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

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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.

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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