Toward a More Perfect Union Station

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

D.C. officials are planning to renovate the plaza in front of Union Station, the first in a planned series of major changes to the 101-year-old railroad facility.

The plaza project, led by the D.C. Department of Transportation and involving several federal agencies, will eliminate a fishhook-shaped road that cuts through Columbus Plaza. The change will restore the plaza to its earlier appearance and make it easier for pedestrians to reach the station from the Capitol and other areas, officials said.

The idea is to have the space "be more about a plaza and less about trying to walk across nine lines of vehicle traffic," said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a federal agency that has a voice in the physical development of the District.

Union Station, which opened in 1907, is a leading example of Beaux-Arts architecture. It underwent a major rehabilitation in the 1980s and is a major D.C. destination, with about 29 million people visiting it each year.

The plaza project is part of city officials' plan to make Union Station more efficient and user-friendly for tourists and people traveling to the rapidly developing surrounding neighborhoods.

In the fall, the D.C. Department of Transportation is scheduled to wrap up a study on integrating an H Street streetcar route into Union Station and expanding access to nearby neighborhoods. Options include a Metro entrance on the H Street bridge and a pedestrian tunnel to First Street NE.

Talks are also underway on the possibility of moving the Greyhound Line bus service from First Street NE to Union Station. A facility to store and rent bicycles is scheduled to be built soon on the west side of the station.

The plaza renovation needs final approval from the arts commission and the National Capital Planning Commission. D.C. officials said they hope to start in the fall. Luebke said he is optimistic the plan will get the green light.

"The good news is, everyone is working together to come up with the right solution," he said.

The plan calls for closing down the curving street at the edge of the plaza that vehicles must loop around to exit the station. New exits will be opened on either side of the station so vehicles can depart smoothly. The lanes immediately in front of the station for taxis, buses and car drop-offs will remain.

New sidewalks will be built through the plaza, which is dominated by a fountain with a statue of Christopher Columbus. The fountain is surrounded by shrubbery.

The project is expected to cost about $7 million, with $5 million coming from federal grants and the rest from city funds, officials said.

It will take about two years to complete the renovation, D.C. Department of Transportation officials said. The project will include a slight widening of Massachusetts Avenue in front of the station and changes to improve the flow of traffic to the station's parking garage. Traffic disruption is likely during the construction, officials said.

The project, years in the making, has been complicated by the overlapping jurisdictions at the site. Union Station is owned by the federal government, but the National Park Service is in charge of Columbus Plaza. The roads are controlled by the city. The land on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue comes under the purview of the Architect of the Capitol.

Changes to Union Station must also take into account its historical prominence. The facility was designed by architect Daniel Burnham as a grand entryway to the nation's capital, and its classical style influenced landmarks such as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

"The commission feels it's one of the most important civic spaces in the city," Luebke said. The fine arts commission has urged several alterations to the plans in aspects such as sidewalk materials and landscaping.

Travelers using Union Station will also soon notice another change: bollards installed in front of the facade to deter truck bombs and other terrorist attacks.

City officials and key federal legislators have encouraged moving Greyhound's bus operations to the station. Representatives of Union Station, Amtrak, Greyhound and the developer of the retail space in the station are discussing how the station could accommodate the increased number of travelers. David Ball, president of the Union Station Redevelopment, a nonprofit company that oversees the station, said the talks are in the initial planning stages.

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