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Union Station: Rebirth of a Landmark

Visit Union Station nearly any day at any time, and you’ll find the place abuzz with activity. In the summertime, children laugh and play on the splash pad outside, while in the winter, shoppers hunt for gifts at the annual holiday market. Every day inside the Great Hall, travelers hurry to catch their trains, friends meet up for coffee or cocktails on plush couches, and foodies tuck into tapas at Ultreia or breakfast tacos at Snooze. It’s easy to forget that not so long ago, Union Station was something of a ghost town, a relic of a bygone era.

In the latter half of the 20th century, rail travel was in serious decline. By the 1990s, Union Station saw only two passenger trains a day. Only a few years earlier, there was talk of tearing the building down and replacing it with a convention center. Thanks to the efforts of Denver preservationist Dana Crawford and then-brewery owner John Hickenlooper, Union Station dodged the wrecking ball – yet for years, Union Station stood nearly empty at the edge of downtown Denver.

Against this backdrop, some encouraging developments took place near Union Station. A few blocks away, Crawford had successfully transformed Larimer Square into one of Denver’s premier entertainment districts, while the construction of Coors Field breathed new life into the neighborhoods to the north. In 1999, Commons Park opened, transforming the former brownfield west of Union Station into a welcoming urban space.

In 1994, light rail service came to downtown Denver with the opening of RTD’s Central Corridor. Around the same time, RTD began eyeing Union Station as a multimodal transit hub. In 2001, with help from the City and County of Denver, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Denver Regional Council of Governments, RTD purchased Union Station and the 19.5 acres behind it for $40 million.

This decision solidified Union Station’s future – and a grand transformation began. In 2002, the C Line opened at Union Station, connecting riders in southwest Denver to lower downtown. In 2004, voters approved FasTracks, RTD’s massive transit expansion program for the Denver metro region. In 2006, RTD selected the Union Station Neighborhood Company as the master developer of the land surrounding Union Station and started planning for the landmark’s redevelopment. Construction began in 2010.

In 2011, after seeking proposals for the redevelopment of Union Station, RTD selected the Union Station Alliance’s proposal to turn the building into a hotel, with the Great Hall serving as both the hotel’s lobby and as a public gathering place. Three years later, the Union Station transit station opened, featuring an underground bus concourse with 22 bays, a new light rail platform served by the C, E and W lines, and tracks for future commuter rail lines. Not long after, the Crawford Hotel – named for Dana Crawford – opened its doors to visitors.

Union Station continues to serve as a model of successful public-private partnership and transit-oriented development, with RTD’s nearly $500 million investment having catalyzed billions of dollars of private investment in the blocks surrounding the station. RTD is proud of its key role in bringing new life to this iconic landmark, and our staff fields regular requests from municipalities and transit agencies worldwide, seeking to understand how we did it.

Thank you to RTD planning staff members Bill Sirois, Chessy Brady and Charlie Stanfield for their help with this story.

Aerial
The “Bus Box” under construction in the early 2010s.


Union
Denver Union Station framed by the Teflon canopy over the commuter rail platform.