This week officials from Amtrak and developer Akridge unveiled plans for an ambitious development atop tracks leading into Union Station in Washington, D.C. The 3-million-square-foot project promises to unite the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and NoMa, a former industrial area transformed into a leafy residential neighborhood.
“The gash in the urban fabric will be closed,” said Mark Gilliand, a principal at Shalom Baranes Associates, Akridge’s master planners for the project.
But with nearly $9 billion in investment needed, questions remain as to whether the public-private partnership, similar in scope, if not scale, to New York City’s Hudson Yards, would be able to muster the political will at the federal level. Union Station is owned and operated by the United States government. But despite high-speed trains and mass transit becoming a political football in states like Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin—and even New Jersey—most agree that the Northeast corridor is at capacity and needs expansion. “It serves as the only existing high-speed rail, and people on both sides of the aisle believe in that for the Northeast corridor, whether you’re from California or Florida,” said Akridge vice president of development David Tuchmann.
As the southern anchor to the corridor, Union Station’s significance goes beyond its importance as a hub (D.C. train delays ripple as far north as Boston). The project is a key component of a $151 billion investment to region’s rail infrastucture to be completed over the next several decades. The proposed renovation was framed as a “pathway project” in an updated vision plan for the Northeast Corridor released earlier this month. And unlike the oft-delayed Moynihan Station in New York, Union sits literally within view of the legislators on Capitol Hill. “We like our prospects here,” said Bob LaCroix, Amtrak’s chief of corridor development. “Through this process, key stakeholders from the city, Maryland, Viriginia, and the federal government generated a consensus that this is the vision that we all need to pursue.”
While the project holds regional as well as national significance, it breaks down into a very urban plan, integrating long-divided D.C. neighborhoods and incorporating the capital’s bicycle network. As Union Station was built on landfill, the terrain to the east and the west of the station slopes down beside the tracks, with the rail lines shored up with a giant stone wall, affectionately referred to as the Burnham Wall, for architect Daniel Burnham, the station’s original architect.
The station’s new masterplan, engineered by Parsons Brinckerhoff and designed with HOK, maintains the integrity of the terrain and track levels while burrowing east-west passageways beneath the tracks and creating a north-south corridor above them. Side-street entryways will be cut into the Burnham Wall to allow pedestrians to cross between neighborhoods. Escalators from the passageways will take visitors up onto the developer’s new deck, where Akridge hopes to build a multiuse neighborhood. The H Street Bridge will meet the platform above the tracks, transforming the now-desolate overpass into a Main Street, as well as home to the station’s new north entrance.
Entryways pierce the Burnham Wall allowing pedestrians to pass beneath tracks to access the neighborhood above or on the other side of the tracks (left). An elevated walkway atop the west Burnham Wall incorporates bike and pedestrian networks (right).
Courtesy Akridge, SBA
Undulating green rooftops of the entrance recall the individual tracks below and dispel the impression that the north entrance is a back door. “We wanted to design a train shed that supports movement and a vegetated roof that you can see from the street,” said Bill Hellmuth, president of HOK. Hellmuth noted that the overall design underscores the inherent sustainability of mass transit.
The developers, architects, and planners kept a keen eye on recent developments in New York. The project’s integration of open space recalls Hudson Yards, but without the developer’s massive floor-area payoff hovering some 60 stories above the site. The buildings maintain D.C.’s 130-foot height limit established in 1910, making the open space seem all the more generous. Instead of gobbling up the every square foot, the north-south promenade becomes a symbolic, if not literal, extension of the L’Enfant plan, reclaiming for Delaware Avenue a bit of what the railways took away over a century ago. But perhaps the most benevolent aspect of the plan occurs on the west side of the site, where the new buildings atop the development platform step back to make way for another promenade atop Burnham Wall. This High Line-esque gesture incorporates an existing city greenway, bike path, and pedestrian walkway. The gentle arc begins nearly a mile north of the project and culminates at Columbus Circle in front of Burnham’s 1908 masterpiece.