Union Station had as many as 100 stores more than two decades ago. It’s down to about 40 retailers and eateries while more than half its commercial space sits vacant.
Travelers, commuters and workers say they are worried about the fate of the 115-year-old landmark, a once-vibrant gateway into the nation’s capital that was a destination on its own. They cite rising concerns about safety, encounters with those suffering from mental health episodes and declines in the building’s upkeep — deterioration that became evident years ago but was hastened by the pandemic.
Washington’s largest transit hub is in line for a $10 billion renovation over two decades, but many worry Union Station’s best days have passed. Station officials say they are working on short-term improvements and a long-term strategy to create a vibrant transportation destination.
“The foundation of those plans involves ensuring the facility is safe, clean, and inviting — keys to providing a positive experience,” Doug Carr, president and chief executive of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, which oversees the property, said in a statement.
Those who pass through the iconic station — and those who once visited but now stay away — say they are hoping for another infusion of life into Union Station. The Washington Post spoke to commuters, business owners, longtime visitors and others to learn how its decline has altered their views of one of D.C.’s most beloved architectural jewels.
Thomas Porter used to grab breakfast at Union Station on the way to the office or dinner on the way home. These days, he exits the 332 Virginia Railway Express train and heads straight for the exit.
Porter, 54, commutes about once a week during the pandemic and has seen the station’s amenities decline over the years and fall even more rapidly since the coronavirus slashed foot traffic at Union Station. Starbucks, where he routinely picked up a grande black coffee and an egg-sausage-and-cheese sandwich, closed in summer.
“I’ve seen the station when it was still in the darkest parts of covid — when the trains started running again — and there was just a post-apocalyptic feel to the station because everything was shut down,” said Porter, who commutes from Springfield to Capitol Hill, where he advocates for veterans and military families at a nonprofit. “There’s still some of those stores that haven’t opened, and it’s kind of a dismal place.”
A commuter through Union Station for more than two decades, Porter said he has felt more threatened at the station amid its surge in mental health incidents, homelessness and high-profile crime. Amtrak officers have responded to 47 assaults this year, up from 32 in all of 2021. Burglaries, robberies and vandalism are also up.
Back in the early 2000s, he would frequent B. Smith’s on the East Hall for business lunches, until it closed about a decade ago. He moved to the Center Cafe, a two-level bar in the middle of the main hall that closed in 2016. Starbucks was the only reason left to stop. He recently began avoiding the lower-level food court as harassment grew increasingly intolerable.
“Every single time, someone has approached me asking for something,” he said. “If people are getting harassed just while they’re trying to eat their Taco Bell or Chick-fil-A, they’re not going to want to spend any time there.”
Porter said he hopes the station gets a second life. He likes the multibillion-dollar redevelopment plans the federal government is reviewing. They look similar to the new Moynihan Train Hall in New York, he said, with skylights, modern amenities, dining options and areas restricted to ticketed passengers.
“Right now with the way that it is, it’s more of a place where people just have to go in and out,” he said, “and kind of want to get in and out as fast as possible.”
Samarah Banks, 27, was helping a customer choose a $40 bouquet when she heard the gunshots. It was about 4 p.m. on Sept. 28, and her shop in the heart of Union Station was steps from where a person had been shot in the foot.
Banks, her 1-year-old dog, Dice, and the customer hid under a large cabinet as people quickly scattered.
“It was very scary and unexpected,” she said.
Banks runs Lee’s Flower Shop, a second location of the family-owned shop that has been a staple in the U Street corridor. Her mother, Stacie Lee Banks, said she couldn’t pass on the opportunity earlier this year to open at the historic station. She got a special lease deal — a lower rent in a prime space, at least until a market-rate tenant takes it over — because so many other businesses were leaving.
With foot traffic still slow, she said, the shop can only break even. Although Amtrak ridership has recovered to near pre-pandemic levels, commuter and Metro trains serving the station are at 30 to 60 percent occupancy compared to pre-pandemic levels. If the shop makes $200 in sales, it’s a good day. On Columbus Day, it brought in $26.
“It was crazy,” said Stacie Lee Banks, who with her sister runs the U Street shop that her grandparents opened in 1945. “It is slow. We’re not breaking any records in there, but we just love being there.”
Besides, she reasons, such an essential city spot deserves a florist after so many others have left.
“Every train station has to have a flower shop,” she said.
But it’s not all bad news, said Samarah Banks. She enjoys being in the shop to meet tourists from around the world. They stop outside her shop to snap selfies, capturing the barrel-vaulted ceilings lined with 23-carat gold leaf and the arched windows. She said foot traffic is starting to pick up. The September shooting, which police say is still under investigation, didn’t discourage her or make her feel less safe.
“Some things are inevitable,” she said. “Growing up in D.C., you kind of get like numb to things like this because it happens all the time.”
Before 8 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Ana Julia Fuentes was making a routine round at Union Station when she spotted food wrappings atop liquid on the west side of the main hall. She grabbed the trash with her gloved hands, pulled disinfectant from her cart and wiped the floor until it was spotless. Her two-way radio buzzed.
“Can someone check the tunnel?” asked the voice, sending instructions in Spanish to assess reports of possible marijuana in the front colonnade.
“On my way,” Fuentes responded, pushing her black cart across the white marble floor.
As she stepped out the doors facing Columbus Circle, she pulled her surgical mask from her nose to track the smell. Finding nothing, she walked the length of the building, encountering only a handful of people pulling baggage as she picked up more litter, cigarette butts and empty soda cans.
An uneventful morning, said Fuentes, 72, recalling other days that involve more than trash and spills.
“People pee and poop here,” she said.
Her job of three decades can be demanding. That morning, she responded to clean broken glass bottles in front of the taxi-stand area. She’s seen people pass out and vomit. She’s cleaned fecal matter by the pizzeria on the second floor. She’s had to scrub the smell of urine with soap at various locations.
“It has changed a lot,” said Fuentes, recalling the 1990s when, after a major rehab, Union Station became a shopping and entertainment destination where families flocked to the now-defunct movie theater on the ground level. A once-thriving terminal is now filled with vacant storefronts.
The most striking change came during the pandemic, she said, a period that has seen more incidents involving panhandlers as the list of shuttered business grows. But in recent months, she said, she’s also seen more commuters and tourists. Each morning she looks forward to taking the bus from her Northwest D.C. home to Union Station, where something always needs to be cleaned, scrubbed or tidied.
“There’s always work,” she said.
Dana “Franky J” James, 36, has fond memories of Union Station.
As a kid in the ’90s, her family would take Metro’s Red Line to the station every Christmas season to see it lit with decorations. On special occasions, they would dress up for dinner at B. Smith’s, a Southern-fare restaurant in the ornate East Hall. On short school days, James and her mom would meet to catch a movie at Phoenix Theaters.
“I even got my prom makeup done there,” she said.
The restaurant (closed in 2013), the theater (closed in 2009) and the beauty shop departed years ago. So did the Barnes & Noble (closed in 2013) where she used to go after school, and the H&M store (closed in 2021) where she would make quick shopping trips.
“It just feels pretty lifeless now, and a little sad,” said James, who grew up in the Takoma neighborhood. “Now, every time I go in there, there’s literally a shut door and I’m just like, ‘Where is everything going? What’s happening here?’ ”
Union Station has struggled for more than a decade to keep tenants, caught up in a trend similar to the one wiping out malls nationwide. The pandemic accelerated the station’s retail departure, a cycle that has hurt more businesses.
James works nearby but no longer goes to the station for entertainment, mainly visiting when she needs to drop a package at the post office. When she takes a train, she said, she worries about delays that could leave her stuck with nothing to do.
“I would literally be sitting there like, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” she said. “I hope someone in this city is coming up with ideas of how to bring life back to Union Station.”
Union Station is the closest thing to home for Robert Wade.
It’s where he takes cover when it rains or when it gets too hot or too cold. Its facilities, he said, give him access to water; he cleans himself at the station with the soap and cloths he gets from charities. It’s where he finds food and charges his phone.
“There are some things you’re not allowed to do: like, you can’t stay in there overnight,” said Wade, 62. “They’ll tell you to leave. If you don’t do it, you go to jail.”
He knows only ticketed passengers are allowed after 11 p.m., so he finds a corner outside to sleep. He often walks to a nearby bridge where he can park his shopping cart and belongings — a pair of construction boots, a change of clothes, warm blankets. Until June, he had slept more soundly in a tent at a homeless encampment at Columbus Circle, but the National Park Service dismantled it.
Many of its three dozen residents left, but Wade stayed because the services he needs are nearby. The Salvation Army, Central Union Mission and So Others Might Eat distribute food. Churches bring care kits with combs, soap and shampoo. The nonprofit h3 Project has a team of social workers for people experiencing mental health crises. City social services also are available, including a team that responds to psychiatric emergencies and conducts routine checkups.
Wade said he has been at Union Station for about a year and came to Washington from his native Maine to find help after his identity was stolen. Back home, he said, a range of jobs consisted of driving trucks and car-reconditioning work. He said because of his stolen identity and legal problems, he can’t get a job or enroll in programs to get an apartment.
He plans to stay at Union Station until he gets his life back on track.
Security and police will leave the homeless alone if they aren’t causing trouble, Wade said. He feels safe at Union Station, he said, although he feels better protected when police are around.
Wade stays mainly for the shelter and the services, but he has also formed a sense of community with others who spend hours each day under Union Station’s elegant roof.
“Home,” he said, “will be wherever I go.”