A More Perfect Union Station D.C.'s train station is a mess. Again.

Page 2 of 5

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.

advertisement

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.

Photo Slideshow: Union Station

Our Readers Say

Interesting article but you completely forgot to mention all the earthquake damage
Which is going to cost millions to repair. That will put on hold any other renovations.
Theres a huge mesh net hanging in the main hall to keep plaster from falling. Im just
glad that horrible movie theater closed.
I have NEVER understood why people diss Union Station. It's by far and away the best train station in the country in all facets. Ever been to the dingy and dismal Grand Central? It's name exudes grandeur, but the reality is subpar at best.

Union Station meanwhile is clean, bustling with quality (if chain) retail, and gorgeous. The minor quibbles are typical DC transient whining about tiny things, making mountains out of molehills. The National Mall - now that's the real travesty. Or Pennsylvania Ave... or 16th St with it's towering black fences and lack of vitality. But Union Station???
@RT
I've never heard people diss Union Station, but as Lydia's title points out, its about making a "more perfect" station. The great things can always be improved.
@ RT --

I'm a third-generation native Washingtonian and have lived all but six years of my life here, so my complaints about Union Station are not "D.C. transient whining." And I think the retail sucks and the working train station part of it is a crowded madhouse. The fact that the building itself is so grand only makes the failures inside that much more disappointing; the station ought to be made to live up to its architecture.
THEY REALLY NEED TO BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN TOURISTS AND DC RESIDENTS. DOING THAT WOULD BE THE FIRST STEP IN SOLVING SOME OF UNION STATIONS PROBLEMS. THERE IS TOO MUCH RESIDENTIAL IN THE AREA NOT TO INCLUDE SOME SORT ENTERTAINMENT AND REGIONAL SHOPPING. CHAIN STORE DIVE-INS AND RELYING ON LUNCH RUSHES WILL NOT SERVE THE GREATER GOOD OF UNION STATION.

YES MORE LIGHTING!!!! THE FOLKS IN CHARGE ALONG WITH BOLT AND MEGA REALLY NEED TO FIGURE OUT DRIVE UP (VEHICULAR) TRAFFIC PATTERNS UNTIL FINAL PLAN IS PUT IN PLACE.

UNION STATION IS NOT ONLY A HISTORIC LANDMARK BUT ONE COULD ARGUE THAT THE BUILDING ITSELF IS A HISTORIC NEIGHBORHOOD LIKE G'TOWN AND ANACOSTIA! THEY REALLY SHOULD TAKE A STEP BACK AND LOOK OUTSIDE THE BOX AND NOT JUST TREAT IT LIKE A TRAIN STATION WITH SHOPS.


SWITCHING GEARS-FOR GABE CLOWN TO NOT USE UNION STATION AS A STARTING POINT FOR STREETCARS INSTEAD OF AN ENDPOINT SHOWS THE LEVEL OF INCOMPENTANCE THAT JOKER AND HIS BOSS TRULY DISPLAYED. IT'S LOOKING MORE AND MORE LIKE WE ARE GOING TO HAVE STREETCAR TRACKS TO NOWHERE!
I've got to say Lydia, I think you're making a mountain out of a mole hill here. Yes, Union Station could be improved, and some of those improvements are underway (esp. Columbus Circle revitalization). But a lot of your critiques are off-base and I would hardly call the station a mess and even try to compare it to what it was in the late 70's. Moreover, I was completely perplexed by your criticism of the great hall, which is recognized as one of the most beautiful spaces in all of DC. In my experience, it's one of the spaces that visitors to the city are most impressed by. Do you really think it's too dismal and chaotic? Would you rather have them install drop down ceilings with bright lights and create established foot paths for the crowds to make things more orderly? Is that your idea of a vibrant train station and shopping complex? You sometimes produce good stuff Lydia, but I've also noticed that you have a tendency to make half-baked arguments in which you engage in petty griping and bitching about things that really aren't big problems, particularly when compared to the many other design and planning issues in DC (case in point-lamenting the loss of parked tour buses in the garage to make way for inter-city buses?!?!?! are you kidding me?). I have no problem with you pointing out things that can be improved, but I do find it annoying when you exaggerate and blow things out of proportion to fabricate a problem that doesn't exist.
Great article. Union Station's unrealized potential is staggering. That it is virtually cut off from the H St neighborhoods is ridiculous.
Union Station is cool. Watch the reaction of tourists as they walk inside the main hall. And train stations are supposed to be crowded. That's nature of squeezing hundreds of people into long tube-like vehicles. It beats being stuck inside a car on the interstate, surrounded by other cars.

Any time the federal government is involved in a project of this magnitude, the time to get it started / finished will be at LEAST four times what it really should take, plus cost a MINIMUM four to ten times more than it should. Cases in point - the Ronald Reagan building and the US Capitol visitors center.

Unfortunately, that is the nature of any large real estate project involving our wonderful federal and DC government. You just have to hope it turns out well and overlook the tremendous waste of money that will occur. Our representatives may know something about crafting laws and policy, but they are absolutely terrible when it comes to managing real estate projects.
I used to take Amtrak to Richmond fairly regularly back in the 1970s; it was cold, ugly and inefficient. The station today is like the station in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" -- beautiful. I have never had the issues described getting into the station from Columbus Circle. I regularly walk to and through the station both for local and long distance train services and local and long distance bus services. Could things be improved? Certainly, but the description here is exaggeratedly bad and generally unhelpful.
I find that as a train station, Union Station does the job, but it's decidedly more irritating when I'm trying to meet a friend in the neighborhood. It is a bit hard to get in and out and while it doesn't look chaotic, it certainly seems kind of cluttered and confused. The biggest travesty to me is how bureaucracy has stifled work around the station, which I didn't really know about until I read this article. Thanks for this.
I find it annoying when "journalists" hyperbolically paint a negative picture to tell the story they want to tell rather than the reality. A visitor reading that story would not be given an accurate portrayal. Is it perfect? No. The back is particularly uninspiring, but it's still a very pleasant experience overall and a place I'm drawn to when I'm in the area. If you want to diss a train station, try New York's Penn Station or Detroit's Michigan Central. Bring some bolt cutters for the latter.
Agreed with some of the commenters. This article is making a mountain out of a molehill, waxing poetically for the sake of reaching whatever the writer's wordcount. The station is by no means perfect, but it's lovely and get's the job done. There's no way to merge the complexity and necessity of the train portion into the beauty of the rest of the station, nor should they be merged.

The station sits as a fantastic entry point to the city for the northeast corridor and does so in a way that few other train stations around the country can claim.

Go find something else to nitpick.
This article is not hyperbolic. I work at one of the upscale boutiques in the station and I can say for a fact that the politics there are crazy and only getting worse. It's interesting to watch so many different groups try to impose their vision on the Station. It's a gorgeous building and it needs to be improved, and this article really captures the tangled, stop-and-start, politically charged minefield that is Union Station.
Noodlez

I think your caps lock key is stuck. It's over on the left hand side of your keyboard. If you hit it you will be able to type without all caps.
"...a building serving as many different constituencies as Union Station should have one underlying master plan that takes into account the needs of all the station’s tenants."

Kind of. This is a great sentiment, but as someone who works for a different but also large organization that must satisfy the needs of many different groups, focusing on this as a solution to problems can be a big mistake. That's because there is no guarantee that it is even possible to create such a master plan - and as a result it is frustratingly easy for big organizations to spend years doing nothing but negotiating and wordsmithing, only to end up with a plan big and vague enough to cover everyone's needs. There is no end to examples of planning documents that illustrate this problem.

What the station needs instead is a clear and agreed-on organizational process that will allow these different groups to move ahead with plans even when there is not total agreement. It should really be about coordination of efforts, because not every problem requires a billion dollars.

As one example, it should not be difficult to rearrange the kiosks and floating signage to improve flow and use in the short term - this could precede major structural renovations and make life happier for thousands of station users. A few smaller efforts like this can go a long way toward building the momentum that is ultimately needed to complete (and fund) larger projects.

and P.S. - commenter RT above, I believe you are thinking of Penn Station, the rat-hole that Amtrak uses in NYC. Grand Central only connects subway lines and Metro-North, and it is indeed quite grand. They film movies in the great hall, with its famous clock and vaulted, star-filled ceiling.
@KatyV - The hyperbole isn't in regard to the politics underlying decisions. It's in reference to the way the author described the physical appearance and experience of the station. Having spent a great deal of time there, she is wrong and clearly trying to portray Union Station's physicality in a very negative light to support the story she wants to tell.
@Homino -- Fair enough. I do agree that her criticism were somewhat nitpicky (for example, the size of the cross walks in front of the station...are those really that bad?). I guess I just didn't take notice of her exaggeration because everything is pretty terrible in the main hall right now so this article just mirrors my personal feelings while all the earthquake damage is being slowly repaired. The station isn't very pretty right now. Even at its best I believe the food court and the Amtrak corridor (between McDonalds and Sbarro) are sort of downscale and gross compared to the main hall or the facade of the building.
In short, I wish someone would step in with money and clout and make Union Station live up to its potential. Too bad.
Good to see that someone at City Paper is writing about something a little more complex than craft beers or going-nowhere local bands. Ms DePillis tends to nitpick, but give her credit -- she is a real reporter who will take on challenging topics.

I spend a ton of time in Union Station going between NY and DC and lately the station seems to be in a transitional phase. The age of its renovation is starting to show; so are its identity problems. The article points out the difficulty for the place to leverage its assets and to reconcile the needs of different constituents/interest groups.

Although if you want to see a station that is a real dunghole, spend time in Penn in NYC. Talk about a mess...
It amazes me that the author complains about crowding. Union Station is first and foremost a TRAIN STATION! Of course it's busy, especially Mon-Fri. Stop crying. I've worked for Amtrak at Union Station for 18 years now and have seen increases in passengers every year. This past year we broke a ridership record of 30 million! Union Station is like the hub of a wagon wheel in the system, one of the busiest stations we have. During WW2 the guard had to be called in for crowd control and the main hall closed off, with 200,000 people in the most beautiful room in DC. That's what a Terminal station does is move PEOPLE, get over it!
I agree with the posters above: Union Station isn't as terrible as this article suggests. In fact, it's better than most train stations I've been to in the US, e.g., 30th St. Station in Philly.

My biggest (only?) complaint about Union Station is the gate area. Lydia's right when she gripes about the lighting. Blecch. But fix that, and I think it would be fine.
It seems people are confusing the criticism of the station's functionality as a transportation hub (which is both legitimate and accurate) with a critique of the station's architecture and grandeur.

The station's architecture is fantastic, but that also has little to do with how it functions on a day to day basis. People in the comments seem to acknowledge that the gate area sucks and is insufficient, yet this is the most important part of a train station's daily job.
Union Station's bathrooms were a disaster last spring.

Most Amtrak stations need huge amounts of investment. Penn Station in Baltimore is another beautiful building with lousy maintenance.

Train stations should be destinations and the centers of economic prosperity. They are an afterthought in so many places.
@Lydia, you wrote this: "Over the years, Ashkenazy and its predecessor added a lot more retail than Union Station had decades ago, when it handled 50 percent more people than it does today. "

Did you mean to write, "...decades ago...it handled 50 percent FEWER people..."?

Also, the soldiers in the loft of the Great Hall, were they revised along the way with new arms holding shields, bowdlerizing the statues to cover up private parts? Inquiring minds want to know.
the soldiers were orginally naked, and we covered up
with the shields when the station was being completed.
@Cherubini, I thought I was making a joke, by repeating an urban myth about those statues. Really, it's true? Amazing.
It is dispiriting that the big, handsome waiting room clock has stopped. A sign of neglect?
@Trulee Pist

Nope, you read that right. After World War II, the station had a ton more trains and people going through it (just like the city used to have 800,000 people in it).

And yeah, at least according to David Ball, the shields are there out of modesty.
I like what you guys are up too. Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the superb works guys Iˇve incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it'll improve the value of my web site :)

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...