The Case for Union Station Event Recap

On July 14th, the AIA Colorado Regional and Urban Design Knowledge Community hosted a panel event in reaction to the recent negative public discourse surrounding one of Denver’s most trafficked and iconic public spaces, Union Station. The event, called “The Effect of Public Policy Surrounding Design in Contested Public Space: The Case of Denver’s Union Station,” was engaging, insightful, and provided a valuable opportunity for design professionals to hear directly from stakeholders in Downtown Denver’s planning and transit communities.

Union Station is a sprawling entity, comprising the historic Great Hall, home to the Terminal Bar and Crawford Hotel, a train shed which serves as a hub for RTD light rail services, and an underground bus terminal, servicing both local and regional bus lines. The underground terminal in particular has been the subject of criticism in recent months, citing issues of safety and public drug use. RTD had to close the public restrooms in this section due to fears of Fentanyl contamination and has considered proposals to close the bus terminal to the public, only allowing ticket holders access.

The purpose of the panel discussion was to bring together public design and transit experts to help examine this issue through the lens of design. Can we as architects and designers propose a better solution for a more equitable transit-oriented public space?

Our panelists were four prominent Denver professionals with a passion for public transit. Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, chair of the R+UDKC and a senior architect and urban designer for RTD, opened the discussion with an overview of the history of Union Station and a summary of current design solutions proposed for the bus terminal. Debra A. Johnson, CEO of RTD-Denver, which owns Union Station, provided valuable insight into the day-to-day operations of public transit in Denver and RTD’s relationship with the communities it serves. Ken Schroeppel, Director of Urban Design at CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning, provided important context on the history of Urban Planning in Denver and the development of the modern Union Station. Andrew Iltis, Director of the Planning and Community Impact department at the Downtown Denver Partnership, expanded on the relationship between Denver tourism, the Business Improvement District, and Union Station.

The conversation began with a reflection on how the relationship between society and public space has been affected by the pandemic. Many news articles have cited the pandemic as the genesis of concerns over increasing levels of public drug use in the underground bus terminal, leading to fears that that the terminal is not safe for the average commuter. It is true that the during the pandemic, with stay-at-home orders in place, a void was created in our public spaces that was often filled by persons on the fringes of society. As Ignacio pointed out during the discussion, the spaces haven’t changed – the users of the space have. How do we diversify the users of public space while still providing an opportunity for prosperity to everyone?

Andrew was able to provide valuable data on how transit ridership dropped sharply in the wake of the pandemic and that the daily commuter traffic numbers have been picking up but not quite to pre-pandemic levels. However, tourism numbers in downtown are certainly back to pre-pandemic levels or higher as more and more people opt to engage in the various entertainments offered downtown. As Debra pointed out, “There is no such thing as a rush hour any longer.” Since so many people continue to work from home, we may not see the same peak hours that we have in the past, but that does not make the role of public transportation less critical. Transit isn’t dead, it just looks different.

As the discussion turned to solutions for the “problem,” panelists emphasized the balancing act RTD must navigate. Although their primary role is a provider of public transportation, Debra acknowledged that transportation is interwoven in the communities they serve, and they have a responsibility to engage the public when planning for the future. In Andrew’s experience, Denver is one of the most collaborative of cities between the public and private sector. One creative solution proposes the formation of a dedicated organization similar to the Times Square Alliance in NYC, which is a non-profit dedicated to maintaining Times Square as an engaging public space.

Of course, the question of who gets to use our public spaces will not be answered in a single panel discussion. It will require immense collaboration across organizations and disciplines. As designers, we must continue to engage in these discussions to provide our unique insight on how public space can be designed for equitable, enjoyable, and safe experiences for all members of society. Thank you again to all the panelists and AIA Colorado members who participated in our discussion!

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