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All Aboard: How Urban Train Stations are Becoming Neighborhood Amenities

The restored Union Depot waiting room

The Green Line station outside Union Depot, courtesy MG McGrath

Artist's rendering of trains at Union Depot, courtesy Ramsey County

Gate signs at the Union Depot

The Porch in Philadelphia

The greenway outside Burnham Place in D.C.

Even as the economy recovers, Americans are driving less. Across the country, in urban areas, residents are choosing to walk, bike, or take public transit.
When going the distance, the Great American Roadtrip is also apparently on the wane. Amtrak has set a new ridership record in 10 of the past 11 years, with fiscal year 2013 being its best year ever at 31.6 million passengers riding.
With increased demand come congestion and backups at major rail hubs. Smart cities, however, are anticipating and adapting so the train station of the future is full, not crowded. And cities are renovating their train stations—not into places that commuters hurry through, but into neighborhood and urban amenities.

Now arriving in Lowertown, Saint Paul

Right now, Amtrak trains entering the Twin Cities stop at Midway Station, on the aptly named Transfer Road, a block off of the Central Corridor’s new light-rail Green Line (which begins operating June 14). In a few months, however, travelers will coast into downtown Saint Paul's newly restored and historic Union Depot, the original train station for Saint Paul and the only historic train station still used as such in the Twin Cities.
More than 10 years ago, the Ramsey County Rail Authority (RCRA) determined that bringing rail back to downtown would be a positive move for the city. Last December, more than 40 years after the last train pulled out of Union Depot, the historic building reopened to the public. The $243 million restoration by HGA Architects and Engineers brought back the grand concourse and football-field-size waiting room with 80-foot-high arch.

In its heyday, the depot served not only commercial enterprises and moved people, but also connected the city with the rest of the country. Appropriately, the building was an architectural and industrial monument to Saint Paul’s growth and prosperity. It closed in 1971 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. With its restoration, the depot has once again become an intermodal transit hub serving the city and the state, and sparking further Lowertown revitalization. It was also the site of last year’s Northern Spark, a free dusk-to-dawn interactive art festival.

The depot is currently a bus hub for Jefferson Lines inter-city buses, Metro Transit buses, and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority buses. Megabus began arrivals and departures began last week, and takes riders to Chicago, Madison or Milwaukee. Amtrak is expected to move back before the end of the first quarter of this year. And the Green Line, outside the Depot’s front door, opens in June.

"Amtrak was really excited when the board undertook this initiative to...bring back Union Depot," says Tim Mayasich, director of the RCRA. "It's a much better experience for their passengers to be here." The Twin Cities Amtrak station experienced more than 116,000 boardings and alightings in the last year. The one route that runs through the Twin Cities is "busting at the seams," Mayasich says, because it travels west through North Dakota where the fracking boom is attracting thousands of workers.
Redeveloping the Union Depot has had predictable effects on the neighborhood. Lowertown is now the fastest growing part of Saint Paul, and home to pocket parks, and parks and events along the Mississippi River, a long-time Farmers’ Market, art festivals and civic carnivals, artists studios and live/work housing, art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants, and in 2015 a new minor league baseball stadium for the Saint Paul Saints.
A mixed-use master plan for Washington D.C.

One of D.C.'s most-visited places and one of the country's busiest train stations is due for an upgrade. Union Station is stuffed to the gills with people—almost 50,000 of them per day—funneling through narrow platforms and only a few entrances and exits. Consider that a full MARC train can carry 1,050 people—that's nearly three 747s.
An ambitious Master Plan for the station envisions widening the train platforms to move people more efficiently through them, doubling the amount of parking, more than doubling the amount of space for passengers waiting on the concourse and, atop the tracks, adding three million square feet of new buildings—office, residential, hotels, and retail—in a project known as Burnham Place.
"We're knitting a hole in the urban fabric," says Corinne Scheiffer, outreach and communications head for the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, which manages Union Station.
David Tuchmann, vice president of development for Akridge, which will be developing Burnham Place, adds that while increasing capacity is an important goal, it's not the only goal. "We've succeeded if you say, 'I live right on top of Union Station,' and people say, 'Wow.'" The station, in other words, has to be an amenity in itself—not just a machine for moving people from point A to point B.
So the new Union Station and surrounding area will get seven acres of parks and plazas (including a two-acre elevated greenway that will connect to the Metropolitan Branch Trail), and a "substantial" amount of retail. The train hall, a sweeping glass structure, will be viewable from nearly every proposed building in Burnham Place. Commuters and tourists, in addition to residents, will use the playgrounds, restaurants, and shops in Burnham Place. In that way the train station becomes part of the neighborhood and the neighborhood becomes part of the train station.
The design also calls for adding at least eight additional entrances to the station (currently there are only three, all clustered on the south and west sides) so commuters coming from the north don't have to walk as far and neighbors can pass through the station rather than having to walk around it.
"It might be that people who live in this area will make this their everyday walk," Tuchmann says. "They can walk down the greenway, enter the station, get a yogurt or smoothie, and walk back. They're not a tourist or commuter." They're not even buying a train ticket. But that's OK.
Minor aspects of the first phase of the Master Plan are underway, but the overall plan will take 15 to 20 years and cost $7 billion dollars, paid for from a variety of sources still in negotiations. If completed at this cost, it would be one of the most expensive megaprojects in U.S. history. But, says Tuchmann, "The only solution is generational thinking…. We're trying for the bigger moves, to make sure people look back 30 years from now and say, 'Wow.'"
The Porch in Philly
Philadelphia's main train station on 30th Street, on the banks of the Schuylkill, is the nation's third busiest, with over four million passengers boarding or leaving a train here. Adding in the local SEPTA trains and New Jersey Transit brings the number to seven million passengers a year. Thousands of people see Philly for the first time as they exit the train station. But until a few years ago, the view from outside 30th Street Station was a parking lot.
"It was my first impression of Philadelphia," says Prema Gupta, director of planning for the nonprofit University City District, an organization dedicated to revitalizing the neighborhood surrounding not just the Amtrak station but six colleges and universities nearby. "I got off the train and out of the station and there's this magnificent view of the skyline. But then you're in this concrete jungle and surrounded by automobiles."
When the city decided to turn the parallel parking in front of the station into a pedestrian sidewalk, Gupta and UCD argued that it should not be just a pedestrian thruway, but a place where "people close their eyes and put up their feet … [a place where] we can encourage people to linger." In 2011, The Porch was born. UCD installed plants, tables and chairs and set up space for events like a farmer's market, outdoor concerts, fitness classes, and even mini golf.
The first summer, almost 25,000 people visited the space—which Gupta can say with certainty because UCD surveyed the space every hour, every day of the week to determine how The Porch was being used. UCD wanted to "demonstrate that there's a huge amount of demand to justify future investments."
With 11 acres of nearby surface parking under study for redevelopment by Amtrak, Drexel University, and Brandywine Realty Trust, and with 30th Street Station itself scheduled for a future renovation, those future investments in a pedestrian-friendly, relaxing, green space seem like a no-brainer.

Train stations have traditionally been sited away from neighborhoods. Now, says Brian Harner, master plan coordinator for Amtrak, "we've learned about the power of transportation networks to create cities. The value of that goes way beyond the number of people you move."

Rachel Kaufman is the editor of Elevation DC, another Issue Media Group publication.
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