vehemently opposed the buildings on the grounds that they would diminish the station's visual significance and limit opportunities in the plaza. "This is one of the most important buildings in Colorado, and one of the most sterile parking lots around could be made into one of the most exciting places in Colorado," says member Bert Melcher. "The plaza needs a lot of room to do what postage stamp-sized spaces can't do. Those are okay for neighborhood purposes, but for something like this, it needs to be big."

The remaining Friends of Union Station held a different view, and they formed their own group, Union Station Advocates, to continue championing the station's public spaces and embrace the wing buildings. "We think it will help activate the space in the plaza and frame the station," says co-chair Luke O'Kelley. "In good urban design, you want to frame a space so it is not strictly open space running into highly trafficked streets."

Then there's the historic station building itself. While the developer is planning to spend $17 million fixing up the worn-around-the-edges structure, none of the trains or buses will flow into or under the station, as originally proposed. "The plan takes people away from the station," says UCD planning and design Professor Jeremy Németh, who oversaw many of the student teams that created concept plans for the station. "There is no reason to go into the station. If we are going to save this building, we need to celebrate it, not keep it as a 'look but don't touch' sort of thing."

There will be no danger of that, insists Gougeon. "It has to work as a destination in its own right," he says of the building, which will house ticketing booths, information desks, baggage and check-in facilities, as well as shops and restaurants. "If its only purpose is to be a place for people to pass through on the way to transit, it won't work. If there are interesting things happening in the station, then it will work."

Still other interested parties are worried about the 379 parking spaces in front of the station that will be removed to make room for the plaza — spaces LoDo desperately needs. A parking study commissioned by the LoDo district neighborhood organization concluded that 344 more spaces are needed on nights and weekends just to meet current demand, and that, with the additional folks who'll be drawn to Union Station, the parking deficit will swell to 1,400 spaces in the near future.

"The replacement of the surface lot in front of the station with a European piazza-type area is a great thing for LoDo," says LoDo district boardmember Mike LaMair. "But we are concerned about the impact on businesses like the Tattered Cover and the Wynkoop Brewery" — not to mention Amtrak and the Ski Train, which depend on the Union Station surface lots for parking for their riders.

One possible solution, suggest LoDo reps, would be to open more spaces to the public on nights and weekends in the new parking structure the developer will build at the station to serve planned office buildings at the site. Another alternative could involve Market Street Station, the underground RTD bus terminal at 16th and Market streets. Once Union Station's redevelopment is complete and bus operations have been moved to the new station's underground facility beneath 17th Street, RTD has agreed to sell Market Street Station to the Union Station Neighborhood Company for $11.4 million — not a bad price for much of a square block in the heart of LoDo. The agreement stipulates that 20,000 square feet on the property must be set aside for open space, but civic boosters propose that the developer reserve essentially half the block for a new public park, with a parking garage underneath it, akin to celebrated urban parks like San Francisco's Union Square or Boston's Post Office Square.

"I know people are interested in parking," says Gougeon, adding that expanding night and weekend access to the station's parking garage could work. As for the fate of Market Street Station, "that's down the road a bit," he explains. The best solution is getting people to switch from cars to public transit — which is the whole point of redeveloping Union Station in the first place: "Truthfully, we are spending millions on transit so we don't have to get here by car."

In 2004, just as Union Station's partner agencies were nailing down the project's finances, building costs began to shoot through the roof. Steel prices nearly doubled, and concrete costs skyrocketed, too, all thanks to booming overseas construction markets in places like China. On top of that, the country's economic slowdown meant less tax revenue coming in to pay for public development. This one-two punch sent many civic projects reeling; last year RTD officials admitted that the cost of FasTracks had swollen from $4.7 billion to $6.1 billion, and they recently indicated that the price may grow again.

It became clear that Union Station, an undertaking shortchanged from the get-go, was going to require even more money than expected to build and would likely produce less sales-tax revenue.

Last December, the Union Station Neighborhood Company announced that, factoring in changes to construction costs and the economy, the publicly funded portion of Union Station's redevelopment would cost an estimated $477 million. That didn't include the 1.35 total million square feet of commercial development it planned to build around the station, including the parking garage and four commercial buildings that will house offices, ground-floor retail, high-end residential and possibly an entertainment complex and a full-service hotel, all of which the developer plans to finance itself. Because of the rearrangement of the rail lines and the bus station, the bill for the transit work was considerably less than it would have cost to build everything underneath the historic station, but it was still a lot more than the $208.8 million set aside from the FasTracks money.

Filling that gap was left to the station's four public agency owners — RTD, CDOT, DRCOG and the City of Denver — entities that don't always see eye to eye about how best to scramble for dollars. "Everybody has got a different focus, and rightly so," says Cole Finegan, Mayor Hickenlooper's former city attorney and chief of staff who's now representing the agencies in negotiations with the developer. "For the City of Denver, one of the key areas has to be the public areas and public spaces and how they fit into the right of way and the 16th Street Mall. RTD is doing FasTracks, so they are focusing on the transit elements, how we're going to put in light rail, commuter rail and bus and move everyone around. For CDOT, it's how we're going to spend the dollars we're getting from the federal government and use these transit elements to hook up to other transit elements throughout the state."

And then, last April, the protesters showed up. Wearing tri-corner Revolutionary War hats and chanting "No taxation without representation," a coalition of labor, environmental and affordable-housing activists called the Campaign for Responsible Development rallied on the steps of the City and County Building to demand that the station's redevelopment include well-paying jobs, affordable housing, local business opportunities and environmental sustainability. Initiated by FRESC, an influential local nonprofit formerly known as the Front Range Economic Strategy Center, the Campaign for Responsible Development had succeeded in winning similar concessions in the plan for the tax-supported redevelopment of the Gates Rubber plant.

"It's going to be built on public land and involve a significant amount of city funding," says organizer Blake Pendergrass. "If we can't accomplish these goals with a public project, how can we do it with private development?"

In June the city council agreed to ask that the developer work toward these community benefits — community benefits that don't come cheap.

"I'll bet the design team and the city thought they had closed the financial gap many times, only to find, with new information coming out, that...there was more work to do," says Buchanan at the Buchanan Yonushewski Group, considering the financial imbroglio he and his colleagues narrowly avoided.

But now that gap has been closed, more or less, say the number crunchers behind the project — though the finances are tight. "The numbers don't add up," worries city council member Jeanne Faatz. "People are going around and saying, 'This is very, very tight.' It's so tight you can't squeeze into those pants in any circumstance."

Along with the $208.8 million of FasTracks money, Union Station's owners have been approved for $40 million from the Federal Highway Administration and scored $8.6 million from the Federal Transit Administration, as well as $16.8 million from Colorado's Senate Bill 1, which funnels surplus state funds to transit improvements. The agencies will also contribute the $40 million or so that the Union Station Neighborhood Company is paying them for development sites at Union Station and to acquire the Market Street Station property.

On top of that, in November qualified electors will be asked to vote on a series of new civic entities that should pitch in roughly $145 million from property and sales taxes expected to be generated by the redevelopment. (Since the electors are either associated with the master developer or are nearby landowners who stand to gain from the project, there's not much chance they won't vote yes.) All that, say planners, plus about $20 million more that they expect from additional grants and government monies, will be channeled through a complex arrangement of metropolitan districts and project authorities in order to foot the bill.

While those behind FasTracks are considering cutting costs and other changes to keep the region-wide transit plan on schedule in the face of rising construction expenses, Union Station's portion of the pot shouldn't be altered. "Union Station is a little bit different than the other corridors," RTD's Nery says. "We have a certain dollar amount from FasTracks, $208.8 million. That number hasn't changed."

The developer insists the bill will also cover at least some of the community benefits demanded by the Campaign for Responsible Development. They say they plan to abide by sustainable development standards, set aside some of the storefronts for local businesses, and allow an independent agency to study the viability of including low-income rental units at the site.

If all of the parts fall into place, Union Station and its environs may soon look very different.

The developer will set a guaranteed maximum transit construction price somewhere around $477 million with general contractor Kiewit Construction, and building will commence by spring.

The light-rail terminal by the freight rail line is expected to be operational by fall 2009, along with an extended Mall Shuttle route running to the new terminal. A year later, the plaza in front of the station should be complete, and two years after that, the commuter rail platform area and the underground bus facility should come online, all of it ready to handle the new FasTracks rail corridors running into the station.

"Four years is not a lot of time," admits Cannon. "But the good news is there are a lot of people who have been working very hard on this for a very long time."

Marilee Utter, one of the region's authorities on transit-oriented development, welcomes the project's progress — though she offers a note of warning.

"The people behind this have a lot of good instincts. They have hired great designers," she say. "On the other hand, everyone is acting poor...money is really tight, so I hope we don't make any short-sighted decisions."

The pedestrian connection concept only works if it is designed well, she adds. "If people start cutting corners with materials or connections, that will hurt it. If the historic station is not part of the functional connectivity, that will be a travesty. The heart and soul of the whole district should be that building. If the transit doesn't work as a seamless connection for people, that's a problem. If the development isn't dense enough, that's a problem. If the public space doesn't become a great space, that's a problem."

Many Denverites have personal memories of the station's years as the city's proud civic gateway; others, who are younger, yearn for a chance to earn such memories of their own. These sentiments underlie the technical planning and number crunching around the station, fueling passionate excitement — as well as feisty disagreements — about the redevelopment. "Everybody has a crazy story about the building," says Utter, who says the first time she ever saw snow was while riding a train into Union Station. "It's just amazing how deeply people care about what happens to it. I think that's really a mandate to invest in it and do it right."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner