Longform

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

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"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."

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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