Urban Project Comparison Part II: Riding the Rails

Riding the Rails

During the middle of the 20th century, Argentina and the United States saw a significant decline in passenger rail service and the demise of trolley car systems in most of their major cities. This was partly due to the rise of air travel, but both countries experienced a powerful conglomerate of oil, tire and automobile/bus manufacturers that lobbied successfully to have their rail systems dismantled. Santa Fe no longer enjoys regularly scheduled passenger rail service, instead relying only on private bus companies and the automobile for reliable ground transportation. Rail service throughout Argentina has narrowed to one line servicing the cities of Buenos Aires, Rosario and Cordoba. The decline of rail service left Santa Fe, Salt Lake City and Denver with underutilized rail and trolley buildings in prime real estate locations. Each city is faced with unique challenges with their facilities that include ownership of the land, land-use decisions and public support.

Trolley Stations

Both Santa Fe and Salt Lake City have taken their old trolley barns and turned them into upscale shopping areas.

Santa Fe’s Recoleta Station has been remodeled into an indoor/outdoor shopping and dining area. The station was remodeled as the city’s premier shopping destination but has since been replaced by a new and very modern shopping district on an abandoned dock. In recent years the interior of Recoleta Station was remodeled to include a Coto grocery/department store, reducing the number of retail stores.

Salt Lake City’s historic Trolley Square was similarly redeveloped into a shopping/dining/entertainment district. Taking up an entire city block, the overall footprint of Trolley Square is much larger than the Recoleta Station but the current land use is strikingly similar.

Trolley Square is a complex of storage and maintenance barns along with power transfer station that provided the electricity for the trolley system.

The interior has been remodeled into retail stores and restaurants while keeping the historic ambiance of the barns.

Under new private ownership, Trolley Square is currently undergoing a complete renovation of the interior barns, exterior public spaces, a new parking structure and, just like Recoleta Station did in Santa Fe, will be adding a Whole Foods grocery store to the property. The project should be completed sometime in 2011.

Rail Stations

The main rail stations in Santa Fe, Salt Lake City and Denver have similar histories of being the main hub of transportation activity for their cities. All three had declined steadily in use and each city has (or will) take a very divergent path on how the former rail stations will be used.

Argentina’s rail infrastructure was built and operated by private businesses with a British controlling interest. After Juan Peron’s rise to power in the 1940’s, the British were forced out of the country and the railroads were nationalized. Santa Fe’s two main stations, Mitre and Belgrano fell under the ownership of Argentina’s federal government.

In the early 1990’s Santa Fe was no longer receiving passenger train service and the train stations fell into disrepair. The municipal government was faced with a delicate situation, as they had no jurisdiction over the properties. However, since the stations were causing blight an urban decay in the heart of the city, the new mayor decided to start rehabilitating the areas without the permission of the federal government.

Mitre Station on the West side of Santa Fe is currently used for fairs and bazaars, however the station itself is in bad need of repair after suffering from a fire earlier this decade.

Belgrano Station is a much more handsome building and sits prominently on the Boulevard in the middle of the city. It is currently undergoing renovation and is occasionally used for concerts and other public gatherings. The municipal government has decided that the primary use for the structure and the surrounding area will be a new commercial business park with public recreation and trails running the length of the tracks.

Salt Lake City chose a different path for its former train station. The Union Pacific building has been remodeled and now serves as an anchor for two-block redevelopment area called The Gateway. The Gateway was a project that was completed before the Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake City in 2002. It is a mixed-use development that includes shopping, dining, residences and business offices.

While the main floor of the Union Pacific building sits mostly empty, the upper floors of the building have been turned into an events center that hosts a nightclub and a venue for concerts and business events.

While generally regarded as a successful catalyst for the redevelopment of the area, critics claim that the two-block district has harmed other downtown retail areas and that the city was shortsighted in selling the rail right-of-ways that accompanied the Union Pacific building.

Denver has recently decided to utilize their historic train station in a different way than the leaders of Santa Fe and Salt Lake City have chosen.

In 2004 voters in the Denver Metro area approved the largest sales tax increase in state history for a project called “Fastracks”. The tax, along with federal money is going to construct a regional network of light-rail, commuter-rail and bus rapid transit corridors around the metro area.

At the nexus of the completed system is Denver’s Union Station, which will regain its former glory as the ground transportation hub for the city. The new intermodal hub will also include long-distance passenger rail, an express bus terminal and a bicycle facility that includes lockers and showers.

The existing historical building could not accommodate all of the future uses that are planned for the intermodal hub. A master plan has been developed for the area, which encompasses almost 20 acres of land, and will include retail, commercial and public open space. Union Station’s redevelopment is scheduled to be completed in late 2012 with the entire Fastracks program being completed in 2016.

While the approaches of Santa Fe, Salt Lake City and Denver are vastly different, the concern for redevelopment of these critical areas of their cities have and will continue to be positive agents for change in their respective communities. All three cities have found ways to preserve and honor their building’s historical significances in a way that is unique and appropriate to the needs of their citizens.

Urban Project Comparison Part I


Everyone has a different traveling style. I have discovered over the years that, depending on where I am and how long I have, my travel habits change. If I have only a few days, then I pretty much play the role of tourist, hitting the major sites and taking as many postcard photos as I possibly can. If I have time though, I disappear from the beaten path.

A significant amount of time is not a privilege that most traveling are granted. Study abroad programs, if designed properly, are an excellent chance to gain insight into a local culture.

You begin to feel the rhythms of the community.

You settle into a weekly pattern of life.

As you slip away from the frenzied pace of a tourist, you sink, slowly and softly into the profound appreciation for what makes each place so uniquely special . . .

. . . it’s people.

At first glance, the commonalities between Santa Fe, Argentina and the Rocky Mountain West would seem superficial. However, there are similar urban projects and challenges that resonate in both areas.


To understand some of the unique challenges that Santa Fe faces, it is important to know the background of the city and why it has grown into the modern city that it is today.

More than once, I was told that there was no good reason for Santa Fe to have been founded. There are no minerals or oil, just an abundance of flat land surrounded by lots and lots of water. With the Portuguese staking claims of territory to the North, it was prudent for the Spanish colonialists to found as many outposts as they could to secure their territorial claims.

Santa Fe was originally founded in 1573 some 85km northeast of its current location but was relocated due to severe flooding. During the Spanish colonial period, the city life was concentrated around the confluence of the Salado River to the East and the Parana River to the West. The main hub of social, economic and religious activity occurred in what is now known as the Plaza 25 de Mayo.

The city began to grow toward the north during the 1800’s after Argentina declared independence from Spain. The new ruling aristocracy made a conscious effort to change the hub of social life away from the old colonial plaza by constructing the Plaza San Martin in honor of the General who liberated Argentina from Spanish rule. The aristocracy also constructed a new boulevard that became the new northern border of the city.

Santa Fe relatively stayed within that footprint until the rise to power of Juan Peron in the 1940’s. Along with his wife, the famous Evita Duarte, their social and economic policies for Argentina forcibly redistributed the wealth away from the aristocracy into the hands of the lower classes.

This pushed the city’s growth patterns to the West and the North where they continue to this day. The following is a map illustrating the basic historical growth boundaries for Santa Fe.

Recent Planning Projects & Rocky Mountain West Comparison Projects

Flood Plains

From 1976-1983, Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship. During this dark chapter of their history, Santa Fe’s development was pushed across the Setubal Lagoon to the East. The military dictatorship decided to build a new campus for the Universidad Nacional del Litoral and a high-density, low-income housing complex called Barrio el Pozo across the Colgante Bridge for fear of a student or lower class uprising.

In the mid-80’s as the country returned to democracy, a massive new project was begun to encompass the Western side of the city with a continuous dyke topped off with a new freeway. The Salado River to the West has historically been a severe flood threat to Santa Fe. In 2003 as major rains hit the area, disaster struck. As the Salado River rose to record high levels, the new bridge connecting Santa Fe with neighboring Santo Tome did not allow for adequate water to pass underneath it.
As the pressure grew, the water backed up to the North of the city and spilled into the low-lying areas where the dyke construction had not been completed. The water was effectively trapped inside the city and sections of the dyke had to be blown up to allow the water to run off. The flood killed 24 people and displaced over 100,000 residents (which represents over 1/5 of the city’s population. After the flooding subsided, the bridge was redesigned and reconstructed along with the incomplete portions of the dyke/freeway system.

In the Rocky Mountains, the city of Denver, Colorado is no stranger to floods. Denver was founded at the confluence of the Platte River and Cherry Creek in the 1850’s in conjunction with the discovery of Gold and Silver the same decade. The Platte River was notorious for flooding and in 1965 the largest recorded flood in Colorado history occurred killing 9 people and inundating the entire downtown business district along with 600 homes. In response the United States Federal government funded the construction of the Chatfield Reservoir system to control the flow of the Platte.

Valley Highway (I-25) section of flooding

In the decades that followed the Denver flood of 1965, massive redevelopment of the Central Platte Valley has (and is) occurring. In what was once land that was considered unfit for construction, huge new infill projects are occurring thanks to the flood mitigation projects of the 1960’s and 70’s.

As with any historic flood plain, land values rise as the threat of flooding is mitigated. Denver has gone through the re-planning process for the Central Platte Valley as is evidenced by the new infill projects. Santa Fe’s municipal government is starting the process of future plans for its West side of town, although their approach is much less market-driven as they are restricting land prospectors from displacing a large portion of residences that are in the lower-classes of the city.