Denver Union Station: A Transportation Model for Urban Revitalization

Winter 2012

The transformation of 42 acres of former rail yards into a sustainable, urban mixed-use development is underway in the Downtown Central Platte Valley of Denver, Colo., serving as a new multi-modal transportation model for the rest of the country. Scheduled for completion in Spring 2014, the $500 million Denver Union Station redevelopment effort is one of the most comprehensive transit-oriented development projects currently under construction in the United States. The site was underutilized for decades until the mid-1980s when the City of Denver began looking for ways to turn the land into a new economic lifeline for the Denver region and the state of Colorado.

The Collaborative Path to Redevelopment

old historic tower at Denver Union Station

Originally built in 1881, Union Station’s wooden tower was destroyed by fire in 1894. Reconstruction began quickly, this time with a lower roofline and a stone clock tower. Photo courtesy of RTD

Built in 1881 to connect the geographically isolated city with the rest of the United States, Denver Union Station was soon deemed the transportation gateway to the West. During its heyday, the rail station saw more than 80 trains a day, serving 24,000 passengers. By the 1960s, passenger traffic had declined due to the popularity of air travel and the affordability of automobiles. Once filled with the noise and motion of arriving and departing tourists, business travelers and troops, Union Station eventually sat quiet with just two Amtrak trains providing daily service.

In 2001, the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD), in collaboration with the City and County of Denver, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), and the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), acquired Denver Union Station, as well as the surrounding 19.5-acre former rail yard site. In 2004, the voters of the eight-county RTD approved a sales tax increase of .04 cents to fund FasTracks, a regional plan to extend over 140 miles of rail and bus rapid transit throughout the area, with Denver Union Station serving as the hub of the system.

the historic arch at Denver Union Station

For nearly 30 years, visitors to Union Station were greeted by Denver’s famous Welcome Arch. Photo courtesy of RTD

The first step in revitalization of the project was rezoning much of the site to support mixed-use development, proposed to complement Denver Union Station as a 24-hour destination. In order to manage the financing, design and construction of the planned public infrastructure for the Denver Union Station Transit District, a consortium of the RTD, the City of Denver, DRCOG, CDOT and private citizens appointed by the Mayor, created the Denver Union Station Project Authority (DUSPA), a single-purpose, non-profit authority. Soon thereafter, Trammell Crow Company was appointed Owner Representative for DUSPA and proceeded to:

  • Negotiate a design/build agreement with construction partner Kiewit and AECOM, a global provider of technical and management support services, successfully arranging over $300 million in federal loans to complement nearly $200 million in various grants;
  • Manage grant and federal eligibility requirements; and
  • Oversee the design/build team to construct the project.

Executing a Sustainable Plan Requires Vision

An integral aspect to the success of the project was creating a team of landowners, developers, designers, engineers and landscape architects familiar with working on complex, intermodal projects. The team was originally led by the Union Station Neighborhood Company (USNC), a partnership of East West Partners and Continuum Partners that RTD selected to develop the 19 acres surrounding Denver Union Station. The team’s commitment to the vision of the project will provide a new downtown neighborhood with over three million square feet of new mixed-use development.

underground bus terminal of Denver Union Station

The barren land running on top of the underground bus facility will be turned into a series of gardens and plazas featuring different Colorado ecosystems. Rendering courtesy of SOM

Denver Union Station is at the center of the redevelopment plan. The 21,000-square-foot interior waiting room of the historic train station will serve as a public space for Amtrak and RTD passenger ticketing. “The 20-year plan for downtown calls for the redevelopment of Union Station; we could not be more excited for it to be returned to its former glory, with a modern twist,” said Tami Door, president and CEO, Downtown Denver Partnership.

AECOM, Kiewit and design consultant Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, designed a transit hub that includes a 22-bay, below-grade regional bus terminal, an eight-track commuter rail terminal and a light rail station serving three regional lines. Hargreaves Associates, a consulting firm of landscape architects and planners, is turning the barren land on top of the underground bus facility into a series of gardens and plazas. Each garden will feature a different Colorado ecosystem and provide a shaded meeting place in the heart of the Union Station District.

The Denver Union Station redevelopment project realizes the City of Denver’s visionary objectives for sustainable development known as Greenprint Denver. By strategically organizing the multi-modal transportation elements across the site, the project provides a fully integrated network of transit connections and public spaces, while serving as a catalyst for private development. The presence of several new transit modes, a LEED-certified transportation facility, along with a future LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) designation for the mixed-use neighborhood, and individual LEED certifications for the privately constructed buildings, will create a commendable sustainable urban environment.

Another crucial aspect of achieving a sustainable project was using the LEED system to enable a future LEED ND designation and LEED ratings for adjacent sites. The below-grade bus terminal will seek a LEED designation for New Construction (NC), by realizing approximately 38 percent more energy-efficiency than an ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2007 baseline building. Other green achievements include naturally lit and ventilated railway platforms and Colorado utility incentives by Xcel Energy for the underground bus facility and site lighting.

Federal, State and Local Governments Overcome Financing Hurdles

construction of the bus terminal of Denver Union Station

Scheduled for completion in Spring 2014, the Denver Union Station project will transform the former rail yards into a progressive transportation center surrounded by new housing, retail, office and hotel buildings. Photo courtesy of RTD Staff

DUSPA and Trammell Crow Company worked with the City of Denver and RTD to conquer financial challenges in late 2008 through early 2009. Once DUSPA agreed to a construction budget of $500 million, they began to locate project funding. Grants were secured from 15 different federal, state and local sources to complement over $30 million in land sale proceeds from USNC’s purchase of RTD’s property. Still, the project was short $300 million, so obtaining additional funding became the biggest challenge. Fortunately, the project received an investment grade designation from Fitch Ratings, giving DUSPA the green light to apply for several loan programs offered by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The project was awarded two federal loans, in the amount of $150 million each, from the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration. A tax increment district, including the 42-acre development site, was established by the City to help pay off the federal loans. Members of the development team and DUSPA officials kept citizens informed, holding periodic town meetings to discuss every aspect of the master plan development process, as well as the impact of construction activities on the surrounding areas.

Transportation Amenities Attract Office Tenants

After years of planning and financing for the redevelopment of Denver Union Station, the project is nearly complete. By Spring 2014, Denver Union Station will accommodate pedestrians and 12 transportation modes including:

  • Bicycles;
  • Taxis and pedicabs;
  • Motor vehicles;
  • The 16th street shuttle and the 18th street circulator;
  • RTD regional and intercity buses;
  • Light and commuter rail; and
  • Amtrak.

Novel gathering places, such as Wewatta Plaza, a new entry point into the underground bus facility, will surround the station. Train Hall and Wynkoop Plaza, a quarter-acre space serving as the historic entry to Denver Union Station, will be constructed to accommodate heavy pedestrian traffic with the ability to convert into a farmer’s market, concert venue, dance hall and more.

the commuter rail terminal at  Denver Union Station

The $500 million Denver Union Station redevelopment effort is one of the most comprehensive transit-oriented development projects currently under construction in the United States. Rendering courtesy of SOM

The project has already brought new office development to the Denver area and a renewed confidence in the city as a destination for corporate headquarters. For example, 1900 16th Street, a new 400,000-square-foot, LEED Gold, Class A office building developed by Trammell Crow Company, opened in July 2012 and is over 90 percent leased. DaVita, a leading kidney dialysis firm, will relocate approximately 950 team members from locations in El Segundo, Calif., to a new LEED Gold, 260,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility, also developed by Trammell Crow Company. In addition, IMA, a regional insurance group, is relocating its corporate headquarters to a new 114,000-square-foot office building, with ground floor retail, on the north end of Denver Union Station. The new development will feature first floor retail, adding convenience and commerce to the office building. Lastly, Cadence Apartments, a 13-story high-rise situated behind the train hall, will feature 219 apartment units and 8,000 square feet of retail. Developed by Zocalo Development, Cadence is scheduled for completion in Fall 2013, providing residents immediate access to both the light and commuter rail lines.