Friday, January 06, 2012

Union Station's Main Hall Set For Big Changes

Entering Union Station's grand Main Hall, amid all the construction netting and scaffolding resulting from the emergency ceiling repairs prompted by August's earthquake, you'd be hard pressed to spot preparation for two shafts set to penetrate the Main Hall's pink marble floor.

The sinking of what will become two 750-square foot escalators openings are just the start of a grand "less-is-more" redesign of the hundred year-old-plus Main Hall, which among other things, will eliminate the Center Cafe and the two circular marble planters, while adding more seating and retail and improving sight lines, signage and pedestrian flow. It's what Union Station Redevelopment Corporation chief consigliere David Ball hopes will create more "vertical circulation" -- improving access to an expanded level of retail space on the venerable station's lower level, freed up with the closure of the much-maligned Union Station 9 movieplex downstairs in 2009.

The remake is the biggest overhaul of Daniel Burnham's Beaux Arts gem since Union Station's 1988 restoration and the largest repair job since January 1953, when 200-plus tons of locomotive and coaches of the Federal Express en route from Boston, sans brakes, plunged into what is now the lower level food court.

Still, getting this far hasn't been easy. Union Station has a virtual who's who of multiple stakeholders, including Amtrak, Union Station Redevelopment Corp., The Federal Railroad Administration, Metro, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which owns the lease to Union Station through Union Station Investco LLC, and Jones Lang LaSalle, which manages the retail spaces.

The replacement designs for what came next became became a bureaucratic slug-fest between alphabet-soup agencies including the Commission on Fine Arts, The D.C. Office of Historic Preservation, and the National Capital Planning Commission who couldn't come to an agreement on what they liked. Compounding the difficulty was the 1969 declaration of Union Station as a National Landmark, which made it subject to the complex Section 106 proceedings of the National Historic Preservation Act.

It was easier to reach an agreement on what they didn't like -- Center Cafe smack in the middle of Main Hall. While the double-decker libation center was popular with 20-something Capitol Hill types, many said the sight lines in Main Hall were spoiled.

"The distracting Center Café makes visitors pause in confusion and forces travelers to circle around the pedestal and stairs to find the trains," said Nancy Metzger of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society in comments to the Union Station Redevelopment Corp. last August.

But the first design by GTM Architects, unveiled in June 2010, was almost a wreck on the scale of the Federal Express. Reminiscent of the 1970's Bicentennial visitors center, the design would have cut a giant hole in the center of the Main Hall, creating a glass and steel platform flanked by two elevator/escalator shafts.

The suggestion of re-opening the floor in the main hall recall(ed) memories of the ill-fated slide show pit," said Wesley Paulson, a member of the National Capital Trolley Museum. Critics such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation said the initial design (left) used too much glass and said that the redesign was no better than the behemoth Center Cafe it was designed to replace. In July 2010, USRC and GTM unveiled round two of the redesign, eliminating the center elevator/escalator shafts while seeking a retro-approach in an attempt to make the Main Hall look like more like its passenger station heyday of the 1920's and 30's, with long high-backed mahogany benches.
But this time, Amtrak police, perhaps channeling their inner-TSA, sought to nix the iconic mahogany, saying that the proposed high-backed benches made it hard for their explosive-sniffing police dogs to do their work, while giving potential bad guys plenty of places to hide.

Finally in December 2010, a compromise was reached. Two, smaller, but parallel escalator shafts closer to the front entrance but on opposite sides of the Main Hall so as not to impede center flow traffic. The escalator shafts would be detailed with wood, brass and marble signage and fittings to help pedestrians find their way to trains and the new retail.

Instead of the high-backed benches, the design called for functional if unimpressive low-slung pedestals that can be easily scooted out of the way for black-tie corporate shindigs in the evenings that the Main Hall routinely attracts, something the long benches would have impeded. Also added would be two new retail kiosks or "luxury marketing units" and an information booth in the center, reminiscent of the original layout.

Construction on the Main Hall improvements will follow the emergency work already being done on the ceiling as a result of the earthquake on August 23. The emergency work will be finished in late 2012.

The improvements in the Main Hall aren't the only ones. Already underway outside Union Station is a redesign of Columbus Circle in junction with the National Park Service, along with plans from Union Station Investco to improve the passenger waiting area with "Best In Brand" stores and new fixtures.

Metro too, is looking to upgrade access to its own station at Union Station as well, with a new improved entrance along First Street NE and a tunnel to H Street, in advance of Akridge's massive Burnham Place project, set to begin preliminary construction in 2014.

Washington D.C. real estate redevelopment news.


Tom A. on Jan 6, 2012, 9:45:00 AM said...

I've always been a bit disgusted that under the "News Information Tours" sign in the middle of the station is ONLY information for a trolley tour. No news. No information. When I first moved to DC I tried to ask bus information at the booth, but they looked at me blankly and tried to sell me a trolley tour. They knew nothing about transit. I'm not sure how they were able to get this prime location, but I'm glad they'll be moved.

andrew said...

What's being depicted in the last photo?

Que said...

How about some new elevators Union Station could surely use them since the current ones are almost hidden

Anonymous said...


That is *exactly* what is needed. The current one are cramped service elevators in awkward locations.

Anonymous said...

I was the superintedent and project manager for the renovation of the Union Station into the National Visitors Center in 1974-1976. While your article did not mention (only briefly) about the visual exhibit in the center of the main station-there were major renovations to the public areas. These included cleaning and painting the main hall, west end, concourse,the retail area on the east end (the scaffolding for this operation was my design), bathrooms, cleaning and repairs to the skylights, cleaning the exterior, the flags around Columbus Circle and other areas.

I have been down to the original streets of Washington that are within the station.

The construction of the visual area in the main hall included the installation of 2 escalators the framing and bases probably are still existing.

Therefore, I think that the work performed for the bi-centenial should count as a major renovation to the station.
Leonard Raskin

Anonymous said...

What are these "original streets of Washington" that are within the facility?

It sounds fascinating.

Anonymous said...

The reason a sea of benches does not work is the homeless and insane. How about not creating another sad place in DC to advertise to every person arriving what a care-less lonely place DC is to be homeless or insane?

Anonymous said...

So the proposed benches are to be "functional if unimpressive low-slung pedestals"? How about UNfunctional and unimpressive"? These look like the same back-torturing devices used for decades in public waiting areas. .....
As for the new lower-level retail, how about some info on the DESIGN of that area? And how are the silly-looking new stairs cut into the main hall's floor supposed to help access that area? The rejected center stairs were indeed hideous, but they might have worked. The new fake-old-timey-railroad-station ones are, if not hideous, unlikely to work. Prediction: people won't use them, then guess what? Overbearing signage will be added to lure folks into using them, adding yet more visual clutter. If you doubt me, just look around at what usually happens. Bad functional design, i.e., things that don't WORK, invariably leads to bad aesthetics.

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