Reimagining Washington, DC’s Union Station

Reimagining Union Station

The proposed expansion and redevelopment of Union Station, which could do for Washington what Grand Central Terminal did for New York a century ago — create a new commercial epicenter for the city and provide the transportation anchor for a regional economy, stretching from Richmond to Baltimore. At $10 billion in public and private investment, it would represent the region’s most important development initiative since the construction of Metro’s subway system….

If you’ve been to the renovated St. Pancras Station in London, or the spectacular Atocha station in Madrid, or even to the recently restored Grand Central, you have a sense of the world-class facility that Amtrak, the Union Station Redevelopment Corp. (USRC) and the developers at Akridge have in mind:

A seven-story-high train shed covered by a glass roof that lets in plenty of natural light. Wide spacious platforms between trains located on two levels of track. Elevated and underground passenger concourses, lined with shops and restaurants, providing easy access to subway, buses, taxis, streetcars, parking and street exits in all directions. Waiting areas, concierge stations, and electronic departure and arrival boards distributed throughout the station….

This new Union Station would go well beyond the ambitions of Daniel Burnham’s original Beaux-Arts masterpiece. Its footprint would span 10 square blocks — two blocks east to west, five blocks north to south, from the foot of Capitol Hill to K Street. And to accommodate the additional parking, the underground concourses, the new bus and Metro stations and new tracks for high-speed rail, the complex would extend five levels underground….

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment. It’s hard to imagine a project more likely to raise the tea party’s hackles than having federal and state taxpayers borrow billions of dollars to increase subsidized train service in and out of Washington.

At the same time, broader economic forces make Union Station expansion almost inevitable. As Doug Allen, the head of the Virginia’s commuter rail service, put it, “The question is how we do it, not whether we do it.”

With the era of exurban sprawl having run its course, people and jobs are moving back to more densely populated urban areas. That’s happening not just in Washington, but also in Boston, Austin, Seattle, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami. The only way these cities can accommodate such growth, and realize the economic efficiency that it will generate, is to dramatically improve their public transportation infrastructure and increase the density of land use around key public transportation nodes.

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