by Kris Ankarlo

WASHINGTON (WNEW) — Union Station was built to be the front door of D.C., but after decades of wear and tear and a growing region, developers say it’s in desperate need of a makeover.

“When it was built it was the largest station in the world and one of the most beautiful buildings in the world,” says Beverley Swaim-Staley, the president and CEO of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (USRC). “Obviously, it served primarily as a train station with its peak in World War II. And then ultimately in the 50’s people started using planes and automobiles and the station went into a terrible state of disrepair.”

Union Station was rescued by U.S. Congress in the 1980’s and USRC was created to be the steward of the historic station. The building was designed by Burnham at the height of the train age, but with roadways hopelessly clogged the past may light the path to the future.

100,000 passengers move through the station everyday, many of the commuters stepping in the awkward dance of transferring from a MARC or VRE train onto Metro’s Red Line. Meanwhile, the intercity passengers are arriving in Washington as Burnham had envisioned. Except instead of being awed by his building, they are too busy dodging commuters bouncing around like excited atoms in a particle accelerator.

“The station is bursting at the seams in all of its modes,” says David Tuchmann, the vice president of development at Akridge, the real estate firm with ownership of the air rights above the Union Station rail yard.

As the region grows, and the roads become more congested, the number of commuters choosing to travel by rail will only increase, and Union Station will have to accommodate many of those commuters and travelers. But there’s a problem, the station is bounded on all sides by other buildings…there’s no room.

“So we’re presented with this challenge of this need to make a tremendous change with this really thorny problem, and it turns out that constraint, you know necessity being the mother of invention, really turned out to be a gift in that we were forced to be creative and inventive about how we were going to solve a problem,” says Amtrak Chief Corridor Development Bob LaCroix.

The plan is to build up, and down, instead of out. And in the process covering up one of the biggest eyesores in the heart of the District: the rail yard. The plan calls for the replacement and reconfiguration of platforms and tracks, and then decking over them. The entire system will be modernized with an eye toward efficiency.

“That means lengthening and straightening the tracks, lengthening and straightening the platforms and widening them, by the time we’re done they’ll be about the width of a Metro platform, which is very wide,” LaCroix says.

Today, riders can only enter and exit through the concourse at the head of the tracks, the headhouse. The new plan will call for cross-cutting concourses underneath the tracks. This will allow riders choices in how they exit the station, which means less of the vexatious rush hour clash of humanity.

“When a MARC train comes in it has 1,500 passengers on it. That’s like three 747’s coming in and unloading at once, if you can imagine that…three of them all at once. Bam! The doors open, the crowds come off, they fill that platform and they all got to go along that platform all the way to the headhouse,” LaCroix says. “And then once at the headhouse more than half of them have to make their way over to Metro.”

The new plan will offer riders who work in Noma or H Street a more direct commuting path. In some cases it could save 10-15 minutes of walking each way. There will also be an entrance from H Street via a modern train shed with high ceilings of glass and steel. Under the shed there will be bigger and more inviting waiting areas.

The track reconfiguration will allow passengers to flow more quickly in and out of loading areas. Amtrak estimates there will be room to triple passenger capacity and double the number of trains.

“A tremendously different way to service trains coming in and out,” LaCroix says. “Get the train in, get them unloaded, get the train out. It will make a big difference in the amount of volume this can handle.”

Of course, something of this scale is going to be expensive and time-consuming. The price tag for this part of the project sits at about $7 billion. And the construction would be phased in over a 15-20 year period.

This master plan was introduced in 2012, and through the last two years the agencies and companies involved have been testing out and pricing the concepts. And now the concepts are slowly becoming reality.

“We are about to get underway with what is the master development plan and that’s where we will begin engaging in things like the environmental processes that are required and really begin the full planning that will lead us into the design process,” Swaim-Staley says.

The project has been separated into three phases. The first phase involves the redesign of the existing concourse and the beginning of work on tracks and platforms. That will occur over the next four years.

The second phase will bring the heavy lifting as the tracks and platforms are reconstructed on the east side of the yard. That’s also when development above the yard will begin. The third phase will see the demolition of the parking garage and the construction of the train shed. If all goes according to plan, it will be finished by 2030.

Bringing all of this together is a public-private partnership, or P3. The private interest coming largely from Akridge, a real-estate development firm that purchased the air rights above the yard in 2006. Their vision is to create a new complex called Burnham Place.

“This is a very different P3,” Tuchmann says. “In our situation, the partnership is one where all three organizations, Amtrak, USRC and Akridge are contributing funds towards the planning, design, engineering and construction of this project. It’s not that the public sector is leveraging single-handedly one large firm who will then own future revenues and rights.”

Burnham Place will add another 3 million square feet of development, close to half of which will go to office space. There are about 1,500 housing units in the plans and five acres worth of greenspace for parks and plazas. It won’t be a development as much as it will be a new neighborhood.

“This site sits at the confluence of some of the most important neighborhoods and rapidly evolving neighborhoods in the city,” Tuchmann says. “We represent the hole in the center of this doughnut. And so we will be filling in this area allowing people to move across, over, up and down and through so that you no longer have a dividing line, a moat between these different neighborhoods.”

The rail yard will be decked over to create the new land where Burnham Place will be built. It will mean a re-establishment of the grid in that part of the city, and a new H Street bridge. But building on top of rail infrastructure isn’t a new concept.

“There are several precedents,” Tuchmann says. “The most well known is Grand Central where the Met Life building was decked over a bunch of rail yards. People aren’t even aware that a huge section of Manhattan is built atop rail yards as well as rail lines.”

Adding in the cost of Burnham Place raises the total price tag of the project to roughly $10 billion. For their part, Amtrak estimates the project will pump $13.5-15 billion into the local economy during the construction period. Those are big numbers over a long time period, which invites a lot of skepticism.

“It’s healthy to have skepticism,” Tuchmann says. “Projects like this always take a while to get off the ground. We’re taking our time we’re being very careful to get all the proper approvals and planning and public participation that is absolutely required and beneficial to a project like this. But, I think people will begin to hear more and more about this project and then it becomes a foregone conclusion, it becomes inevitable.”

The station is a landmark on par with the monuments and memorials defining the Washington landscape. With that in mind, planners have been working at every stage to make sure the historic legacy of the station isn’t compromised as it is modernized.

“First of all we don’t touch the main hall in anything that we do, we would never do that, we honor it and obviously it’s been very good to us,” LaCroix says.
The rezoning that made the development of the air rights possible was done to carefully blend Burnham Place into the station. This means no towering office buildings directly behind the main hall.

“We’re really just at the beginning of the preservation process, but it is always front and center of the minds of Akridge, USRC and Amtrak,” Tuchmann says.

It’s important to note that this project is still in the very beginning stages, with the request for proposals.

The vision will likely change with new challenges and obstacles. There is an ensemble of stakeholders that need to come to the table and agree to the plans. And, of course, billions of dollars need to be raised.

Tuchmann says that’s part of why the construction will be phased over time, to responsibly adjust to changing conditions while being smart fiscally.

For him, though, this project is a monument to transportation in our region.

“It signals to the visitors to our country as well as those who come from other parts of the U.S. who come to Union Station…’Wow, this is what we believe in, in this country as far as transit oriented development as far as investing in our infrastructure.’ It signals a lot, I think, to people who come and visit,” Tuchmann says.

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WNEW’s Kris Ankarlo contributed to this report. Follow him and WNEW on Twitter.