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

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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.

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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