I was amazed to see the progress taking place at Denver Union Station during a tour hosted by Society of Marketing Professionals last Wednesday. Is the construction happening at a frenetic pace or had I just not ridden the mall bus past Tattered Cover or looked behind Union Station for a while?

The new transfer station for the mall bus and light rail opened a few weeks ago and the structures with skylights serving the new underground bus facility are emerging into the nearby plaza (along with the large, slightly eerie intake and exhaust shafts that were incorporated into the design). Seeing the activity and some of the now-completed construction up close made it much easier for me to realize the scope of the project and how much this transformation will impact downtown. Not to mention the perceptions of Denver on a broader, regional, national, (perhaps even global?) scale.

The tour, led by Ken Schroeppel, founder of denverinfill.com and denverurbanism.com and now a professor of urban design at UCD, was a bonus to this month’s SMPS lunch meeting, which started with an expert panel of Schroeppel, Dan Schuetz of Nichols Partnership, and renowned downtown developer Dana Crawford.

Schroeppel presented an update on the Union Station public spaces and the entire adjacent development areas, noting that work on the south-wing building “will break ground any day now.” Several of the area’s for-rent, multifamily/mixed-use and office projects are in various stages of planning and development. Schuetz’s detailed presentation on the five-story, mixed-use project at 20th & Chestnut followed. (He says they are still considering names if you care to make a suggestion.).

This presentation was exciting to see not only because I’m always interested in what Randy Nichols will come up with next but also because the identity of LoDo’s first major grocer will be known on July 23rd when the lease is finally signed. Designed by Mulhern Group, the multifamily development includes 314 Class A apartments and consumes the entire block. Schuetz noted the challenges with designing for the site as well as meeting the needs of urban grocers.

He said its 400-ft length appears segmented into three different “buildings” or sections that make use of both historical and contemporary materials in its design. The ground-floor retail space includes a 28-ft ceiling height to accommodate the two-level grocery store. Schuetz promised a groundbreaking in the first week of August with a 22-month construction schedule.

Crawford followed Schuetz, and it took her only a minute to have the 90-plus members of the audience laughing, mentioning that the residents of the Flour Mill Lofts (developed by Crawford) are placing wagers on who the grocer will be (rumor is either King Soopers or Safeway).

She provided an overview of comments from the recent Union Station public focus group, which she said seemed focused on “the availability of adult beverages.”  Not to worry, Crawford promised, the station’s new Terminal Bar will serve that need. (Her firm is part of the Union Station Alliance consortium contracted to renovate the interior of Union Station.) During the update on the renovation of the building, Crawford noted negotiations with RTD are still ongoing and that the Union Station Alliance is still waiting to hear from the National Park Service and the Landmark Preservation Commission on its application for historic designation. 

Crawford also retold some stories of how LoDo has transitioned to what it is today, including the risks and the team’s need for perseverance in the face of comments that they should have their heads examined. “There are a lot of nice people out on the ends of limbs,” Crawford countered.

Crawford and Schroeppel also touted the impact of the rail connection to DIA once the East Line is completed in 2016. Schroeppel said visitors are sure to be impressed as they board trains at a “fantastic new station” at DIA, to arrive at a thriving hub built of new and old elements at Union Station.

I look forward to seeing the building when it reopens in 2014, 100 years after its 1914 debut.

If you haven’t yet taken Schroeppel’s tour of Union Station, you may want to sign up soon. Once negotiations with RTD are complete and construction begins in earnest on the existing building, access to the inside of station will be restricted until the project nears completion in 2014.

Visit http://denverinfill.com/blog/ for more details on the schedule and the tour. The suggested donation is $10 per person, with all proceeds going to the nonprofit student chapter of the American Planning Association.