Now, the District wants to renovate the entrance to the Metro, which hasn’t changed since it opened in 1976, and find a way to tie in the streetcar that will eventually run on H Street NE. Amtrak and Maryland’s MARC commuter service have projected massive ridership increases in future years, and are thinking about how to expand service.
That’s a lot to handle with a historic, federally-owned building that has no one boss, and only a non-voting representative in Congress to fight for the funding it needs to grow. In 2008, billions of dollars in stimulus spending finally became available for improvements, and Union Station landed some of it to replace escalators up to the parking deck. But there was no overall master plan to guide the station’s redevelopment, which would make a better case for bigger grants—or resolve conflicts, such as when the District wanted its streetcar line to run through an underpass beneath the station, and Amtrak wanted that space for itself.
Those close to the discussions are very hesitant to talk publicly about intra-station turf battles. Several say relations are a lot better today than they were a year ago. On the record, all the interested parties dwell on the station’s enormous potential, and indeed, it’s hard to overestimate. In 15 years, Union Station could be something much more catalytic: a portal for high-speed rail service that will get people from here to New York in 90 minutes, the hub of a streetcar system that stretches from Oklahoma Avenue NE to Washington Circle, the beating heart of a new mixed-use neighborhood that knits NoMa together with H Street. It could be a place you don’t just go to in order to get somewhere else. But all that has a price tag that hasn’t even been determined yet. It’s likely north of a billion dollars—and only $80 million is currently accounted for.
“The vision for the city is huge,” says Ken Sparks, the former Federal City Council president who conceived of the USRC in the ’80s and is consulting for it today. “I think it’s probably the most exciting thing happening in Washington.”
That’s the future, though. The recent past and present look a little drearier.
No matter how inhospitable Union Station can seem today, it’s a Swiss airport compared to 1981, when the building shut down as a public hazard 74 years after it first opened. The station had fallen with the city, as train ridership decreased and facilities went into severe disrepair. A National Visitors Center required a constant stream of federal subsidies, and Union Station didn’t do a very good job of introducing tourists to the city right outside.
That sad state of affairs demanded a drastic response. Congress set up the USRC in 1982 with a mandate to preserve the building and create an indoor mall that would make the station financially independent. They allocated $180 million to make it happen, and by 1988, it had: The resulting restoration was widely celebrated as the renovation Daniel Burnham’s majestic train station deserved. (A heavy metal cube in a glass case, the Urban Land Institute’s 1991 award to USRC for executing the turnaround, still holds pride of place in the main hall.)
USRC president David Ball witnessed the station’s first rebirth, having started at the corporation in 1984. Now, he’s the guy in charge of the next one. The USRC office is tiny, with only four staffers in an office on G Street NE, in the station’s shadow. Ball himself is placid and polite, and on the morning we meet in the station’s main hall, wears a D.C. baseball cap like you might get at one of the tourist shops nearby. It was a rainy day, and netting spanned the hall to keep plaster from falling on peoples’ heads, further darkening an already shadowy space. I wonder aloud if it’s typical for the interior to be so dim.
“Nothing’s typical in this building,” Ball responds wryly. Greeting the shoe shiners and maintenance guys by name as we stroll through the station, he knows every quirk of and tweak that’s been made to the building over its 104-year lifespan. There are, for example, the pilasters in the east hall that look like marble, but are only painted. “They were always cutting costs,” he says.