The sprawling complex, housing some 140 shops and restaurants, is in the midst of a $35 million renovation, repositioning its merchant mix with a concentration on food. The move comes as increased intercity bus service and the potential expansion of Metrorail capacity promise an influx of visitors.
About 32 million people visit Union Station each year — 15.5 million local residents, 8 million tourists, 5 million commuters and 3.5 million office workers. Which begs the question of who should be the target audience for the retail.
Missing the middle ground
“Turning to a fast-casual solution makes so much sense because everyone eats at these places whether they are residents, tourists or travelers. It’s the common ground between all of the customer groups they are trying to serve,” said Heather Arnold, director of research and analysis at Bethesda-based StreetSense, a commercial real estate firm.
Quick-serve eateries Yo! Sushi and Roti are slated to open by the summer, rounding out the list of seven fast-casual restaurants to set up shop in the past 24 months. Add the food court on the lower level, plus the five white-tablecloth bistros and dining will soon account for nearly 40 percent of the retail at the station.
“Not everyone is interested in the food court or have time for fine dining, so we were missing that middle ground,” said Joe Press, senior vice president of Ashkenazy Acquisition, the New York City developer that in 2007 paid $160 million to lease Union Station for 84 years.
Ashkenazy reconfigured space in the west hall to fit Roti and moved a popular liquor store to the lower level to accommodate a Pret a Manger restaurant near the Amtrak concourse. Press said the firm has signed a letter of intent with a national restaurateur he would not name to take over the former America Restaurant site.
“What we’re trying to do is be more relevant for the neighborhood,” he said. “You can usually tell who is a tourist at Union Station — you don’t see them in the west hall, you see people in suits.”
A glimpse of the long lunch lines in the west hall bear out Press’ observation, but offer no clear answer for whether the best use for the grand Beaux-Arts building is a glorified food court.
Knitting together communities
Union Station for now seems to be foregoing the local boutiques and artisan shops that have made other places shopping destinations.
National chains, such as Ann Taylor and Victoria’s Secret, dominate the tenant line up. And with Ashkenazy negotiating three new leases with stores Press said are “similar to Ann Taylor,” that will continue.
“Ann Taylor does well ... Jos. A. Banks does well, so we’re just trying to get more of the same price point and tenants along those lines,” Press said. He would not divulge exact figures, but said sales at the shops and restaurants were up 20 percent in the past year.