The Union Pacific Depot, Salt Lake City's grand old dame of railroading, is losing her makeup. Last week's snow fell across her brow like globs of cold cream. Ornamental window coverings on the third floor now hang forward like dislodged eyelashes, adding to the disarray of boarded windows and graffiti-covered concrete.
It isn't pretty. Not many of her fans have seen her like this.Much has been said in recent weeks about how this building should be the centerpiece of the Wasatch Front's new transportation system, a "Grand Central Station" that would serve as a downtown hub for commuter rail, light rail and buses; one that would give easy access to the Delta Center and other attractions. But no one ever talks about the unpleasant things, the realities that come after you've signed on the dotted line.
What would it take to restore and maintain the depot? My guess is tens of millions of dollars. If it becomes the property of the Utah Transit Authority, would taxpayers - the same ones who voted against a tax increase for light rail - be willing to put their money where their nostalgia is? Would they be willing not only to restore the building (which would include making it earthquake proof at a cost of up to $20 million), but to maintain it?
As a community, we've been through this before. Six years ago, I followed Mayor Deedee Corradini on her first tour of Derks Field, the city's venerable old baseball stadium. We saw the winter snow melting through the crumbling concrete and peered into locker rooms that were drafty and cramped. Years later I stood by the Coliseum at the Utah State Fairpark, a building that once had heralded Salt Lake City's arrival as a place worthy of big-time arena sports. It, too, was made brittle and dangerous from years of neglect.
Both buildings had historical value. Both would have added to the community had government restored them and put them to use. But, given the costs involved, the community had little choice but to tear them down.
We won't be so unlucky with the Union Pacific Depot. A developer already has plans to incorporate it into the design of a new hotel, office and condominium project. But those plans hinge on the city's decision for a new transit hub. Right now, a majority of the City Council seems intent on building a new hub near 600 West and 200 South, something far less grand and inviting than the depot, but something that, given the circumstances, is more practical.
Don't get me wrong. In its pristine form, the way it looked when it first opened in 1909, the depot would make a great transit hub. No one builds train stations like this anymore; not with that kind of elegance. Peer through the windows into the cavernous waiting room and you can almost feel the bustle as commuters grab afternoon papers and pause for a shoe shine on their way home. From the rounded ceiling to the five large stained-glass portrayals of Western life that line the far wall, it stands eager to send a message to travelers that they are in a city of character and importance.
But those are images that belong to the heart. Community decisions should be made with the head. Here is what would happen if the city chose the depot as its transit hub:
- Someone would have to lay tracks that go past it. Under current plans, the tracks would be removed, allowing Union Pacific to sell its current rail yards as prime downtown real estate. If a track is put back, much of the prime land would be impossible to develop.
- With a track in place, the Utah Department of Transportation wouldn't be able to shorten freeway ramps into the city. Why does that matter? Without easy freeway access, the westside gateway plan would be rendered useless. No one would want to invest in revitalizing this dilapidated part of town if cars can't get to it.
- Amtrak, which wants to be part of the new transit hub, would have to back up its trains in an awkward maneuver to use the main westbound track. Amtrak officials aren't likely to agree to this, and that could kill the deal.
Add to all this the costs - for the extra track and for fixing the depot and maintaining it - and the decision is easy. The city's planning commission thought so. It voted 6-1, with one abstention, to build a new hub farther out. The City Council should heed that wisdom when it considers the matter in a few weeks.
The good news is the grand old lady won't be leaving us. She will get her face lift. Perhaps some day, if mass transit catches on, she will yet serve as a terminus for a subway system. But, despite how the thought of it stirs the heart, that day is not now.