As much as Union Station’s future is multipurpose, it’s still fundamentally a train station: The driving force behind redevelopment is Amtrak.
The administration of Barack Obama—and his famously Amtrak-dependent vice president—has talked big about passenger rail. Last fall, Amtrak came out with an aspirational plan for high-speed rail along the Northeast corridor, with trains traveling from Boston to Washington at 220 miles per hour. That’s still fantasy for now; this year’s federal budget includes no money for high-speed rail (austerity and bullet trains don’t mix easily). Nonetheless, Amtrak is almost ready to release its own sweeping master plan that would provide for Japanese-style locomotives in the future, as well as increase capacity for regular train service. Trains with more cars would move in and out faster, waiting areas would be refinished, and platforms would be rebuilt so passengers could board on either side. More entrances to the station would open it up to the surrounding neighborhood. All of that could be great news if it comes together, but until then, the station’s future is tied to Amtrak’s, and to Congress’, willingness to put money into passenger rail.
While that plan coalesces, USRC has a list of things that can be done in the station if funds become available: replace the escalators up to the parking deck, build a new passenger waiting area and ticketing center for Greyhound buses, complete a pedestrian passageway from the Metro station to H Street that’s sat unfinished.
But despite Amtrak’s best intentions, many of the critical components are beholden to their timeline.
One such thing was the streetcar. Until Amtrak got enough money for new tracks through the underpass that comes out through a door in the stone wall on H Street, DDOT wanted to use it for a streetcar stop. (At the time, nobody was sure who owned the wall; USRC had to dispatch a consultant to do a title search, which concluded that it belongs to the feds.) Amtrak indicated that would be possible, but later decided it would need the area as a staging ground for realigning the tracks above, forcing DDOT to scramble for inferior alternatives.
Another is better signage. The station desperately needs this to help people find their way around, and USRC has retained a team that includes Lance Wyman, the guy who designed Metro’s map. But it’s difficult to tell people where to go when it’s unclear where things will be.
The third thing is vastly bigger: Akridge’s plans for the air rights over Amtrak’s tracks, for which they paid $10 million in 2006 and have been trying to advance ever since. Called Burnham Place after the station’s original architect, this is the project that would really make Union Station into something special, connecting Capitol Hill to downtown.
“If we do our job right, Burnham Place becomes a crossroads,” says Akridge project manager David Tuchmann. “If you go out the south side, you’re at the seat of power. If you go the other direction, you’re in an H Street neighborhood.”
There’s lots to do while Amtrak straightens out its plans. This year, Akridge got a whole new zoning district called Union Station North, which involved fighting the preservationists who thought having tall buildings visible behind the station would somehow insult its grandeur. It took hours of testimony to work out whether the height of the new buildings would be measured from the ground or from the top of the H Street bridge. With the help of density advocates like planning director Harriet Tregoning, Akridge won the right to take the higher measurement.
But Akridge’s architect, the prolific local firm Shalom Baranes, can’t get started on designs until there’s some certainty to Amtrak’s vision. Building a deck over the tracks, for example, will have to be done bit by bit, so Amtrak can keep trains in service during construction. If Amtrak adds more tracks that go under the H Street bridge, it might have to be elevated, which would throw off their calculations. The newly realigned tracks will determine where Akridge can sink pillars on which to build their deck.
“The sands are shifting beneath our project,” says Matt Klein, president of Akridge. (The company's founder, Chip Akridge, had offered to push the process quicker by putting together a Union Station master plan, Norton said, but it wasn’t his job.) “So until the sands settle, it’s hard to get down to the nitty gritty of architecture.”
Walk into Union Station’s main entrance sometime after Columbus Plaza is finally finished, and the chaos that makes it such an unpleasant place now should be a bit calmer. But even if all goes well, it’ll be succeeded by a more ordered chaos: Thousands more people coming in and out of a new office complex behind the tracks, onto trains that will whisk them anywhere on the eastern seaboard in hours, or aboard streetcars bound for newly revitalized areas east of the river. A modern, new concourse will funnel commuters onto lower level tracks on their way home to Maryland and Virginia. Bus riders will wait in an enclosed structure, shielded from the drafts that slice across a parking lot elevated high above the ground.
You might go there just for dinner, or to buy some pants, or spend an hour chatting with a friend. Instead of a way of dividing the city into east and west, it’ll be a place where the two halves mesh.
You can almost see it, too, from the very top of the parking deck, looking down to the vast area of tracks below. Ball, who observers say seems energized by the quicker pace of change over the last year and a half, tries to explain something that hasn’t even been fully designed yet.
“If you’re looking down there, that’s not Union Station today,” he says. “But it could be Union Station tomorrow.”