New plan puts trains in Downtown SLC underground – and makes the Rio Grande depot a real central station

Removing the train yards that remain in west Downtown Salt Lake City opens 52 acres of developable land, claim the authors of an uncommissioned plan currently bubbling in SLC development circles. 

The informal visioning document – titled the Rio Grande Plan – claims to solve problems that have dogged the area for decades: at-grade railroad crossings, unused tracks blocking mobility and new construction, massive bridges erasing street frontage, a dead zone around the central transit station on 600 West.

Authored by a Salt Lake City engineer-designer duo, Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely, the Rio Grande Plan has buzzed up the city’s SkyscraperPage and Reddit urban development forums this December.

Former Redevelopment Agency Executive Director DJ Baxter, who oversaw planning for trains under Mayors Rocky Anderson and Ralph Becker, called the plan “very ambitious and very exciting” in an email to Building Salt Lake.

City Planning Director Nick Norris, whose team will be meeting with the plan’s authors in early January, saw “a fairly impressive proposal” at first blush.

The barriers to development

Development in the Depot District still lags, despite it being practically Downtown and getting a lot of attention from the city. The Depot and Granary have been Redevelopment Agency (RDA) project areas – enjoying tax increment financing benefits – since the late 1990s.

Rio Grande Street from 200 South, May 2019. Photo by Luke Garrott.

Is it the homeless services in the neighborhood that are stunting development, even though they have been shrinking since the Road Home emergency shelter was closed and the property put up for sale?

Or is it bad urban design? The Rio Grande Plan suggests that failing to remove a series of prodigious barriers like rail yards, dangerous railroad crossings, and viaduct bridges has been significant. 

In addition, the Rio Grande Plan advocates capitalizing on the area’s assets – namely its grand railroad past – to energize the area around a Rio Grande depot transformed back into a transit hub. 

The plan’s intentions

The first goal of the Rio Grande Plan, according to Christian Lenhart, PE, is to increase safety by removing at-grade railroad crossings. The plan shows how the crossings at 900, 800, and 200 South will be eliminated, along with the crossing at 800 West and South Temple. 

How? A nine-block-long, 6-track subterranean “train box” below 500 West from South Temple to 900 South. Since the trench is a concrete structure, its cost is significantly lower than other tunnel-digging technologies, like boring. 

The cost is estimated at $300-500M, using comparable projects recently completed in Denver and Reno. Funding sources could include the federal government, city bonds backed by TIF, contributions by UTA, UDOT, and Union Pacific.

The entire project fits below the existing 500 West right-of-way, making any additional acquisition of land unnecessary. Image courtesy Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely.

UP may be highly enthusiastic about the project, Lenhart contends, given its current “aggressive program of closing at-grade railroad crossings.” Efficiency and safety operations would be greatly enhanced by a subterranean right-of-way through Downtown while closing four crossings.

Only TRAX trains and busses would be at surface grade in Downtown. Amtrak, commuter rail, intercity rail, and freight rail would all be underground in the city center, from South Temple to 900 South.

Rail consolidation schematic, with the undergrounded lines in black. Image courtesy Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely.

The authors also note the positives beyond safety of removing the train tracks at 200, 800, and 900 South: reducing a major barrier between east and west in the city.

While every driver has suffered lost productivity while waiting for trains to pass, the train tracks also rob the city of connective fabric. Take away the train tracks, and the harsh, gaping geographical expanse that runs north-south down the middle of the city – created by the railroad and Interstate rights-of-way – can be narrowed. 

Viaducts that become unnecessary with the Rio Grande Plan: 600 S (bottom), 500 S, and 400 S (center-top). All the tracks visible (center and right) would be eliminated with the plan. Photo by Luke Garrott.

With the removal of the train tracks west of 600 West, the giant car bridges that span the rail yards at 400 South, 500 South and 600 South would be largely unnecessary. The 400 South viaduct – which crosses only railroad tracks – could be removed by the city without intergovernmental approval.

Taking down the 400 South bridge would open up two and a half blocks of street frontage on two sides of a re-created, street-level 400 South between 500 West and 765 West.

FFKR Architects would gain street frontage, part of 2.5 blocks on each side of the street that would be created with the dropping of the 400 South viaduct, seen at left. The bridge would be made unnecessary by the removal of tracks under the Rio Grande Plan. Photo by Luke Garrott.

The interstate ramps at 500 and 600 South are creatures of UDOT, but their length becomes unnecessary if the rail yards are removed. When their serviceable life is over, the plan assumes they can be re-engineered to drop down at 600 or 700 West, creating an additional three blocks of street frontage each along 500 and 600 South.

The future is the past

The modern Gateway and Depot Districts owe their current development potential to a previous plan to consolidate and remove rail during the run-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics. Under Mayor Deedee Corradini (1992-2000) the city spent $54M to remove tracks, shorten three freeway ramps (to drop down at 500 instead of 400 West) and acquire property in the area.

Two of the bridges that were rebuilt, and shortened a block, in the 1990s under Mayor Deedee Corradini. 400 S (left) and 500 S (right). Photo by Luke Garrott.

According to Salt Lake Tribune reporting by Rebecca Walsh, UDOT and the railroads were capital partners in the project. HUD and the EPA also kicked in money as part of the cleanup of the brownfields previously covered by train tracks on which the 40-acre Gateway Mall currently sits. The city spent $1.5M to bury power lines in the Gateway Mall vicinity and committed $8M to create the 500 West park blocks. 

The Gateway project became one of the legacies of the Corradini Administration. Yet the mall itself paled in comparison to her ambitions for the larger area southwest of Downtown. Corradini touted intentions to open up 650 acres in total between 300 West and I-15, North Temple and 1000 South – but stopped at the Gateway’s 40 acres. 

Naively, perhaps, Corradini expected the Gateway Mall to create momentum for the rest of the district: “Once you get a ball rolling, things tend to happen exponentially. Once we get the tracks out of there, it will have a snowball effect” (Salt Lake Tribune, 3/28/98).

Corradini was the major weight behind the 600 West location of the rail station, according to newspaper accounts, which several sources verified for us. The Boyer Company, developers of the Gateway Mall’s 40 acres, resisted the idea that the Union Pacific station, at the northern edge of its development, could serve trains. 

“It’s hard to envision a mixed-use development with a commuter train coming through the middle of it,” Roger Boyer, the company’s CEO, stated in the Salt Lake Tribune (5/3/98).

Chance for redemption?

Gateway master plans of 1999 attempted to reimagine completely the area – all the way from 300 West to I-15 and North Temple to 900/1000 South.

Gateway 1999 master plan imagining. “Someday the place could be Salt Lake City’s SoHo or Greenwich Village, a trendy neighborhood of restaurants, lofts and galleries mixed in with a mattress factory, flour mill and electrical companies” Rebecca Walsh of the Tribune reported at the time (5/3/1998). Image courtesy SLC Planning Division.

The plan’s visioning wasn’t constricted by the existing train tracks. Designers were able to think about what a contemporary urban neighborhood could look like if offered a blank canvas. 

The 1999 plan was retired in 2016 with the adoption of the Downtown Plan, which split the former Gateway District into the Depot District and the Granary, reflecting the purchase gained by the names given the areas by the RDA when it designated the neighborhoods TIF-collecting project areas in the late 1990s. 

The two plans’ difference in ambition is marked, especially for the Depot District. By 2016 removal of rail was not even being fathomed. Focus is on the properties owned by the RDA – currently vacant lots and a small collection of historic warehouses aspiring to be known as Station Center.

The RDA’s Station Center site from the Intermodal Hub. Still looking for the station and the center. Photo by Luke Garrott.

What station, exactly? Despite the existence of two historic train depots in the area, the city chose to place its main train station in a dead zone at 600 West, on the edge of Downtown. Not surprisingly, in 25 years the immediate area hasn’t changed much at all.

The current Central Station

The city’s “Intermodal Hub,” on 600 West and 300 South, currently houses Greyhound, empty retail space and a UTA office. To the south is UTA’s “Salt Lake Central Station,” a trailer and platform for Amtrak, and stops for FrontRunner commuter rail and TRAX light rail.

A number of UTA busses stop, stage, and originate behind and to the northwest of the Intermodal building. A Greenbike station is also located on the UTA platform at 300 South. A vacant lot, owned by UTA, persists north of the Intermodal building, at the corner of 200 South and 600 West. 

Photo by Luke Garrott.

To the south along 600 West, Amtrak has been content with its modular ticketing and waiting room since it moved from the Rio Grande depot in 1998. It has shown little interest in upgrading its facilities when contacted over the years by the city, officials told us.

While the architecture of the Intermodal Hub building that houses Greyhound contributes positively to the station, the UTA- and Amtrak-administered train platforms provide a less than uplifting experience to riders. Union Pacific trains frequently thunder by.

UTA’s Salt Lake Central Station. Amtrak, upper-left. Photo by Luke Garrott.
Intermodal Hub building, with UTA’s administrative HQ above (white, left-center) and bus storage and service center (top right). Photo by Luke Garrott.

Open to the elements, soul-crushing in its low aesthetic ambitions and simple-minded fealty to function, the title “Salt Lake Central Station” comes across as a sarcastic moniker of mockery to urban designers and transit advocates.

The authors of the Rio Grande Plan note that the station has done little for the neighborhood. “Development around Salt Lake Central Station has not happened. Vacant lots have sat unused for over a decade. 300 South, which is blocked by the Rio Grande Depot, is a lifeless street. On the east side of the depot, 300 South and Pioneer Park are underutilized and overlooked.”

Is this your idea of a transit hub? Salt Lake Central Station, photo by Luke Garrott.

The station itself, they contend, is hurting the cause of transit: “The lack of passenger amenities is limiting ridership, turning away future rail and transit users, and stalling passenger rail projects in the state of Utah.”

‘They built it in the wrong place’

It’s not easy to fathom why the 600 West location was chosen over two historic train depots. 

Each station had its advocates. The Union Pacific depot, fronting 400 West and South Temple, was pushed by a group led by Roger Borgenicht, then executive director of ASSIST, a community non-profit design studio. Stephen Goldsmith, founder of Artspace non-profit, saw the Rio Grande depot as the natural choice.

The Union Pacific depot seen from the steps of the Utah Jazz arena in 2010. Photo courtesy Flickr user Ray Krebs.

Goldsmith, who would later be tapped by Mayor Rocky Anderson as Planning Director, told us “When we were advocating for using the Rio Grande Depot for the intermodal hub it seemed so obvious, elegant, and practical.”

“Pathetically, one of the city’s consultants even stated at a public meeting, ‘how would we get the trains to the station?’.”

Noting how local and national urban designers supported the Rio Grande proposal, Goldsmith lamented the loss of “The opportunity to create an arrival sequence into the city that was memorable, something to look forward to, rather than the vapid place that was established on 600 West.”

Borgenicht, currently co-chair of the non-profit advocacy group Utahns for Better Transportation, remembered that “Deedee [Corrradini] was the main stumbling block. Every consultant we had in town before the Olympics – Walter Kulash, Roger Millar (currently WA state transportation director), Michael Sorkin – all of them said this was a world-class opportunity to bring together light rail, regional rail, and busses in a historic building.”

Instead of repurposing one of the neighborhood’s two historic train depots, city leaders and UTA gave us this instead. The FrontRunner commuter rail platform at Salt Lake Central and the Intermodal Hub on 600 W. Photo by Luke Garrott.

Borgenicht reflected, “It was the most short-sighted, decades-long decision imaginable and also the biggest urban planning loss of my career – that we couldn’t pull off the Union Pacific Depot.” 

Making a train station a train station again    

The Rio Grande Plan’s engineering renderings are impressive. Six new tracks will fit below 500 West, submerged from South Temple to 900 South.

While there are businesses on the west side of the District that still use railroad sidings, all other through-tracks can be removed from the area, save Union Pacific’s route along I-80 that splits west at South Temple.

The Plan’s signature glass canopy covers 500 West behind the Rio Grande depot, where passengers will be able to access trains below ground or busses in a covered plaza. On the front side of the station, on Rio Grande St (450 West), TRAX trains will stop.

Images courtesy Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely.

The train box has room for growth: not only does it accommodate Union Pacific, Amtrak and FrontRunner, but it has room for increased inter-city rail as well as east-west commuter rail from Tooele to Park City.   

Image courtesy Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely.

The fate of the Rio Grande property is in the hands of the state of Utah, who owns and has caretaken the building well, according to Lenhart. Currently housing the state’s Department of Heritage and Arts, the depot has long been the preferred location for the Downtown Alliance’s year-round public market.

Find the Rio Grande Plan here.

Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.