Architecture Commuter Rail Denver Light Rail

A Grand Gateway for Denver’s Transit Users

» The redevelopment of Union Station has produced debate over the two-block separation between commuter and light rail operations. But that gap could evolve into a brand new neighborhood and better access to areas northwest of downtown.

Denver’s got a bright future ahead for its transit system, with new light rail and commuter rail lines planned to extend in virtually every direction from downtown. Though the recession has reduced sales tax revenues and will likely mean a slower timetable for the completion of the region’s $6 billion FasTracks — and even mean the possible elimination of some components of the capital investment program — one element is unchallenged by the financial difficulties of the contemporary environment, if only because it will serve as the essential core of the planned network: Union Station.

Expected to cost some $500 million to expand and reconstruct, this terminal will undoubtedly become the nerve center for the region’s public transportation commuters as it will serve up to 200,000 daily users, and the city has big plans. Union Station will extend two blocks northwest from a renovated 1914 structure and include an eight-track commuter rail and intercity rail hub, a city-wide bus transfer center, and a light rail station. On the surrounding 20 acres of currently vacant land, a private developer will build up a brand new neighborhood of housing, commercial space, and offices.

There has never been much controversy about making Union Station the center of transit agency RTD‘s expanding system; the local back-and-forth has been over just how the structure is rebuilt.

When RTD and a coalition of stakeholders released a master plan for the station in 2004 after purchasing it in 2001, it envisioned a simple-to-understand project: directly north and south of the old building, underground platforms for rail and bus passengers would be within feet of one another, connected via a street-level concourse. The facility would be a single unit, rather than a series of discrete elements.

What is now planned for a 2012 opening — Alex Block brings this to our attention — is far different in both conception and form. Because of cost constraints and Federal Railroad Administration regulations, the underground platforms for rail services have been replaced by street-level boarding zones, open to the sky above. Light rail and commuter operations are to be split by about two blocks, with a below-grade (but sunlit) linear bus terminal serving as a connector. The commuter and intercity rail station would be the center’s highlight, a magnificent series of arched white canopies serving as a symbol of Denver’s investment in transportation for the 21st century.

Between the two rail stations: a series of newly developed buildings and plazas. Instead of a sealed, one-building-that-fits-all-needs, Denver will get a series of connected public spaces linking together in a new community just adjacent to the city’s vibrant Lower Downtown. It’s certainly an unconventional approach to building a transit center.

Yet, in the process, the city has transformed its vision of its primary transportation hub from a purely mobility-oriented scheme to one that will play a fundamental role in spurring development downtown.

Station area plan Underground bus concourse

RTD cites a number of benefits of the proposal: it will decrease construction costs compared to the wholly underground option and allow the center’s components to be more readily integrated into the surrounding streetscape. The primary drawbacks? A minimal interest in using the historic building as the center’s focus and much-increased transfer times between light rail and commuter trains, as users will now be required to take a 700-foot hike between the two.

But this decision will have primarily good outcomes. According to initial estimates, the vast majority of users will not be transferring: During a typical peak hour, only about 1,000 people will be connecting between light and commuter rail, versus the 14,000 disembarking from trains overall. Though the light rail station will be positioned relatively far from the traditional downtown, it will offer better access to the city’s growing riverfront community and the Highland neighborhood on the other side of I-25. Light rail users will still have the option of riding the system’s other branch to the light rail loop closer to the core of downtown; direct access from Union Station will also continue to be provided by the free 16th Street bus mall shuttle, which runs frequently and reliably.

The connection between the commuter and light rail systems, via the 17th Street tunnel, doubling as a comfortable waiting area for customers boarding city bus lines there, has the benefit of putting bus services at the core of the facility, rather than to one side as originally planned. This effort will encourage rail-to-bus transfers and allow the city to promote all of its transit offerings, not simply those provided on steel wheels.

Most importantly, though, the newly spread-out nature of Union Station will transform the neighborhood by investing its streets with the activity and motion of a major transportation node. The buildings lining 17th Street will offer storefront restaurants and retail to commuters, enhancing both business activity and convenience for travelers. A series of parks will serve as welcoming resting areas during the better parts of the year. The advantages of neighboring a transit station will be multiplied by two.

There is, of course, still work to be done. Some architects have suggested ridding the bus tunnel of the moving sidewalks designed to speed people transferring between light and commuter rail. Doing so would be a mistake, though it will be critical to ensure that said sidewalks don’t get in the way of people waiting around for bus services. Meanwhile, the bridge between the light rail station and the riverfront zone, originally supposed to be in the form of a platform (“kinetic plaza”) connected to a commercial building, has been downsized to a pedestrian bridge. To fully leverage the place-making opportunities offered by this new station, that link must be reinforced.

For those who are concerned about interconnectivity and efficient transfers, the decision to sprawl out Union Station is certainly disappointing news. But the benefits from the perspective of encouraging better and more integrated urban growth should overcome those qualms. Other cities planning to invest in new transit hubs like that planned for Denver’s Union Station could do well in examining how de-hubbing a hub can make it all the more valuable to the surrounding city.

Images above: Denver Union Station, from above, from Denver Union Station