ULI Washington News

ULI Washington 2015 Trends: Reimagining the District: Union Station’s 2nd Century Recap

Moderator: David Winstead
Panelist: Tony Williams – Federal City Council
Panelist: David Zaidan – Amtrak
Panelist: Shyam Kannan – WMATA
Panelist: David Tuchmann – Akridge

Since its inception, Union Station has served as the gateway into the District connecting thousands of passengers on their way into and around the city. As the busiest Metro station in the District and 2nd busiest Amtrak station in the country, it’s a bustling transportation hub that sees nearly 100,000 passengers daily on their way to work, play and home. However, it is also operating near the limits of its capacity and its rail tracks serve as a “gap” between expanding areas of urban regeneration.  To sustain its role as an engine of economic growth for the District, Union Station must make critical upgrades to its infrastructure and the surrounding space.

To kick-off the discussion, moderator Mr. David Winstead engaged former DC Mayor Anthony Williams to discuss some of the project details. Mr. Williams credited the architect Daniel Burnham with developing the initial framework for Union Station but also stressed that in the 21st century we need to re-think that plan and to animate it, and to provide more density and diversity of uses. In order to reach this vision, the project needs to be illuminated into the public forum which Mr. Williams identified as a major challenge. Because a project of this size and magnitude will require ongoing commitment from the public sector, whether at the Federal, State, or County level, it is critical that the public is well-educated on the project needs and goals throughout its lifecycle. Additionally, Mr. Williams emphasized that the jurisdiction “must have the capacity and planning processes in place to successfully absorb and manage the project” as to avoid the pitfalls that have traditionally afflicted other projects similar in scope and magnitude.

UnionStation.2Next, Amtrak Director David Zaidain provided a high-level overview of near-term versus long-term project goals, with the near-term efforts focused primarily on expanding capacity at the Concourse. Currently, the concourse is under capacity along with a host of other issues that result in a poor overall experience for its passengers. Amtrak also has plans to expand its high-speed rail ridership along the Northeastern Corridor which, when taken into account with both MARC and VRE plans to expand their respective ridership, further drives home the need to take immediate action with Concourse improvements. Mr. Zaidain outlined their two-pronged approach that aims to get Concourse construction underway while continuing to design and define the remainder of project components moving forward.

Perhaps the only issue more apparent than high-speed rail capacity at Union Station is the transit hub’s current issues with Metro ridership capacity, and no subject-matter-expert was better equipped to speak on this than Mr. Shyam Kannan, WMATA’s Planning Director. Mr. Kannan stated that in addition to increased demand coming from the surrounding areas of urban growth, Union Station is also seeing substantial inner city and regional traffic, all of which is being funneled “rather unceremoniously through a very congested walkway onto a single rail line (Red line), which also happens to be the oldest rail line in the Metro system.” The question is whether DC wants to convey this dysfunctional image to regional business partners coming in by rail: partners that hail from financial centers in the Northeast who come to DC expecting to do business in a very powerful place, but who upon arrival instead find themselves “walking cheek to jowl with thousands and thousands of strangers onto a very aging rail infrastructure, only to be delayed by a line that can’t actually get all of the passengers from the platform onto the trains to their intended destination.”

Pivoting from the public to private sector, Akridge VP of Development Mr. David Tuchmann walked the audience through some of the lessons learned since Akridge originally purchased the air rights from GSA back in 2002.  While Akridge had originally saw the site’s potential “with its proximity to the Capitol as well as the significance of having its buildings in the background of this magnificent station in the nation’s Capital right down the road,” they could not have foreseen all of the incredible neighborhood transformation that was about to happen all around Union Station. Mr. Tuchmann then cited well-documented development trends including the creation of NoMA, the booming growth along H Street, and the District’s downtown continuing to move from West to East as all positive outcomes that have reaffirmed their initial decision to invest in this historic location.

UnionStation.3It would seem that the alignment of these trends have uniquely positioned Union Station to become more than just a neighborhood transformation project, and in the process has provided the foundation for the development of a commercial center on a regional and global scale. The Amtrak and WMATA plans for expanding infrastructure capacity along with establishing connections to other regional transportation nodes means that Union Station will become a multimodal facility with access to three major airports in the region. So what does that mean on a global level? Well, for one thing it makes the District that much more attractive for global firms looking to establish a new headquarters. Mr. Tuchmann added: “Akridge wants to work with its transportation partners to create the type of environment that might make a global firm think ‘Should I locate in London? Or should I locate here in DC?’ Not only because I’m next to the Capitol, but also because I have this incredible unparalleled access to the whole Northeast corridor.”

Click here for an audio recording of the panel.

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