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

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"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.

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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