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Tracks to tomorrow

Old train station could become new bus depot; not everybody is revved

Ken Ochs calls using the old depot as a future light rail - station a natural. - DAN WILCOCK
  • Dan Wilcock
  • Ken Ochs calls using the old depot as a future light rail station a natural.

Colorado Springs citizens may be able to catch a train to Denver sooner than previously thought possible, thanks to a carefully incubated plan presented to City Council this summer.

Colorado Springs petroleum tycoons Harlan and Ken Ochs have agreed to sell the old Denver and Rio Grande Western train depot, west of downtown, to the city for $4.5 million, with the federal government approving the price and picking up most of the tab.

City Council gave the project an initial go-ahead at its meeting last week with a unanimous 8-0 vote. The move allows the U.S. Federal Transit Administration to conduct a yearlong study to authorize the project. But City Council retains final authority on approving the plan next year.

"We decided we're leaving a legacy here," says Ken Ochs, 75, whose family secretly approached the city with the idea two years ago and plans to contribute $100,000 to the new depot for a memorial to the station's history.

The depot, on South Sierra Madre Street behind the Antlers Hotel, would be transformed into the city's new central bus terminal and a stop for the Front Range Express bus. Because the depot is right by the train tracks, it also could be connected to Denver's new light rail system, bringing to life a Front Range transportation link that's been discussed for decades.

Ochs says resurrecting the depot for transportation will bring the building full circle with its past. It's the spot where General William Palmer laid train tracks in founding Colorado Springs and President Theodore Roosevelt once made a whistle-stop speech.

It also could zoom Colorado Springs into the future.

"We think light rail is coming here," Ochs says, "and we think this is a natural."

A change in plans

For eight years, the city's Transit Services Division has scoured the city for a new location for its main bus terminal. It says the station across from City Hall on Nevada Avenue constitutes a safety risk, with too many buses crammed into a compact space.

The Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority and the Downtown Partnership, an association of downtown merchants, have advocated for the hub to be located in a proposed downtown area called Palmer Village, located south of Colorado Avenue and west of Sahwatch Street. Plans for Palmer Village also have included a convention center and possibly a new Olympic hall of fame.

But voters nixed those plans last April, when they approved a change to the city charter that prohibits officials from planning a convention center without voter approval. The vote all but killed the prospects for such a city-funded center.

"It's taken a couple of months to let the convention center [decision] sink in ... and start to change plans," says Councilman Scott Hente, who also is a member of the Urban Renewal Authority and a convention center supporter.

Despite his vote to look into the option, Hente says he remains skeptical of the depot area's ability to house large buses and provide needed parking. The city would need to buy more property in order to make the depot work, he says.

But his largest concern is that the city would become caretaker for the businesses currently in the depot, including Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant, a situation he views as problematic.

"It would be entirely possible," he says, "that the city would be a landlord."

Giuseppe's story

After moving to the old depot in the early 1970s, Giuseppe's became one of the largest restaurants in Colorado. But the move wasn't an easy one. The city first demolished the Rex Hotel, where Giuseppe's had operated since 1955, kicking out the old restaurant and 3.2 beer joint.

Last week, Giuseppe's co-owner Joanne Colt appeared before City Council to voice fears that her business again could be the target of tinkering.

"Obviously, Giuseppe's will be probably be the first to be booted out," said Colt, herself a former Council member.

"It would be impossible for us to operate with a portion of the building," she said in a later interview. And, she asked, even if the restaurant isn't relocated, "Would you want to go to a dust bowl with a front-loader operating for a quiet lunch?"

Colt says speculation about Giuseppe's closing could kill her advance reservations for weddings and bus tours.

"I would want the city and the federal government to give us the option to relocate immediately," she says.

At the bus stop

The owners of Giuseppe's aren't the only ones concerned about the plan. On a recent sweltering day at the Nevada Avenue station, bus customers also chimed in.

"This [station] works for me," says Alonzo Kelly, a Vietnam vet who waits for the bus every day. "A lot of elderly people and disabled people became accustomed to coming here."

"I'd like it to stay here," says Lynn Abernathy, who also rides the bus every day and would prefer to avoid walking to the depot. "That's a scarier neighborhood for me. It seems dark and dreary down there."

-- Dan Wilcock

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