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Making Union Station an even greater place

random.places via flickr

Daniel Burnham's Great Hall

The Metropolitan Planning Council is such a fan of Chicago’s Union Station that for two years, through the Civic Advisory Committee of the recently completed Chicago Union Station Master Plan, we’ve been helping the Station – recently named one of America’s Great Places by the American Planning Association (APA) – reach its full potential. APA's recognition will draw more attention to the value great stations can play in their host city. We’ve blogged many times about Union Station’s potential and even organized an event – Place Stations – to learn from stations in D.C. and Denver how to succeed. But as we’ve learned from our mentors on Placemaking, the venerable Project for Public Spaces in New York City, “You are never finished” (Placemaking Principal #11).

In a recent Planetizen article on why stations designed for non-transit users are most successful, author Peter Cavaluzzi introduced the concept of Open Transit Design, “an inclusive design point of view that incorporates a wider array of spaces and modes to create an iconic place.” Let’s take a look at the five essential elements of Open Transit Design, and see how Chicago Union Station can be made even greater.

1.    Integration of all available transit modes

Without a doubt, Union Station remains a mega transportation hub for Metra, Amtrak and bus service. As noted in the Union Station Master Plan report, it is the third-busiest railroad terminal in the United States, with passenger traffic that would rank it among the 10 busiest airports in the U.S. The study underway by the Chicago Dept. of Transportation (CDOT) seeks to improve upon this integration with plans for more direct and convenient transfers to buses, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) trains, taxis, shuttles, etc. In fact, just last week CDOT proposed to the Chicago City Council that the City purchase the lot just south of the station to provide an off-street area where passengers can safely board city and shuttle buses. It also will serve as the terminal for the central area Bus Rapid Transit network  – a new transit mode in Chicago – and eventually, for high-speed rail. While the closest El stop is still several blocks away, things are improving in this category.

2.   An orientation toward real estate development

If you flip through this 1950s-era brochure on Union Station’s amenities, you will see a station with an orientation toward its own internal real estate development. We’ll grant that a Women’s Lounge and a Nursery are quaint relics from the past, but sit-down restaurants and shopping options are becoming essential for a structure that serves 120,000 passengers every weekday – not to mention hundreds of thousands more who work nearby and would patronize the station if given a reason. (Last week we noted that with 36 percent more people living in downtown Chicago than there were 10 years ago, there are 48,288 more lunches being eaten, errands being run, coffee being quaffed, and dinners being served. 96,576 more feet are pounding the pavement, and they want places to go when they're not working.) While the station’s owner, Amtrak, has made significant improvements, including the welcome addition of air conditioning to the Great Hall, there remains lots of unused space in Union Station that could be transformed into amenities.

In our role staffing the Union Station Civic Advisory Committee, we also have seen the need for an eye toward external real estate development. Stations that successfully morph into places do so because they see themselves as a key part of a larger local economy. What’s happening on the parcels near the station? How could they best be developed to add value to the area and the station? Is there a way to capture that value to help fund improvements? These questions are all on the table and will need to be addressed as Union Station continues its development as a great place.

3.    Architecture that makes iconic spaces

Check. No doubt about it, not much beats the majestic, Daniel Burnham-designed Great Hall made famous by the movie The Untouchables. It is truly stunning, and a great asset upon which to build. Even this iconic architecture, though, is not without challenges. The Great Hall is located far from the concourses, is rarely used as a waiting area, and is not yet used to its full potential. Meanwhile, passenger concourses are routinely overcrowded and uncomfortable. The Master Plan’s short-term improvements call for changes that would help to address this imbalance, but currently the contrast between the largely empty Great Hall and the congested underground concourse is another area for improvement.

4.    Integration of culture with transit design

This is admittedly a tough one for older stations. Landlocked Union Station may never achieve the cultural integration of Minneapolis’ The Interchange, which includes an amphitheater over which trains pull in and take off. Even so, improved programming could dramatically shift the station’s relationship with culture. Why not program the enormous Great Hall with free concerts and performances, art exhibits, craft fairs -- like the Chicago Cultural Center’s free lunchtime concerts, but for West Loopers?

5.    Appeal for non-transit users

Non transit riders have little reason to step foot in the current Union Station. As more and more companies locate in the West Loop, this is increasingly a major lost opportunity.

How have other stations appealed to non-transit users? Let’s look at two examples. Washington D.C.’s Union Station is a destination in itself, luring tourists and nearby workers to its multiple floors of shopping and dining options. In Denver, the reconfiguration of their Union Station has led to building a new 18-acre neighborhood; transit is the spine, but not the sole focus. Ten of the 18 acres will, in fact, be public plazas. While Chicago Union Station does not have this large-scale redevelopment opportunity, it is worth noting that when Denver’s Frank Cannon came to town in March to tell us about their project, he pointed out that "development around the infrastructure is what creates energy and excitement,” and turns a transactional experience of catching a train into an experiential, interactive one in which a passenger might purposely arrive early to shop or get a bite to eat with friends. One need not have 10 acres of public plazas to achieve this. It could mean a place for a quality, sit-down meal or places to shop, as in D.C.’s station. It could mean that a sidewalk is expanded to include open seating and programming, like lunchtime yoga and mini-golf, as with Philadelphia’s Porch.

MPC will continue to champion the potential of Chicago’s Union Station to be among America’s great places. We hope APA’s recognition draws attention to the effort and directs much-needed resources and political will to making Union Station a truly great place for Chicagoans and visitors alike, today and continuing into the future. 

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