Housing Complex

Preservationists Rally Against Plan for “Pit” in Union Station

A cross-section of the bigger, glassier Center Cafe and staircases. (USRC)

A cross-section of the bigger, glassier Center Cafe and staircases. (USRC)

Big changes are coming to Union Station. Last year, Congress told the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation to come up with a comprehensive plan for the facility, which recieved its last major renovation in the mid 1980s. Planned additions include an intercity bus facility on the existing bus deck, an expanded mezzanine for the metro, and–in a separate process–the development of a giant mixed-use complex over the tracks feeding into the station from the north.

The one that's really raising hackles, though, is a proposal to cut a 1,300-square-foot hole in the floor of the Great Hall down to the food court below, elevate the existing Center Cafe, and connect all three levels with spiral glass staircases and elevators. The design, reminiscent of New York City's 5th Avenue Apple Store, is intended to open up sightlines on the main floor and open up access to the lower floor, especially for the disabled.

In comments submitted in early August, the city's preservation groups universally panned the "pit," which reminds them of a 1970s experiment that punctured the Great Hall's floor for a space to screen slide shows. "This recognized mistake must not be repeated," admonishes D.C. Preservation League president Rebecca Miller. Not only that, but several groups and individuals want the Center Cafe removed entirely.

"Any proposed alterations should restore the original unobstructed views of the Main Hall, and we are deeply concerned about the center of this space being dominated by the proposed circulation module," writes Nancy Metzger of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. "It would still be a major distraction to the visual and experiential appreciation of the space as well as an obstacle to people crossing the Main Hall to the train terminal, taxi stand, or shops."

The designs are in the middle of the Section 106 process for review of historic properties, but additional meetings have been postponed until the fall. In the mean time, the Preservation League is using the proposal as a rallying cry for fundraising, participating in a contest for a $25,000 unrestricted grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "We actually hadn't thought about that," Miller told Housing Complex when asked how the grant money would be used–primarily to help support advocacy around Union Station, she said, but also for other projects, like the redevelopment of St. Elizabeth's and the World War I memorial.

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  • matty

    Ah, yes! The "DC preserve everything at all costs even if it means a dead city" crowd strikes again. I would bet anything these same folks are opposed to any sort of money-making activities in Union Station beyond transportation. In other words, chase the money changers out of the temple. They only people who would then go to Union Station would be travelers and tourists. Of course, there would be far fewer of each group after all the amenities are cleansed from the temple.

  • jackstrawdc

    I'm not well versed in preservation, but I'm more inclined to believe the preservationist crowd than I am the fast food people or the DC Chamber of Commerce. Those folks would put a food court over the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool if it made them a buck.

  • Amberista

    Yes! We must stop the trolleys, for they ruin our viewshed. And stop the inner-city buses because this was a railroad station. And stop the restauranteurs and shopkeepers who have no business in this wonderful museum. So what if they bring life to the place. We're all about amber and formaldehyde. Just look at our faces!

    Soon, that wonderful Mr Anshutz from the Examiner will restart his luxury train service - and we will all be back in the 1940's! Oh, he put that on permanent hold two weeks ago?

    Never mind.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    i've looked at the plans, and i have to say that they're not that bad. if implemented as currently proposed, it would create MUCH better lines-of-sight than the current cafe in the center, and it would in no way represent the giant hole in the floor that was there before. this would be tiny.

  • Steve

    In any modifications of Union Station, could consideration be given to those that would allow kids and parents to see trains?

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    What Union Station really needs in the Great Hall (whether mounted on the current cafe structure or the new proposal) is a Solari Departure Board and the requisite fpp-fpp-fpp sound as it updates:


  • Reid

    I would be more willing to take this plan seriously if:

    A. They were trying to "open up" access to something other than a depressing mall food court, and
    B. Said mall food court was not already completely overrun.

    This is a terrible solution seeking a non-existent problem.

    Although, I'm all for the introduction of a departure board in the Great Hall. Also, how about a real information booth at the center, not a for-profit trolley-tour booth.

  • Rick Mangus

    LEAVE IT BE!!!!!!

  • Suzie

    @ matty - it seems like you have missed the point of preservation entirely. "preserve everything old to create a dead city"?? Have you seen DC's historic downtown, mid-town, U Street? ALL HISTORIC and all thriving commercially. Wanna live in a dead city? Move to Tulsa!!

  • Prairie Style

    Has anyone, anywhere, at anytime ever complained about the "sightlines" to the basement food court (other than the food court vendors, etc.)? This is an issue?

  • Dhead

    The irony of calling this the "Pit" is that when Union Station received its last overhaul in the 1980s it was due in large part to the failure to replace the roof when renovations were done for the Bicentennial. The roof leaked and all the work was for naught.

    In the '80s renovation, both the Interior and Transportation Departments had a stake in the project and each wanted to shove the other out. In response to this, if I recall correctly, Interior dug a big hole in the middle of the concourse floor and called it an "AV Pit" with running slideshows to maintain their stake in the budget.

  • Pingback: The Mixtape About Preservation: Union Station. « GOOD HOPE

  • Todd

    This is idiotic, do something with the actual tran station portion, not the main hall..

    The main hall is the best part.

    And fix the entrance near the outdoor metro, SWestern edge (near the bike station).. these are the two only eye sores I can think of, not the main hall.

  • http://twitter.com/monkeyrotica monkeyrotica

    Dhead got it mostly right. The "AV Pit" in Union Station was in the 1970s; there was a multimedia projection slide show on multiple screens. Most of the screens didn't function and most people just avoided the pit because it served no purpose. So this isn't the first time the main hall has been retrofitted.

  • DC John

    Let's have Tiber Creek run through Union Station too...I am guessing it is still nearby under the Mall. That way we can Tube to the Trains!

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