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

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"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.

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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