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Denver's Union Station At Heart Of Urban Renewal

Nathan Heffel
Union Station in Denver, Colorado

Denver’s recently reopened Union Station joins other stations across the country including Saint Paul and Kansas City that are changing the landscape of city centers. It’s not because you can catch a ride on the rails, but because people are moving back to the city.

The Great Hall of Denver’s Union Station is now bustling. Tourists stop and photograph the large Terminal Bar sign, which seems right out of a 1950's movie. Sitting on a large sofa sipping a locally brewed beer with his co-workers, 24-year-old Josh Murphy said the remodeled station is exactly what his generation is looking for.

“I just think it’s a good place to hang out, it’s very open to the public, anyone can walk in at any time and you don’t even have to buy anything, you can just sit here,” he said.

“You can hang out or you can get a drink or some food. It’s also useful the bus is coming and going, the light rail is coming and going so this a good place to be.”

While the hall is packed with people now, two years ago the place looked very different said Walter Isenberg, CEO of Denver based Sage Hospitality.

“If you would have come down here on a Saturday, there would have been no one in here,” Isenberg said. “It would have been this vacant, desolate hall. Ceilings were peeling, kind of in some major disrepair.”

For more than 100 years, Union Station was Denver’s front door. During the golden age of train travel scores of trains passed through every day. But that golden age of travel is long over.

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
Snooze an A.M. Eatery located in the east wing of Denver's Union Station.

Still Denver’s banking on the station’s $54 million makeover -- complete with a luxury hotel and adjacent public transportation hub. They hope it’ll spur new downtown development.

Jeremy Nemeth, Chair of the Planning and Design Department at the University of Colorado Denver, said there’s a migration happening which is driving this new urban growth.

“Millennials are really driving this great inversion from the suburbs back to the city, but also Baby Boomers,” said Nemeth. “People are graduating from college and saying ‘where do I want to move?’ They move there, and then they look for the job. So cities are really taking note of that and creating these wonderful places that will attract those types of individuals they want to attract.”

Nemeth said Millennials and Baby Boomers are gravitating toward a new way of living.

“I think both are really looking for more choice and are really tired of taking care of large houses in the suburbs and commuting long distances and having to drive to just meet up with someone for a cup of coffee or a drink,” he said.

Nemeth notes that cities that provide multiple transit options, access to bike and walking paths and renovated public spaces like Union Stations are growing very appealing to the younger, and older generations. It was this sea change that led Saint Paul, Minnesota to revamp their train station said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega.

“Within months of Union Depot being open, we had several vacant buildings around it being purchased, old parking lots for housing within six months of Union Depot opening,” Ortega said.

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
The Terminal Bar is housed where train tickets were once sold. Now, people queue up to order drinks.

It might seem simply renovating a station is the magic formula for instant growth, but George Guastello, President of Kansas City Missouri’s Union Station said you can’t just fix one up and expect it to be sustainable. Kansas City learned that lesson when their station was restored in 1999 as a science museum.

“If they’re going to build it as a memory and a museum to a golden age gone by and try to tie that to en economic strategy, I think they’re doomed for failure,” Guastello said. “But if you take that building and it stood for something and you make it right, then it will work.”

Kansas City’s Union Station had to evolve. It expanded public exhibition areas and created office space for businesses. A new downtown street car will soon stop there, and the city is even planning to celebrate the building with a major 100th anniversary bash.

Much like what’s been seen in Saint Paul and Kansas City, Denver’s Union Station has jump started the once vacant downtown neighborhood. 1.8 million square feet of office space is now in use, under construction, or planned in the next two years and more than 1,400 new apartment units will be built.

34-year-old Michael Borcherding said Union Station is in the perfect location for him.

“We can take our mass transit into work, we get off the bus, we come here, we have a couple drinks, we have dinner, we go home, we see our lady friends, our wives, and it’s a good time,” he said.

Not long ago, meeting friends at Denver’s Union Station would have been unheard of but now, it’s actually the place to be.

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