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A bold plan would revive the Rio Grande Depot and heal Salt Lake City's divide

Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely in front of the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City explaining their plans
Colleen Meidt
Utah Public Radio
Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely in front of the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City explaining their plans

In an attempt to solve the transportation crisis and revive the historical Rio Grande Depot train station, two residents are proposing to move the railway system of Salt Lake City underground and bridge the divide between the East and West sides of the city.

The Rio Grande Depot was once a main train station of Salt Lake City. In preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics the city removed all the tracks to shorten some freeway bridges downtown, leaving the Rio Grande Depot landlocked and replaced with the Central Train Station.

“Salt Lake City Central Station is hidden behind I-15, the freeway and some industrial lands and hidden behind an old train station, the Rio Grande Depot. And that's kind of a perverse situation to be in. Your train station is blocked from downtown by a train station," said Christian Lenhart. As a professional civil engineer and resident of Salt Lake City he saw this problem and decided to do something about it. Using examples from how nearby cities like Reno, Nevada, and Denver, Colorado invested heavily in the downtown rail stations.

“After studying the issue, I came to the determination that the Salt Lake City Central Station’s in the wrong place. The solution seemed to be to use the old train station, which is a nice old building, 110 years old. It's enormous on the inside, and it's beautiful. Salt Lake City will not get the chance to build something that great again,” Lenhart said.

Lenhart’s ideas started reaching others.

“I was posting some of these ideas on websites, online skyscraper pages and on Reddit. And Cameron, he read some of these ideas and contacted me and said we should work together and make this professional proposal," Lenhart said.

Cameron Blakely is a landscape architect and urban designer at a firm in Salt Lake called LOCI.

“As a landscape architect and urban designer, I'm very much invested in how we can make denser, more walkable, more sustainable cities. I occasionally would browse some of these development forums online just to see what was happening in the area. I came across some of his ideas that he was talking about. I made an account so that I could message him and I was like, ‘Hey, this is sort of what I do. Would you be interested in teaming up and we could bounce this design back and forth, and I could help...get this idea out," Blakely said.

Since they first began developing together about a year and a half ago, Lenhart and Blakley have presented to the public what they named the Rio Grande Plan.

(Courtesy image) This rendering from The Rio Grande Plan created by Cameron Blakely shows an aerial view of how the rail yard in Salt Lake City could be reimagined.
Cameron Blakely
This rendering from The Rio Grande Plan created by Cameron Blakely shows an aerial view of how the rail yard in Salt Lake City could be reimagined.

With the plan, the design of the historical station would allow pedestrians and bikers to be first priority and cars would meander slowly through the space. Riders would have easy access to the train platforms underground beneath the road.

Also, Blakely and Lenhart’s plan provides potential solutions to the housing and transportation crisis that is growing in Salt Lake City.

“Along the Wasatch Front, there's a huge housing deficit. And so trying to find innovative ways to supply housing and places for people to live and work and play within the downtown core without requiring extensive road networks and the continuation of sprawl, all those things are on the forefront of my mind,” Blakely said.

Similar to the projects conducted by the Cities of Denver and Reno, Blakely and Lenhart project the cost of the Rio Grande Plan to be between 300-500 million dollars.

They shared their plan with a variety of leaders within the city, Utah Department of Transportation, and Union Pacific. Still in the beginning stages, some feel that there are many challenges involved with the proposal.

In an email response to the plan, Union Pacific states they are one of many stakeholders that would be impacted by the project. They said they are “generally aware of the plan but have not been contacted directly regarding its details.”

Jon Larsen, Transportation Division Director of Salt Lake City is aware of the obstacles.

“The challenge is, it's an area with a high water table. And there are a lot of underground utilities. And then there's also a question of, you know, Union Pacific, they generally like to march to the beat of their own drum," Larsen said.

But despite these hurdles, he still sees the potential.

“Looking at it from a transportation perspective for this area, what we really care about is finding ways to heal this east-west divide in our city. And it's not just the rail, it's also I-15 is a huge barrier. It's just, it's too important. And it's been unaddressed for too long for us to continue to ignore it.... When I think about the Rio Grande plan, I think, wow...if you can bury all of those rail lines, and now you just have a nice clean at grade crossing...through the heart of the city," Larsen said.

In addition to Larson, The Rio Grande Plan has also caught the attention of Salt Lake City Council Member Dan Dugan.

“I look at its impact, positive impact on the people, positive impact on our planet, and positive impact...on the state and the city's economic growth and prosperity.... Yes, I want to go after this proposal, because I think it's perfect for Salt Lake City," Dugan said.

Both Blakely and Lenhart feel that bringing the Rio Grande back to life could help revive the cultural integrity of their city.

“The Rio Grande there's, there's so much history there, right. You know, it was once the lifeblood of Salt Lake City, everyone used to travel by train and I think, trying to connect to our past is something that's really important,” Blakely said.

Christian Lenhart and Cameron Blakely in front of the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. The two have developed what they call "The Rio Grande Plan," which would bury train tracks under 500 West and revitalize the Rio Grande Depot. This would free up numerous blocks for residential and commercial development
Colleen Meidt
Utah Public Radio
Christian Lenhart (civil engineer) and Cameron Blakely (urban designer) in front of the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City on Saturday, January 29th, 2022.

Both feel that their plan, although called audacious, is still a potential way to solve growing issues in the valley.

“It's very rare for a project to increase safety, increase efficiency, restore historical buildings, create new space for neighborhoods, and be financially self sufficient, in the long run with this is one of those opportunities,” Lenhart said.

The plan is still in the beginning stages and there are many unknowns. The next step is to conduct a feasibility study to understand and address the challenges and solutions by implementing this project.

Colleen Meidt is a science reporter at UPR as well as a PhD student at Utah State University. She studies native bees in the Mojave Desert and is particularly interested studying the conservation status of the Mojave Poppy Bee. In her free time, Colleen enjoys photography and rock climbing in the canyons.