A milestone for Denver as bus concourse opens at Union Station
Bigger milestone may come with commuter trains in 2016
by Allen Best
DENVER, Colo. – In the summer of 1998, a year before Mark Smith left the East West Partners headquarters in Beaver Creek to take over the company’s operations in the Central Platte Valley of Denver, the city suffered a rash of killings of homeless people.
One of those bodies, decapitated, ended up in a vacant field west of Union Station. The body wasn’t immediately noticed because few people went there. The land between the old railroad station and the South Platte River was spliced by railroad tracks but had otherwise been cleared of its old industrial buildings in the first phase of redevelopment.
This former DMZ is becoming a series of peekaboo canyons of sleek high-rise buildings. A major milestone for metropolitan Denver, East West Partners—and arguably Colorado—occurred recently when the new bus concourse opened.
Now, buses from across metropolitan Denver-Boulder converge underground in that former field between Union Station and East West’s Riverfront project.
After a short walk and escalator ride at the new transit hub, bus passengers can hop onto the 16th Street Mall Shuttle, catch a light-rail train to one of Denver’s southern or western suburbs, or amble over to the Amtrak depot.
(This story was first published in the May 26 issue of Mountain Town News, an e-zine distributed to subscribers. For a sample issue, see contact information here).
The bus concourse is sleek, in the way of modern airports, and everything about the space is bright and cheerful. The public infrastructure cost $480 million—and it came in on time and within budget. Grumbling has been almost entirely absent; mostly there has been an air of triumph.
Smith, a founding partner of East West in 1986, thinks the real so-what is yet to come.
“What is happening in Denver is going to help the probability of something happening on a bigger basis statewide,” he says of public transportation.
An even more important trigger will come in two years when commuter rail lines begin operations between DIA and Union Station, along with commuter rail to Arvada/Wheat Ridge, another light-rail line in Aurora, plus completion of the bus-rapid transit (BRT) lanes to Boulder.
As more and more people use the system, this will lead to interest in mass transit more broadly in Colorado, says Smith.
“I think the next, big, big thing will be the DIA train. Some people may not get it until then,” he says.
“I am not convinced the next one will be to Vail,” he says of a rail line, “but I do think you will see something that goes along the Front Range, and then over time you will see other opportunities.
In the grand-opening ceremonies, Phil Washington, general manager for the Regional Transportation District, was less circumspect, predicting “rail from one end of the state to the other.”
One measure of the event’s symbolic importance was the retinue of elected and other officials given microphone time: Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose foundation for success was the brewpub he created a block away on Wynkoop Street during downtown Denver’s darkest days, plus a congresswoman, and two U.S. senators. But the speechifying was just getting started.
When it was his turn at the lectern, Smith smiled and explained that he and a co-developer, Mark Falcone of Continuum Partners, had been slipped a note from U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, who quoted his late father, Mo Udall, the long-time congressman from Arizona.
“Everything has been said but not everybody has said it.”
How it played out
Smith admits he didn’t see exactly see how all this would play out when he arrived in Denver in 1999. Even then, the city was on a roll. The Broncos were on their way to two straight Super Bowl victories, and the new Avalanche had already won the Stanley Cup.
East West Partners purchased 25 acres of property between the freight line and the river. Denver had already created a ribbon of parks and a biking/pedestrian path along the river. The new Coors Field was five or six blocks away, LoDo was bustling, and Elitch Gardens, the amusement park, had relocated on the river corridor a half-mile upstream, and new homes for the Denver Nuggets and the Denver Broncos were being planned.
Smith, who grew up in metropolitan Denver, says he believes the quick success of Riverfront was a catalyst for what now exists. It defined the west side of that empty space, creating a donut of opportunity. Instead of an organic expansion of LoDo, as some had thought would occur, or a shopping mall, as Denver city planners had once imagined, it became a field of bigger dreams.
Approval by metro-area voters in 2004 of the FasTracks plan for 122 miles of light-rail expansion crystalized another vision: a transportation nexus.
The first idea was to put all transportation components, and not just the bus terminal, underground. It would have been costly, likely unaffordable, and less pleasant. “We have 300 days of sunshine a year,” notes Smith.
Smith is proud of the above-ground concept suggested by planners from the East West and Continuum and embraced by government planners. The lines weave into the Union Station hub. The result was not only room for more buildings, which East West is helping develop, but also provides more flexibility for the future. Smith sees physical room to incorporate high-speed rail as has been discussed for both the I-25 and I-70 corridors.
One possibility considered has been to relocate freight lines from Denver east about 80 miles. The lines primarily carry coal from Wyoming’s Power River to power plants in Texas and beyond. Railroads and C-DOT talked for several years but with no resolution.
Crucial to achieving the success already demonstrated at Union Station was the public-private partnership. East West Partners and Continuum Partners, both land-development companies, were chosen by Denver’s city government to join a team that included RTD and the Colorado Department of Transportation to create the broad development plan, including the transportation infrastructure.
“This was a public-private partnership that was successful, and I think successful P3s tend to create more P3s,” says Smith. “I think this will lead to more P3s in the transit sector.”
The Union Station neighborhood, as this field is now called, has a couple of thousand housing units, a million square feet of office space and another million on the way, plus one grocery store under construction—and another one likely to be announced soon. A 112-room hotel, called The Crawford, after Dana Crawford, a pioneering developer best known for shielding Larimer Square from the urban redevelopment wrecking balls, is now being completed
“Pretty much every piece of land has something going on, a lot of activity,” says Smith.
“We’ve done the hard part. The infrastructure is all there. The heavy lifting is done for us. Now it’s executing.”