There are essentially two routes into Union Station by foot: The bad way, and the worse way.
The bad way starts in the Metro station, or along First Street NE, where the subway entrance is chiseled into a massive stone wall abutting a narrow sidewalk. Push your way through the commuters and tourists pouring on and off the Red line and shove yourself up whichever escalator to the main floor is in service when you happen to arrive. The first thing you see when you get into the train station proper is probably a line. It might be for the post office. Or maybe it’s for the train departing Gate A. Or for Sbarro. There’s no way to know, really, until you squeeze your way past it to see where it ends.
But you don’t have time for a prolonged investigation. You’ve got to hunt down a working ticket machine so you don’t miss your train. There are a few in the middle of the station, nestled between more lines, and some a longer walk away, past the shops by the Amtrak ticketing counter. So you keep pushing through the crowd. It’s loud, and getting louder; the next MARC train is boarding, so the PA system is blaring about stopping in “Savage”—which sounds about right. The lighting is of an institutional fluorescent variety that seems designed to stress you out, especially as you squint to see arrivals and departures on faraway monitors.
Finally, you stumble out into the historic section of the building, and the drab tile floors give way to shiny marble. Things might be looking up. But all you see are tour bus kiosks and tchotchke shops. Freestanding blue signs offer no direction. You spot a line ending by the stairway down to the food court, though, and sure enough, there’s the Quik-Trak unit you’ve been looking for. You print your ticket and look for your train. If you’re leaving from Gate K, way over at the eastern end of the station by McDonald’s, you’ve got to struggle your way through the fluorescent lights, the noise, and the crowds—all over again.
That’s the bad way. The worse way starts out by Columbus Circle, where your reward for scrambling across six lanes of traffic on Massachusetts Avenue NW is another few lanes of cars, taxis, and buses. There are tiny little curbs to stand on before venturing onto a barely visible crosswalk. If you make it through without giving up, you’ve got some big concrete security barriers to navigate. Then you’re in the main hall of Union Station, the part with the marble floors where travelers perch uncomfortably on granite planters. Your train, or the shop you’re looking for, is somewhere in back, through the crowds and the din.
Aren’t you glad you’re here?
For at least a decade, the plaza in front of Union Station, which should be Washington’s welcome mat, has been a national disgrace. Granite blocks fell out of their sidewalks, and pedestrians heading to the Capitol complex from the Metro wore dirt tracks in the grass where no paths existed to accommodate them. Traffic lanes had been added over the years, making it impossible to navigate for anyone other than the buses and taxis that careen around Columbus Circle. Inadequately shoveled in the winter, barely tended in the summer, it seemed to announce, “Welcome to D.C., America’s broken capital city.”
Finally, the plaza is getting a makeover. By next year, it’s supposed to re-open as a functional public space for the 100,000 people who come through every day, with expanded space for pedestrians, better lighting, and security bollards instead of concrete blocks.
But why was it allowed to get so bad in the first place?
The answer is a story of inertia and bureaucracy. Just look at its exterior for a lesson in Union Station’s dysfunctions: Columbus Plaza is no man’s land, and everyone’s. Owned by the National Park Service, it also falls within the purview of the District Department of Transportation, as well as the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (the federally-chartered nonprofit that runs the station). All those parties hashed out an agreement back in 2004 to fix the plaza, but the details took another six years to nail down. Three different agencies—the National Capital Planning Commission, Commission on Fine Arts, and the Architect of the Capitol—had to approve the agreement first. Then, they had to figure out who would pay how much of the $7.8 million the proposed renovations would take.
That’s more or less the tale of Union Station as a whole. Five or six years ago, traffic through the station started to strain at its capacity, and changes came quickly. Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation bought the lease to most of the station’s retail and launched a major overhaul, kicking out downmarket tourist shops and eateries and bringing in chains like Chop’t and Chipotle. Intercity bus companies wanted to start operating from the Union Station parking deck rather than city streets. In 2006, local developer Akridge won the rights to the air over 15 acres of train tracks, and started planning a 3 million square foot complex of offices, retail, and apartments.