Solving one problem, though, created another. The arrival of Megabus and Bolt squeezed out the charter tour buses who’ve long paid $20 per day to park there while their charges got lunch in the station and wandered Capitol Hill. Come spring tourist season, they’ll have to drop people off at the station and go to some as yet undetermined other spot. The only options now, RFK Stadium and the Crummell School lot on New York Avenue NE, are both far enough away that bus drivers might choose not to go there at all, but rather drive around on D.C.’s streets. On top of that, USRC is talking about hiking the fee to $50, and it’s driving the tour companies batty. Worldstrides, an educational tour company that runs 2,200 buses through the station each spring, sees no good options on the table. “To lose 20 minutes, half hour, just to pick up at Union Station, is going to be a killer for us, just logistically,” says Rob Teweles, Worldstrides’ director of sightseeing.
Then there’s all the stuff to buy. In a city that doesn’t have many malls, Union Station is as close as it gets. Ashkenazy, which is trying to make good on the $160 million it paid for the 84-year lease in 2007, has been systematically repositioning the retail to turn it into more of a Ritz Carlton than a Holiday Inn. The British chain Pret a Manger and a peppy frozen yogurt shop now occupy the former home of Union Wine & Liquor (which reopened downstairs this fall).
Currently, the biggest question is how to deal with the former movie theater, which is now a huge lost revenue stream for Ashkenazy. To lease it, they need more foot traffic to the food court, which means creating a vertical passageway from the main floor. Cutting holes in historic buildings, though, is no easy task, as Ashkenazy found out when they proposed two glass elevators going up through the elevated café in the middle of the main hall, twined in spiral staircases.
To those familiar with the station’s history, the plan was a reminder of the visitors center “pit” that had existed even before the movie theater. Preservationists revolted, burying Ashkenazy with negative comments. The issue died down, until the developer came back with a modified plan that would get rid of the center café entirely, freeing up sightlines by uncluttering the hall, and only cutting two modest holes for escalators to the basement. It didn’t completely mollify opponents, who still question why any holes are necessary.
Preservationist-esque worries extend further than aesthetics, though. 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. If bus, streetcar, and train traffic reach the level that’s expected, things could get rather cramped.
While packing the floors full of as many shops as possible, Ashkenazy is also trying to avoid paying taxes on them. For the past several years, USRC and the developer have asked the D.C. Council to waive its “possessory interest tax,” a way of charging property taxes on federal land that amounts to about $3 million per year. During Norton’s hearings, an Ashkenazy executive—who didn’t return calls or emails for this story—forecasted an “inevitable downward spiral” if the tax stayed in effect, calling it “the largest threat to the future success to Union Station [with] the potential to unwind two decades of revitalization.”
The D.C. Council hasn’t heeded the firm’s entreaties. It’s pretty hard to buy the case that retailers like Victoria’s Secret and Express can’t pay property taxes like they would anywhere else in the city (and if they can’t, maybe Ashkenazy is charging them too much in rent). But Ashkenazy isn’t giving up. This spring, USRC sued the District in federal court, claiming the tax was unconstitutional. USRC and Ashkenazy say they plan to chip in $80 million for the station’s renovations, and they’d rather not have to pay the District as well.
Litigation doesn’t make it easy for the city to work with the station management on other projects. DDOT, for example, would like to push for legislation that would enable it to pass on federal grants to USRC—but councilmembers tend to remember that Union Station is trying to get out of paying taxes. “It would be great to get it settled, because it is a problematic thing that holds back relations,” says Steve Strauss, DDOT’s point person on the station.