There used to be a rat infestation and lots of fear about crime. Now there’s a community garden

Things are happening at a plaza behind Union Station.
7 min. read
The new 17th Street Gardens behind Union Station is nearly complete. June 11, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Over the past decade, Denver’s relatively new Union Station neighborhood was touted as both one of the city’s most desirable and least desirable places to live — a hub of luxury and a hotbed of crime. 

A new Denver Urban Gardens community garden behind the station and above the bus terminal is the latest attempt to restore the neighborhood to its pre-pandemic glory, where restaurants and shops flourished and people walked about, sharing space and enjoying community. 

Residents are excited about it. So is Denver Urban Gardens. And a bevy of public relations pros are touting the space as a sign that downtown’s back — a drum beat they’ve been pounding to keep the area active, so property values stay high, businesses return and everybody feels safer.

And maybe, just maybe, if the community members have their way, the garden could even be a meeting place between the haves and have-nots. A space where tensions evaporate as people plant seeds, water plants, grow healthy foods, breathe in the air and decompress from a terribly tense few years.  

It’s one of the first steps, driven by the community, in making the area above the bus terminal a place people actually want to be. 

Next will be a stage, lunchtime concerts, more food trucks and other amenities the community wants.

All this is welcome news to Laura Morgan, who has lived in the neighborhood through some of its peaks and slumps. 

Roughly eight years ago, when Morgan moved from San Francisco into a Union Station apartment at the Platform, the area was poised to become the next hot place to live in Denver. 

City planners, developers and urban boosters had spent years plotting the Union Station revival, with a new Downtown bus station below ground and a luxurious neighborhood with big-city vibes where everything was walkable above. 

The new 17th Street Gardens behind Union Station is nearly complete. June 11, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

You could work from an office during the day; play at sports arenas, music venues, bars and museums in your free time; and live in stylish housing. Even better, on the weekends, you had easy access to the mountains on Bustang and the Winter Park Express.

“(There were) a lot of people, a lot of population, just lots of booming businesses — people coming to be here,” Morgan said.

As Anna Jones, manager of the Central Platte Valley Metropolitan District, put it, the area was “high-end and yet accessible.”

”Because you have Union Station and all the open public areas,” Jones said. “So it’s kind of where everything comes together. And it really did meet the mark of what the initial designers and developers were thinking.” 

Morgan, benefiting from all that planning, liked the area so much that she decided to quit renting and buy a condo at the Coloradan.

Then COVID-19 pummeled the thriving city center.

The public space above the bus terminal and behind Union Station had been built for informal public gatherings, an area for the community.

“It was intended to be a passive, enjoyable linger-in kind of space,” Jones said. “And as the pandemic hit, people emptied out.”

Offices shuttered, restaurants closed. As winter came in 2021, people who had been camping at Civic Center Park were fenced out of that space and moved to the Union Station bus terminal, the public square built above it and the Great Hall itself. 

Indoors, people without homes stayed warm, charged their phones and slept in relative safety many said they couldn’t find on the streets or in the emergency overnight shelters. For those who used drugs, they had a place where people could see if they overdosed and administer Naloxone, an overdose reversal drug.

The new 17th Street Gardens behind Union Station is nearly complete. June 11, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“When COVID hit, things definitely closed down a bit,” Morgan said. “And it was definitely a very interesting experience living here with not as many people and a lot more unhoused people, a lot of different kinds of drug issues that we saw daily, outside our front door.” 

Complaints about safety rose as did drug crimes. Some downtown residents applied for concealed-carry permits or bought mace, afraid they needed to defend themselves. 

Neighbors reported people using drugs while engaging in oral sex in the entryway to the bus terminal, rats gobbling cereal from boxes littering the gardens and pet dogs getting stuck by syringes.  

In December 2021, the head of a transit union described Union Station’s bus terminal as “a lawless hellhole.” Bus drivers were scared to be there.

Ever since, downtown residents, boosters, businesses and politicians have been struggling to bring a sense of safety back to the Union Station neighborhood. 

In an effort to create safety, large granite benches above the bus terminal were demolished, giving people one less place to sit comfortably. 

The open space where the community gardens now sit was fenced off by the Central Platte Valley Metropolitan District, creating a sense that the area was uninhabitable. 

Some residents proposed the people living on the streets, who had nowhere else to go, needed more social services and healthcare or housing. Others wanted them rounded up and put in jail.

The new 17th Street Gardens behind Union Station is nearly complete. June 11, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Listening to the loud complaints of neighbors, Mayor Michael Hancock’s Denver Police Department ramped up its presence. So did RTD’s police force. The transit agency also funded a host of environmental fixes. Private security patrolled the station itself. 

And after Mayor Mike Johnston took office, he spent his six months trying to end visible homelessness in the urban core by bringing more than 1,000 people inside and permanently shuttering encampments through increased enforcement.

Morgan and Jones are part of the latest effort to reenergize Union Station, this time by creating the 17th Street Community Garden.

The gardens are being built in the fenced-off areas above the bus station, and while fences will remain, the unsightly, tall chain-link fence will likely be removed, if the Metro District has its way and the city’s planning department approves a new design. 

“We have 32 community garden plots,” said Nessa Mogharreban, the director of partnerships at Denver Urban Gardens. “All of the plots are full with residents and businesses to take care of the space, grow food, grow community, and help create a human-based solution for the climate challenge that we're facing as well.”

Central Platte Valley Metropolitan District manager Anna Jones (left to right), Denver Urban Gardens partnerships director Nessa Mogharreban and 17th Street Gardens leader Laura Morgan sit in the nearly-completed 17th Street Gardens behind Union Station. June 11, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Anybody can request a garden, and 50 people have signed up for the list. All you need to join is an email address.

Theoretically, the garden could be a place where the housed and unhoused can garden together. 

“I think it's going to be a really interesting experiment,” Jones said. “This is kind of the ultimate post-pandemic, urban exercise in equitable shared space. If we do this well, I am confident that we will be able to replicate this kind of model all over the country. I think it really is going to be a great post-pandemic paradigm shift that a lot of people are gonna look to.”

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