Reimagining Union Station

Reimagining Union Station


Union Station

Published on September 12, 2014

According to urban legend, the opening of Verizon Center in 1997 was the catalyst for the revival of Washington’s old downtown. Ever since, a string of projects — National Harbor, Nationals Park, the Silver Line — have promised to “change the face” of the city or the region.

While such assessments involve more than a bit of hyperbole, one project that has received scant attention could well be the biggest game changer of all.

ABOVE: Union Station has separated adjoining neighborhoods for a century, even as new buildings rise around it. A plan to build over the tracks would knit the sides back together. (From left, images from Library of Congress, Pictometry, Akridge)

I’m talking about the proposed expansion and redevelopment of Union Station, which could do for Washington what Grand Central Terminal did for New York a century ago — create a new commercial epicenter for the city and provide the transportation anchor for a regional economy, stretching from Richmond to Baltimore. At $10 billion in public and private investment, it would represent the region’s most important development initiative since the construction of Metro’s subway system.

Anyone who has passed through Union Station during rush hour knows that it is bursting at the seams, with 100,000 train, bus and subway passengers jostling for space most days with workers from nearby offices, shoppers and tourists from Dubuque.

Anyone who has watched the steady march of downtown development in Washington from the West End to the East will understand the significance of a project that finally binds up the gash that was cut through the city more than a century ago to make way for the railroad tracks connecting Washington to cities north and west.

And surely anyone who has endured the 90-minute commute each way from the exurbs of Maryland and Virginia will see the economic logic of locating more workers within a 10-minute walk of a modern, multimodal transportation hub.

If you’ve been to the renovated St. Pancras Station in London, or the spectacular Atocha station in Madrid, or even to the recently restored Grand Central, you have a sense of the world-class facility that Amtrak, the Union Station Redevelopment Corp. (USRC) and the developers at Akridge have in mind:

A seven-story-high train shed covered by a glass roof that lets in plenty of natural light. Wide spacious platforms between trains located on two levels of track. Elevated and underground passenger concourses, lined with shops and restaurants, providing easy access to subway, buses, taxis, streetcars, parking and street exits in all directions. Waiting areas, concierge stations, and electronic departure and arrival boards distributed throughout the station.

“Trains as theater” is how Amtrak design consultant Brian Harner thinks of it, harking back to a romantic era of train travel — only this time with cleaner, quieter electric trains, moving walkways and escalators, and automated ticket machines.

This new Union Station would go well beyond the ambitions of Daniel Burnham’s original Beaux-Arts masterpiece. Its footprint would span 10 square blocks —  two blocks east to west, five blocks north to south, from the foot of Capitol Hill to K Street. And to accommodate the additional parking, the underground concourses, the new bus and Metro stations and new tracks for high-speed rail, the complex would extend five levels underground.

Directly above the tracks, a whole new neighborhood of offices, hotels, residences and shops would be constructed around an elevated plaza bisected by the new H Street streetcar. Along the western edge of the project, an elevated bike and walking path, planted in the manner of New York’s High Line, would run north to Silver Spring. Along the east, perhaps an open-air market serving both commuters and nearby residents of Capitol Hill.

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment. It’s hard to imagine a project more likely to raise the tea party’s hackles than having federal and state taxpayers borrow billions of dollars to increase subsidized train service in and out of Washington.

At the same time, broader economic forces make Union Station expansion almost inevitable. As Doug Allen, the head of the Virginia’s commuter rail service, put it, “The question is how we do it, not whether we do it.”

With the era of exurban sprawl having run its course, people and jobs are moving back to more densely populated urban areas. That’s happening not just in Washington, but also in Boston, Austin, Seattle, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami. The only way these cities can accommodate such growth, and realize the economic efficiency that it will generate, is to dramatically improve their public transportation infrastructure and increase the density of land use around key public transportation nodes.

“Right now we are only scratching the surface in terms of the economic potential of Union Station,” said David Tuchmann, who is managing Akridge’s part of the project.

An expanded Union Station could create a new commercial epicenter for Washington and provide the transportation anchor for a regional economy.

On the rails, an economic engine

Grand Central Terminal celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and its history speaks to the influence that a train station can have on the economy and topography of a metropolis.

Railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt constructed the original Grand Central in the 1870s on a railroad storage yard and cow pasture on what was then the outskirts of New York City. It was the biggest railroad station ever built in the United States, linking the city to its far suburbs and the country to the west. The depot was so remote that passengers traveled almost an hour by horse-drawn trolley to get to it from what was then the downtown in Lower Manhattan. Vanderbilt’s gamble was that if he built the station, New York would grow up around it.

The Oyster Bar, top, draws visitors to newly renovated Grand Central Terminal in New York. Soaring renovations to Madrid's Atocha station, middle, and London's St. Pancras are a model for planners' visions for Union Station. (Mario Tama/Getty; Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP; Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

That is exactly what happened. As the city developed northward, traffic in and out of the new station grew so rapidly that it had to be expanded several times. Before long, there was a growing chorus of complaints from the owners of nearby houses and offices about noise and filth and danger to pedestrians. The clamor eventually forced the New York Central to construct a tunnel down the middle of Park Avenue to carry most of its trains in and out of the city, and a modern terminal at the end of it, at 42nd Street, that the world knows today as Grand Central.

The new station and train yards consumed nearly 50 acres and were constructed over a decade at a cost of $2 billion in today’s dollars. It was the first station to have clean, electrified trains arrive on two levels of underground track, one for commuter trains, the other for long-distance service like the luxurious 20th Century Limited to Chicago. The station had the capacity to handle more than 1,000 railcars at any given time, with 30 platforms reached by ramps and underground concourses.

Once in the station, ladies and gentlemen could go to separate waiting rooms and lounges to have their hair cut, have their shoes shined or change into a fresh outfit. Restaurants on the mezzanines overlooked the marbled main concourse, and the now famous Oyster Bar below.

The majestic main concourse was 275 feet long and 120 feet wide, flanked on both ends by grand marble staircases, underneath a massive concave ceiling on which was painted the constellations of the stars. The New York Times, in a special section, proclaimed the newly opened Grand Central to be the world’s greatest train station, “a monument, a civic center or, if one will, a city.”

From its inception, however, Grand Central was more than a train station — it was a real estate development project. New York Central’s original investment was premised on its ability to develop or sell the air rights for the land around the terminal building once the underground tracks and platforms had been completed and covered. According to Sam Roberts, the New York Times columnist who wrote a book on the occasion of Grand Central’s centennial, the assessed value of property in the immediate area around the station more than doubled within three years of construction. A decade  later, it had doubled again, creating a huge return for Vanderbilt and his railroad and a bonanza for the city’s economy.

With Grand Central as its anchor, Midtown Manhattan became the commercial, residential and cultural heart of New York. The great hotels of the era, including the Ambassador, the Biltmore, the Commodore and the Waldorf-Astoria, sprang up,  while many of the nation’s biggest corporations moved their headquarters uptown to the nearby Chrysler Building, Empire State Building and ornate New York Central Building. For apartment living, Park Avenue became one of the city’s most prestigious addresses — by 1920, it was reported that 100 millionaires were living at the single address of 270 Park. And where the swells came, their clubs and nightclubs and favorite restaurants soon followed.

Grand Central’s economic impact was also felt in the suburban commuter towns that sprouted along the tracks leading away from the city — towns such as White Plains and New Rochelle in New York and Greenwich and Darien in Connecticut. These suburbs also became part of the city’s economic ecosystem, and without them, New York would never have become the economic engine it is today.

When Akridge bought the development rights in 2002, Union Station was in decline, and “NoMa was a wasteland,” the firm's founder says. Today, booming neighborhoods encircle the station.

Lengthening D.C.’s reach

Lots of things, of course, have changed since 1913, but the history of Grand Central can be instructive in thinking about the potential impact of an expanded and revitalized Union Station.

Imagine you are an employer looking for office space in Washington for a professional staff drawn from all over the region. Would any location be more accessible to more workers? And, once high-speed rail service is introduced in the Northeast, would any other location in Washington make it possible to get to meetings in downtown Baltimore in 30 minutes or New York in 90 minutes?

The Union Station area is already among the hottest in the region, with NoMa to the north and west and the hip H Street corridor to the north and east. These neighborhoods are only likely to get hotter once ground is finally broken on a long-delayed, mixed-use development over Interstate 395 where it crosses under Massachusetts Avenue NW, repairing another gash in the urban fabric that isolates Union Station from the rest of downtown. Redevelopment of the historic red-brick Government Printing Office, hard by the station on North Capitol Street, will add to the buzz.

In short, if Washington is ever to have the urban density found in New York or Chicago, this is likely to be where it happens, with offices and hotels competing with luxury housing for proximity to the station.

But as the Grand Central history illustrates, it’s not just Washington that will benefit. A key assumption behind the Union Station redevelopment plan is that commuter rail service from Virginia and Maryland could double as track and station capacity increase.

The present

The area around Union Station has been growing more racially diverse and prosperous. While some new apartments, government and commercial buildings ring the station, neighborhoods of historic homes are just a few blocks away. The main obstacles to Union Station’s redevelopment ambitions are money and politics.

Year built*

Commercial and offices

Residential and hotels

A changing neighborhood

In 1990, 75% of the people who lived within a mile of Union Station were black. Now, whites make up 44% of the area’s populaton, and the share of Asians and Hispanics is also growing.

Poverty and education

In 2012, 61 percent of the area’s inhabitants had a bachelor’s degree, compared with 29 percent for the rest of the United States.

Sources: D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer, NoMa Business Improvement District, Post analysis of U.S. census data. Published Sept. 12, 2014.

* Clarification: According to the D.C. property records, the oldest commercial building in the Union Station area is the U.S. Capitol, where construction began in 1793. Property records indicate two homes on D Street SE were built in 1776. A previous version of the map key included the years built of some properties in Georgetown, which is not on the map. Union Station opened in 1907.

Link directly to this graphic

“Right now, you can fill a MARC train as fast as you can add it,” said Beverley Swaim-Staley, president of the USRC and a former Maryland transportation secretary.

The better-than-expected traffic on recently inaugurated weekend commuter service from the Maryland suburbs to Union Station speaks to the unmet demand, and raises the question of why Virginia hasn’t followed suit.

Indeed, there’s now serious talk of “through service,” in which Virginia trains would continue north to Fort Meade, Md., where 75,000 federal employees and contractors work, and on to Baltimore, while Maryland trains would continue over the Potomac to Crystal City, Alexandria, Springfield and Quantico. Such an expansion of service is a top priority of the region’s business community. And similar to what has happened around Metro stops, expanded service would significantly increase the value of property up and down the commuter rail lines.

Given the high cost of housing and office space in the Washington region, faster and more frequent train service could also tie Washington more closely to Baltimore and Richmond, where there are downtowns and neighborhoods with old housing stock waiting to be revitalized. It was rail service that created the New York megalopolis that stretches from Stamford, Conn., to Menlo Park, N.J., and if it achieves its potential, Union Station could do the same for Washington.

The food court at Union Station seems to cater to nearby office workers and tourists more than to passengers, who lost much of their historic space in the main hall during a renovation 25 years ago.

Passengers take back seat to retail

For all its promise, the Union Station master plan has one serious design flaw.

Twenty-five years ago, Burnham’s original station was saved from disuse and disrepair by a costly and painstaking restoration paid for largely by the federal government. Because train travel was out of fashion back then, much of the original station was turned into an indoor shopping mall.

Where there were once ticket booths and waiting halls and a broad passenger concourse, shops and restaurants were installed to help fund the renovation and provide a steady stream of income to operate and maintain the facility. Train passengers were relegated to a cramped new passenger concourse, seemingly modeled after a Greyhound bus station, that was tacked onto the rear of Burnham’s masterpiece, alongside an unsightly new parking garage.

A revival of rail travel offers the opportunity to reorient Burnham’s station back toward its original purpose, with its grand hall and ornate waiting areas geared to the comfort and convenience of passengers rather than retail shoppers and tourists.

“Our hope would be that the historic building can be an integral part of the train experience once again,” said Robert Nieweg, who heads the Union Station Preservation Coalition.

Unfortunately, the initial design unveiled last year by Amtrak and the USRC preserves the current uses of the old station, largely because of legal and financial considerations.

In 1988, when the station’s owner, USRC, went looking for a real estate firm to manage the new retail operations, interest was underwhelming. The mall-in-a-train-station concept was untested, the city’s population was declining and the neighborhood around the station was sketchy. So the USRC agreed to what turned out to be a sweetheart deal, one that offered modest rent, near-total control of the train station and the right to extend the arrangement for up to 100 years.

Initially, there were some setbacks, like the failure of a multiplex cinema beneath the main hall and disappointing sales at the higher-end restaurants. But in recent years, retail at Union Station has taken off, with sales per square foot that are some of the highest in the city. Those sales translate into rents that average about $75 a square foot, of which less than $13 per square foot is passed on to USRC.

So you can understand why Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., the New York firm that acquired the leasehold six years ago for the hefty price of $160 million, would not be keen to give up the retail concourse without assurances that it could have a similar role, and even larger profits, from an expanded, reconfigured station. After a somewhat rocky start, officials say Ashkenazy has become an active participant in the station redevelopment process.

The potential future

A sweeping proposal would build above and below the tracks behind Union Station, creating a slice of new development between two of D.C.’s hottest markets. But the plan’s creators, Amtrak, Akridge and the Union Station Redevelopment Corp., will need to overcome political and financial hurdles to turn their concept into reality. A look at the plan’s highlights, starting from the top:

Select a level:

Note: Illustrated is a preliminary concept as of May 14. Sources: Lead Project Consultant Brian Harner, Shalom Baranes Associates, Union Station Master Plan by Amtrak, National Railroad Passenger Corp., Union Station Redevelopment Corp., Parsons Brinckerhoff & HOK, Akridge, WMATA, Union Station Parking Garage. Published Sept. 12, 2014. Link directly to this graphic

Amtrak officials also believe that, as magnificent as the old station may be, today’s passengers would rather buy a magazine, grab a sandwich and wait for their departure closer to the trains. Perhaps they are right. But then isn’t the logical solution to bring the tracks and train shed closer to the old station so that it can once again serve that purpose?

“Retail is important,” says Randall Fleischer, who heads development and marketing at the recently renovated Grand Central, “but our approach has been not to let the retail trump the passenger experience.”

Indeed, apart from a big, splashy new Apple store overlooking the main concourse, most of the retail at Grand Central is geared to train passengers. Unlike the food court at Union Station, which seems to cater to nearby office workers and tourists, Grand Central’s underground dining concourse features the famous Oyster Bar and much healthier and more attractive fast-food stalls run by local independents, not national chains. Lively bars overlook the main concourse while convenience stores and services line the underground passageways. And a new Grand Central Market just off the main concourse has stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, fish, meats and prepared food that people can pick up on their way to the train.

As Fleischer sees it, the best way to maximize retail revenue in a train station isn’t to attract the same stores and restaurants found in every other suburban shopping center. The trick is to create an environment that, first and foremost, encourages more people to travel by rail, and then offers enough excitement that passengers linger longer and take the next train.

Contrast that approach with what one finds at Union Station, where trains seem like an afterthought and passenger comfort and convenience take a back seat to retail sales. Walk through the front door of the main hall and the first thing you see are a couple of stalls selling T-shirts and sweatshirts. And instead of an information booth, there’s a ticket booth for a tourist trolley. You won’t hear announcements about the next train leaving for Philadelphia or arriving from Richmond — those are no longer broadcast in the old station.

Heading into the retail concourse, which stands between the main hall and the tracks, you can find several stores to sell you a new pair of shoes, but you’ll have to hunt in the far corner of the underground food court to find someone to repair your old ones. There’s a shop where you can buy all manner of fancy razors and shaving brushes, but only one barber’s chair where you can get a haircut and a shave — and nowhere for a woman to get her hair blown out and styled. There are any number of shops at which you can buy a new sports jacket or a silk blouse, but nowhere to drop one off to be dry-cleaned or repaired. The only bookstore was converted to an H&M clothing boutique a year ago. A pharmacy was never replaced.

Obviously, barbers, cobblers and dry-cleaners can’t afford to pay rents of $75 a square foot. But by improving passenger convenience, their presence could support the sales of other retailers who can.

The first step in creating “train theater” at Union Station, I would argue, is to take control of the station back from retail leasing agents and return it to train people whose primary concern is the passenger experience.

The new Union Station would go well beyond the ambitions of Daniel Burnham’s original Beaux-Arts masterpiece. It would add capacity for many more riders from the suburbs and beyond.

Tallying up the bill

Design aside, the most significant hurdle to the Union Station master plan is its price tag.

It starts with an estimated $6.5 billion for expanding and improving the station, which includes the tracks, the renovated and expanded passenger concourses, the new train shed, demolition of the old parking garage and construction of 3,500 new spaces underground.

Doubling the commuter traffic into Union Station will also require upgrading and expanding the commuter station at L’Enfant Plaza, rebuilding and doubling the track capacity on the century-old Long Bridge over the Potomac, and adding track and storage capacity in Maryland and Virginia. Figure another $1 billion for those.

In early 1907, top, Daniel Burnham's train station nears completion, launching what many look back on as a golden era of rail travel. Later decades saw the station fall into disuse. Above, a valet parking area is turned into a visitor's center in 1975. (Top: Library of Congress; Others: Washington Post)

Above the tracks, Akridge plans to spend $1.5 billion in private funds to develop the hotels, offices, shops and residences of what it calls Burnham Place, designed by Washington architect Shalom Baranes. The city has already approved replacing the bridge over H Street — a key component of the Union Station project — at an estimated cost of nearly $200 million.

And below the tracks, Metro envisions an enlarged “superstation,” part of a new “inner loop” of stations that by 2040 would connect Union Station to the Blue, Orange and Silver lines. The existing Red Line station, already the busiest in the Metro system, also needs more capacity, as well as better connections to the street and train station. Metro has not released any cost estimates for what it wants to do at Union Station, but it’s a safe bet that these add another $1 billion to the project.

Add it all up and it comes to at least $10 billion in public and private investment. And that doesn’t include the additional billions it would cost for a new set of underground tracks and platforms for intercity high-speed rail, the fourth and final phase of the station redevelopment master plan.

So far, officials have been unable to say how they might pay for the public portion of the project, noting that they are still a year from completing engineering studies, with another two to three years required for environmental, historic preservation and other approvals. Even if construction begins as planned in 2018, the project will be built and financed in stages over a period of 25 years. And officials emphasize that any financing plan will have to make extensive use of user and passenger fees, public-private partnerships and the normal transportation funding programs of the federal and state governments.

Using Amtrak’s projections of passenger traffic, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations to see how close I could get to $10 billion. I was able to come up with $3 billion in borrowing, public or private, that could be supported by modest fare increases for train, bus and subway passengers, parking and taxi fees, and rental income from the retail space inside the station. An additional $1 billion might be financed through a property tax surcharge on commercial property within a half-mile radius of Union Station in the District, and around commuter stations in Maryland and Virginia, all of which would become significantly more valuable. (Similar taxing districts are being used to help finance Metro’s Silver Line extension.)

Yet even with these optimistic (some would say heroic) assumptions, plus the $1.5 billion in private financing by Akridge, the federal and state governments would still have to hit up taxpayers for nearly half of the project cost — and even more if high-speed rail is to become a reality. From an economic perspective, that’s not an unreasonable sum over two decades, but politically, it’s a heavy lift — not only because of tight federal and state budgets, but also because it would require support from Maryland and Virginia for a project located outside their borders.

“There’s no question this will take substantial public funds,” acknowledged John Porcari, who as the former deputy U.S. secretary of transportation served as the federal government’s representative on the USRC’s board of directors.

Although federal and state officials are generally united in their enthusiasm and support for the Union Station master plan, several suggested that a new institutional structure might be required to pull it off, one that is regional and involves the federal government and Amtrak.

“We need to come together in terms of a regional transportation mechanism,” said Kevin Page, director of operations for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “Until we get to that, there will continue to be question marks over projects like Union Station.”

It may be instructive that ever since Grand Central was rescued from the wrecking ball in the 1970s, the job of restoring and operating the station has fallen to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a tri-state entity that runs not only the commuter trains, but also the subways, buses, bridges and tunnels that stitch together New York and its surrounding region.

Today, the MTA is in the midst of a $10 billion expansion of Grand Central so that it can accommodate about half of the commuter trains coming from Long Island at a new eight-track terminal 15 stories underground. It is the largest public capital project in the country, and when it is completed in 2019, it is expected to increase the number of train passengers through Grand Central by more than a third, to 115 million a year.

Union Station is no Grand Central, of course, but the plans for it are no less ambitious. The master plan envisions that annual passenger traffic, now about 14 million, would double in 20 years and triple in 30, reaching 42 million passengers by 2044.

“Something like this transforms Washington,” Jim Dinegar said. As president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Dinegar is paid to make such boosterish assessments, but this time it’s no exaggeration. Washington’s current boom economy was made possible because earlier generations were willing to make bold and expensive investments in transportation infrastructure.

Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision — and our false notion of economy — if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.

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