The future of Chicago Union Station lies in its past - Metropolitan Planning Council

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The future of Chicago Union Station lies in its past

Union Station was designed to accommodate an additional 14 stories. Today, Amtrak is seeking a developer to make good on that vision.

Ninety-one years after Chicago Union Station opened for service, Amtrak issued a request for developers to form the station’s next century. Today, this Daniel Burnham-designed building attracts more than 33 million Amtrak and Metra riders per year, far more than was contemplated when it opened on May 20, 1925. 

The success of Union Station is also its greatest challenge; the strain of daily travelers has taken its toll and has stretched the capacity of the station to its limits. While no one wants to see the landmark-eligible structure marred in any way, its redevelopment is essential to the long-term health and vitality of Chicago’s central business district.

Ironically, the best way to preserve the building is to change it. When designed by Burnham, the iconic head house was intended to accommodate an additional 14 floors which were never constructed. By completing the original vision, Amtrak can add people and value to the station, along with much needed revenue to finance capacity improvements. The recently released request to master developers offers construction on the head house and an additional two sites immediately south and southeast for future development. Not only would Amtrak generate revenue from this activity, but the additional people the development would bring would add life and vitality to this corner of the loop—an important benefit in and of itself.

Cities across the country are taking advantage of their rail stations to do more than just move people. Washington D.C.’s station is famously visited by more shoppers than train riders each year—yet it still serves as a critical transportation hub for the city. The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) borrowed inspiration from Philadelphia for our Activate Union Station Challenge that brought visitors during one week in August 2013. With the completion of the planned redevelopment of Chicago Union Station hopefully in the near future, we can anticipate such vitality 52 weeks of the year.

Recent census data show us that Chicago may owe its stability in large part to the new workers that are attracted to a transit commute to their loop based headquarters. Combined, the Chicago Transit Authority and Metra carry half of the city's downtown workers every day. Without expanded capacity on the transit network that a revamped Union Station would provide, Chicago’s ability to remain attractive to new corporations is at risk.

Amtrak will make a selection of their Master Developer some time before the end of the year. A lot rests on their shoulders, from the preservation of an historic and iconic structure to the long-term vitality of Chicago’s office market. Here’s to hoping they live up to Chicago’s broad shoulders reputation!

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