Union Station plaza construction nears completion

February 28, 2013

For more than a year, travelers heading to or from Union Station have been greeted by the sight of construction equipment as workers have reshaped the plaza and roads in front of the iconic train terminal.

The old Columbus Plaza was drab and confusing. Instead of being able to slip out seamlessly after dropping off or picking up passengers, drivers had to loop back through the middle of the plaza to exit.

But now, after nearly 18 months of work, the new Columbus Plaza is almost complete, and drivers can exit at one end of the plaza or the other.

“The goal of the project was to turn Columbus Plaza into a real circle,” said Ali Shakeri, who oversaw the project for the D.C. Department of Transportation.

Cars, buses and taxis began passing through the new exit late last year, and the mess that comes with construction is largely gone.


A view of the plaza in front of Union Station, which is nearing completion after remodeling. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

The $8 million project also reworked the rest of the plaza, installing larger sidewalks and new traffic signals. Boxy concrete security barriers were replaced with smaller, less imposing bollards. In coming months, the plaza’s green space will be expanded.

“The plaza really needed some attention,” said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a federal agency that advises on the designs of museums, memorials and other significant public projects. “That very strange configuration of roads . . . didn’t work very well for the station or the public space.”

Drivers using the circle recently have praised the new setup, although many noted that congestion remained a problem in front of the station.

“It made it more convenient,” Michelle Mitchell, 54, of Southeast Washington said as she sat in her idling car in the plaza on a recent afternoon. She said she has been driving through the plaza for more than 25 years. “It’s great, that new opening, because you have so many choices.”

The reconstructed plaza is the latest chapter in Union Station’s evolution. The train terminal, built in 1907, underwent a major restoration in the 1980s. Even bigger changes may be ahead. Last year, planners proposed a $7 billion transformation of the station, aiming to increase capacity and turn it into a high-speed rail hub.

Even as cars and planes have changed how many people come to Washington, Union Station has remained a gateway to the nation’s capital, and it’s just blocks from the Supreme Court and the Capitol.

Today, it is a terminal for Amtrak, MARC and Virginia Railway Express trains, Greyhound and other intercity bus lines, and Metro.

The plaza’s rehabilitation was complicated because of how many agencies have a say in the space. DDOT managed the project, but the National Park Service, Union Station Redevelopment Corp., the Architect of the Capitol and Amtrak were among those with input, Shakeri said

Columbus Plaza has a statue of the explorer that was erected in 1912. The plaza’s overhaul will wrap up when the landscaping is completed this month or next. Areas that had been covered by asphalt and used by cars curving toward the exit will be green space.

“It’s much more pedestrian friendly,” said Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, president of the Union Station Redevelopment Corp., the nonprofit organization that manages the station.

A large part of that, she said, is that it’s more obvious how to cross the plaza.

The fact that the plaza is less confusing is a big part of what makes this change important, Luebke said.

“Whether you are conscious of it or not, the fact that it’s a more logical, well-maintained public improvement, it registers,” he said. “You feel like you’re entering into a more special place than, say, a cruddy kind of taxi area.”

Pedestrians who pass through the plaza each day say they are noticing a difference now that work is winding down.

“Everything looks quite a lot nicer,” said Jason Snead, 25, who walks through the plaza each day on his way to and from his job at the Heritage Foundation. “It looks cleaner.”

But for some pedestrians navigating the traffic, problems remain in making it through congestion in front of Union Station. “I feel like I’m always dodging cabs,” Racquel Segall, 22, of Baltimore said.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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