Cities engineer train station revivals
Nothing evokes the American past like a train. That is true despite the fact that Americans, for whom cars are convenient and air travel is inexpensive, have never been on a train.
Still, there is something almost painfully nostalgic about the sound of a distant train whistle. It is no accident that Americans feel a pang when they hear that yet another line has ceased operation, just as it is no accident that Gladys Knight was able to make a hit out of a midnight train to Georgia that no one rides anymore. Indeed, it was the 1960s demolition of a train station – New York’s Pennsylvania Station – that is credited with launching the historic preservation movement.
That nostalgia explains, at least in part, the reluctance to part with the train stations that dot the American landscape like so many town squares. “Trains are a link with our past,” says Gary Wolf, president of Rail Sciences, an Atlanta-based railroad consultant. “Railroad stations anchored every city. Development moved away from the train stations. When I’m working in a city I’ve never been in, I have no trouble finding the train station. I just go to the center of town.”
Because train stations are centrally located, it makes perfect sense for cities seeking to revitalize their downtowns to tap the grand old buildings that once housed the railroad lines. Some, like St. Louis and Scranton, Pa., have turned their stations into prosperous hotels. Some stations, like those in Omaha, Neb., and Cincinnati, have become museums. Jacksonville, Fla., transformed its old station into a convention center. Stations in Pueblo, Colo., and Collierville, Tenn., now house municipal offices. Still others, like those in Anchorage, Alaska, and Fargo, N.D., have been converted into microbreweries. “That makes perfect sense,” Wolf says. “The old stations had big baggage rooms that were perfect for brewing tanks.”
Imagination – and money In fact, the number of uses for train stations – the massive ones and the little depots – seems limited only by a city’s imagination and money. Lack of imagination and financing can doom the grandest train station to decrepitude. Stations in Detroit and Buffalo, as well as countless tiny architecturally interesting depots, have fallen victim to neglect or to ownership battles between railroads and cities.
In Decatur, Ga., for example, a battle between the city and CSX Railroad has meant a slow death for the little building that was once a thriving restaurant. (The railroad wants the city to buy its depot; the city wants the railroad’s taxes.) Sacramento, Calif.’s station currently is the focus of a fight between Amtrak, which wants to continue to use it as a train station, and the city, which wants it for virtually anything else.
Because of their size – and the quality of materials used to construct them – aging train stations are outrageously expensive to renovate. For the same reasons, they are nearly as expensive to demolish, according to Rob McGonigal, an associate editor with Waukesha, Wis.-based Trains magazine. “These are massive structures with a lot of heavily built portions to support the tracks,” McGonigal says.
However, cities willing to do a little legwork can find the financial wherewithal to protect their stations. Federal grants for urban revitalization, state money and local bonds proceeds all have contributed to the renovation of stations nationwide.
Finding the money train In Kansas City, which is nearly finished with a project that will convert its French Renaissance station into a science museum, voters turned down several referenda that would have jump-started the renovation project. Then, three nonprofit groups – the Kansas City Museum, the Union Station Assistance Corp. (USAC), and Kansas City Consensus – went to work finding the funding. (All had different interests but the same goal: the museum group wanted to build a world-class science museum; Kansas City Consensus was working on a bi-state cultural district; and USAC just wanted the station restored.)
Two local charitable foundations kicked in upwards of $40 million, and Westwood, Kan.-based telecommunications giant Sprint added another $9 million. “That money made the project real and allowed us to take planning quite far,” says Science City Museum Director Dave Ucko.
Meanwhile, USAC worked the federal government for grant money, and Kansas City Consensus began lobbying for a local sales tax. That 1/8 cent sales tax, the first bi-state sales tax ever passed in the area, was approved in November 1996 in three Missouri counties and one Kansas county.
“We had to get identical enabling legislation passed in both states,” Ucko says. “Then, each of the counties had to agree to put it on the ballot.” Proceeds from that tax eventually will fund half the project’s $250 million cost.
Despite their initial reluctance to fund the renovation, Kansas Citians never considered demolishing Union Station. The building was intricately woven into their history and, even when it fell into disuse and underwent unsuccessful attempts at modernization, it retained its cache. (According to an article in Trains, Kansas Citians gathered at Union Station to celebrate the end of World War II.)
Over the years, a number of reuse plans faltered, and a Canadian firm with redevelopment notions bought the station in 1974. When nothing – except construction of an office building that split the station in half – came of the firm’s efforts, the city sued for possession of the station. Under a settlement, the company conveyed the station to USAC. With renovation nearly complete, the science museum is scheduled to open in the fall.
All aboard Local voters also helped save Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, a beautiful Art Deco station that had been unsuccessfully converted into a shopping center. The architecturally significant station was dying when a Save the Terminal campaign resurrected it with the idea that its half-million square feet of space would be ideal for a museum.
In May 1986, Hamilton County voters approved issuance of $33 million worth of general obligation bonds specifically for the renovation of the terminal. State and city grants, individual contributions and money from private companies and foundations filled financing gaps.
In 1990, the Museum Center at Union Terminal opened. Home to the Cincinnati Historical Society Museum and Library, the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, the Cinergy Children’s Museum, and the Robert D. Lindner Family Omnimax Theater, the center was named one of the top 10 new tourist attractions in the United States by the Austin, Texas-based Weissmann Travel Reports in 1991. Currently, it attracts more than 1 million visitors each year.
It took Cincinnati and Kansas City years to get their train restoration projects off the ground. However, in Omaha, Neb., there was little question about the re-birth of the city’s Union Station.
A classic Art Deco building, the station closed to passenger travel in 1972. Its builder, Union Pacific Railroad, donated the station to the city, and the landmark reopened in 1975 as the Western Heritage Museum. (“Durham” was added to the name later to honor a locally prominent family that had provided significant financing for the renovation.) The museum features a railroad exhibit that includes everything from rail cars to a 70-foot-long model train layout that portrays the trip from Omaha to Deadwood, S.D.
Pulling in the private sector As in Omaha, private funding was key to the successful restoration of Union Station in Albany, N.Y., which now serves as “the most expensive building per square foot in the Fleet Bank empire,” according to Fleet spokesperson Karl Felsen. (It is difficult to transform train stations into commercial space because of the tremendous amount of open area, which in the business world is considered dead space.)
The station, which opened in 1900 and closed 68 years later, was failing fast, according to Felsen. Trees were growing in the roof, which had long since been stripped of its copper overlay, when local banker Peter Kiernan rescued it. The Peter D. Kiernan Plaza, as the station is now called, suffered the failure of countless reuse proposals. Despite the best efforts of the late Albany mayor, Erastus Corning, Union Station looked doomed.
Then, in 1984, a plan to convert the facility into a bank was floated. The station reopened in 1986 after a meticulous renovation, during which contractors raised the building’s marble floor to install a technology center beneath it. “Technology and history can be wedded together if you’re ambitious and clever enough,” Felsen notes.
Local and private money also figured significantly in the renovation of St. Louis’ Union Station, perhaps one of the best examples of reuse in the country, according to McGonigal. The Romanesque station, which openedin 1894 as the largest single-level passenger rail terminal in the world and closed in 1978, is now a mixed-use development that includes a mall and the Hyatt Regency at Union Station.
Restoration of St. Louis’ train station was headed up by The Rouse Co., a Columbia, Md.-based urban renovation specialist. When it was completed in 1985, the $150 million project was the largest adaptive reuse project in the United States.
Building works of art Naturally, the price tag for station renovation dwarfs the original construction costs. However, those were not insignificant. The $6.5 million construction cost for St. Louis’ station was considered astronomical for its day. And it was the rule, rather than the exception.
Built largely by the railroads – the most lucrative businesses of the late 1880s – the stations were not designed to be merely functional. They were looked on as the public face of the railroads; thus, the railroad magnates determined that they would be works of art.
“These buildings are magnificent architectural landmarks,” says Rail Sciences’ Wolf. “They would bring in the best craftsmen from Europe. The railroads commissioned incredible works of art for their stations. It was almost a competition to see who could build the most beautiful train station.”
Omaha’s Union Station, for in-stance, features the largest half-dome rotunda in the Western Hemisphere, 105-foot-by-20-foot mosaic murals by German artist Winold Reiss, and beautiful fountains. In St. Louis, the locally based Terminal Railroad Association, which financed the station’s original construction, commissioned “Allegorical Window,” a stained glass work that is framed by the station’s “Whispering Arch.” (The arch is so named because of a distinct architectural design that allows a person to stand on one side of the arch, talk into the wall and be heard by someone standing at the arch’s other end.) Most renovators attempt to keep stations’ architectural details intact. The St. Louis Hyatt, for example, features not only Allegorical Window and Whispering Arch, but also Union Station’s Grand Hall, a 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with gold leaf that spans the building’s lobby and lounge. Because of its structural beauty, most of the station’s original interior has been carefully preserved. For instance, the hotel’s restaurant, the Station Grille, was once a Fred Harvey restaurant.
(A digression: According to the book, “The History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe,” Harvey, a genteel Englishman, made his fortune creating nice restaurants at train stations and alongside depots. Prior to Harvey’s efforts, passengers had no choice but to make do with trackside greasy spoons. Those roadside diners, the story goes, would serve the passengers, and moments later, the “All aboard” would sound.
The passengers would leave half-eaten meals that the diners then tossed back into pots for the later enjoyment of the passengers on the next train. For their cooperation, engineers would get a nickel a meal from the diners.)
>From sleepers to hotels Train stations can be converted to a number of uses, but hotels seem to be particularly popular ones. That is partly because the huge open spaces that are anathema to most commercial owners are favored for hotel lobbies and ballrooms. In fact, the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., represents one of the nation’s first adaptive reuse projects.
The centerpiece of a 1970s revitalization campaign, the Choo Choo features shopping, restaurants and Pullman sleeper cars that guests can rent for the night. It is one of the South’s most popular tourist destinations.
Scranton, Pa., also transformed its French Renaissance Lackawanna Station into a hotel. The station, now the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel, was the linchpin of Scranton’s downtown revitalization program.
Opened in 1908 and closed in 1970, the station was purchased by MetroAction, a Chamber of Commerce corporation that concentrated on downtown development. Using the financial theories that helped convert Scranton’s mining-based economy to a manufacturing-based one, MetroAction began looking into reuse alternatives. Ultimately, the Erie-Lackawanna Restoration Associates, a group of private investors, began the restoration with the support of a financial package involving federal, state and local funds, as well private money donated by businesses and local banks. The station/hotel, renovated for $13 million, reopened on New Year’s Eve in 1983.
Like St. Louis’ station, the Lackawanna Station was notable for its artwork and its design. The two-and-a-half story waiting room featured a barrel-vaulted, leaded glass ceiling, Sienna marble walls and washboards of Alpine green marble. A series of faience panels modeled after the paintings of American artist Clark Greenwood Voorhees, depicts scenes along the railroad’s Hoboken-to-Buffalo route.
Other uses Hotels, museums, malls and banks are fine examples of reuse, but train stations also provide some of the nation’s most impressive municipal office space. Pueblo, Colo.’s once-derelict station, renowned for its beautiful woodwork, now houses the city administration. So does Collierville, Tenn.’s old station, which still features dining cars that locals can rent for special functions.
Louisville, Ky., won a Design for Transportation award from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Endowment for the Arts for the transformation of its station into offices for the Transit Authority of River City. At a cost that was about three-quarters that of a new facility, the authority restored the station, meticulously matching the missing pieces of marble wainscot panels, cleaning stained glass and ceramic tile, and restoring red oak staircases and paneled walls. Most of those aesthetically appealing details would be unaffordable in modern construction.
Renovation and restoration projects involving train stations are as varied as the stations themselves. Cities are capitalizing on the old buildings not just for their intrinsic value but for the boost they provide their communities. “These places are deeply rooted in the American experience,” McGonigal says. “That’s why there is so much support for saving them.”
The National League of Cities, Washington, D.C., has released “Major Factors Affecting America’s Cities,” a report focusing on six elements that significantly affect local governments.
The 32-page report, part of NLC’s Municipalities in Transition project, is based on interviews with 70 leaders from 27 cities. When asked what factors have most significant effects on their cities, respondents most commonly mentioned the following topics.
The new economy. Today’s economy is information-based and service-oriented. Types of jobs (manual labor vs. skilled labor) have changed, as well as wage levels, forcing some workers to relocate. For example, in Great Falls, Mont., manufacturing plants and military bases have closed, removing a strong, blue-collar employment base and replacing it with new jobs (at lower wages) in retail, tourism and other services.
Limited revenue capacity. Cities are finding themselves with just one or two revenue sources, forcing residents to pay higher property taxes to support city services. Many city leaders also complain about dwindling federal and state fiscal support. The movement of people and businesses. When people and businesses move out of a city, they leave it with fewer economic and social resources, limiting its ability to maintain programs and services. When people and businesses move into a city, the city usually will enjoy an economic surge.
New residents may also bring a need for expanded services in new suburban areas. For example, Charlotte, N.C., recently has experienced an influx of new residents from diverse ethnic groups and is dealing with new challenges in providing services. Police, local hospitals and 911 services have had to develop new language capabilities to assist those residents.
Suburbanization and sprawl. City officials now see the suburbs as residential and business destinations. While most of them accept sprawl as a fact of life, they are struggling to control it. In Rochester, N.Y., as in many other cities, federal and state policies regarding highway spending and land use have made it easy for residents and businesses to move out of the city to areas where land and infrastructure are cheaper. The population has dropped from 350,000 in the 1950s to about 250,000 in 1990, leaving the city with an abundance of vacant houses with little market value. The houses have become targets for drug users and vandals, reinforcing the stereotype that suburbs have safer neighborhoods with newer homes and better schools.
Education. City officials see quality schools as a key factor in attracting and retaining people and businesses. Education also is a critical workforce issue because, without quality education, residents will not have the skills or knowledge necessary to fill jobs in the new economy.
Maintaining an educated workforce is key to Boston’s economic climate. As the city attracts new residents of differing ethnic backgrounds, curricula become difficult to standardize. And, with so many students coming to Boston from out of state to attend its large number of colleges, the city has to work extra hard to make sure that its students can compete for college admission and for jobs.
Changing city government roles and relationships. Many city officials report a decline in the level of trust people have in the city and its elected leaders. When people are distrustful of city officials, it is difficult to rally support for critical issues. The report is available from NLC (www.nlc.org), 1301 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC 20004; (202) 626-3000.
Five years ago, officials in Sharon, Mass., developed a plan for revitalizing Post Office Square, situated at the town’s center. But they never expected the problems caused by complex design and funding demands. By taking advantage of enhancement programs and by patiently waiting through the approval process, town officials are seeing their vision become a reality.
Post Office Square was once a thriving commercial area, but it had fallen into disrepair in recent years.
The nearby streets were littered with vacant stores, road and sidewalk conditions were deteriorating, and traffic controls were antiquated.
In 1994, Sharon’s Board of Selectmen organized the Post Office Square Revitalization Committee, consisting of members of the Sharon Historical Society, local business owners, planning and engineering consultants, government officials and residents. The group would work with the town administrator, the planning board and the public works department to develop a plan for restoring economic vitality to the once-vibrant town center. With the help of VHB/Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Watertown, Mass., Larry Koff Associates, Brookline, Mass., and SAR Engineering, Quincy, Mass., the committee recommended: * roadway upgrades; * expanded off-street parking; and * streetscape improvements, including brick sidewalks, ornamental light fixtures, decorative traffic signal posts, enhanced crosswalks, sitting areas, benches, new street furniture and trees.
Funding all the improvements presented a challenge. In 1995, the town had obtained funding from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) and the Massachusetts Highway Department to rehabilitate 5 miles of Main Street, which included Post Office Square. It also had received a Strategic Planning Grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Communities and Development. But the funds were not sufficient for the streetscape improvement plan.
The group prepared an application to solicit funds through ISTEA’s Transportation Enhancement Program. In order for the project to be eligible for the grant, it had to meet three basic criteria: * It needed at least one direct relationship to an intermodal transportation system; * It had to qualify as “over and above” a normal transportation project; and * It had to fall into one or more of 10 “eligible enhancement” categories. Those categories included provisions for pedestrian and bicycle facilities; landscaping and other scenic beautification; historic preservation; and rehabilitation of historic transportation buildings, structures or facilities.
In February 1998, the project committee submitted the Transportation Enhancement Funding Application to MAPC, and, by February 1999, $500,000 was approved. Construction is under way, and the project is expected to be completed in 2001.
“When we started this project, few Sharon residents believed it was possible to revitalize Post Office Square,” says Philip Kopel, chairman of the Revitalization Committee. “But as a result of the anticipated improvements, developers have purchased and are in the process of renovating existing buildings in the square, and there is a new interest in doing business intown. I predict that in a couple of years the square will be enjoying quite a renaissance.”
For the past several years, as Hollywood, Calif.’s most famous citizens have been granted “stars” on the Walk of Fame and attended premieres at Mann’s Chinese Theatre, the city has done its best to mask the grit and grime on one of the nation’s most famous streets. Unbeknownst to most moviegoers and star-watchers who live outside Los Angeles, Hollywood Boulevard is packed with tiny camera-supply shops, souvenir displays and tourist buses. Thanks to the movie “Pretty Woman,” most people also know Hollywood Boulevard to be a prime nighttime location for prostitutes. In addition, many of the famous footprints and handprints in the concrete outside Mann’s are littered with cigarette butts and surrounded by overflowing trash bins.
“Hollywood has never been as glamorous as it’s been portrayed,” says Leron Gubler, president and CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. But that is all about to change.
Last fall, city officials broke ground on a $385 million public-private project to rejuvenate Hollywood and bring glamour back to the star-studded city. Los Angeles has contributed $90 million toward the project, and private firms, including Toronto-based TrizecHahn Development, have invested $295 million.
The cornerstone of the project, which focuses on Hollywood and Highland boulevards, is a new, 3,300-seat theater that will serve as the permanent home for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards presentation – the Oscars. The yet-unnamed theater, designed by New York-based Rockwell Group, will be used for the Oscars beginning in 2001 with the 73rd Academy Awards.
Surrounding the theater will be an “arrivals” area with a specially designed entry framing the famous “Hollywood” sign; a string of high-fashion shops, nightclubs and restaurants; a ballroom for the post-awards show Governors Ball and other events; a movie theater; a 415-room hotel; a parking structure with 3,000 parking spots; and a “Grand Staircase” in the center of the retail area.
The 460,000-square-foot retail area, which is scheduled for completion by February 2001, targets residents and tourists, Gubler says. “They will be coming to Hollywood like they have not in 30 years,” he predicts.
“Both local residents and tourists want to come somewhere that is clean and feels safe,” says Los Angeles Councilmember Jackie Goldberg. “Currently, there isn’t enough for tourists to do in Hollywood. We need more to attract locals and tourists – and keep them in Hollywood for more than 20 minutes.”
Part of the appeal of the Hollywood retail center comes from the fact that tenants will be required to create a look that will be unique to the Hollywood location, Gubler says. For example, if the Gap were a tenant, it could not look exactly like every other Gap in the nation. Other tenants will be exclusive to the Hollywood & Highland project.
While individuals have attempted (and failed) in recent years to revive Hollywood, Gubler says he is confident that the Hollywood & Highland project will be a success because of the joint effort by multiple retailers. “We’re in a different time and in different circumstances now. All the businesses will help each other,” he says.
Development by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will further aid the success of Hollywood & Highland. There will be six new subway stations in Hollywood, including one at Hollywood & Highland. The stations, which are scheduled to open this month, will link Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue with downtown Los Angeles, Wilshire Center, Los Angeles International Airport and dozens of points in between.
The stations will help transform Hollywood into a walking community and will cut down on bus and car traffic, Gubler says. Although the new parking structure will aid visitors who wish to drive, the new stations will allow them to choose their transportation, he adds. Currently, there is limited parking.
Each station also will have a unique look, Gubler says. For example, the Hollywood & Vine station will have old film reels incorporated in the ceiling. “It will be a tourist destination in itself,” he says.
Once Hollywood is again bustling with tourists, residents and celebrities, Gubler says that city officials plan to keep them there by maintaining the area. That will be accomplished through the Hollywood Entertainment District, a business improvement district with a $2 million budget to hire cleaning crews and other maintenance personnel. “We now have the opportunity to craft that glamorous image,” Gubler says. “This project will be of the scope and scale that is appropriate for Hollywood. We want to match reality to people’s expectations of Hollywood.”
For decades, department stores were the traditional and undisputed anchors of America’s downtowns. However, in recent years, downtown department stores have either struggled to draw patrons or have disappeared completely. That has left city leaders looking for alternative anchors to draw people back to city centers.
In that search, it is important for city leaders to consider several points. First, leaders need to make sure the new anchors appeal to those in the marketplace. They should consider the downtown trade area’s demographics, including residents’ ages, to determine the patronage potential anchors can anticipate.
Second, it is critical that city officials realize that downtown anchors should be unconventional enough to entice people to travel to them because they cannot find anything quite like them anywhere else. In addition, the anchor must be promoted through ads, brochures and stories in the news to make residents and visitors aware of it. Lastly, it must be remembered that no two downtowns are exactly alike. The market served by each downtown has its own distinctive characteristics, and anchors must be tailored to each market’s personality.
Creative and successful anchors are operating in America’s downtowns. For example, the Old Mill in Ortonville, Mich., functions as the community’s museum and draws visitors and locals. “The Old Mill is a vivid reminder of our past as an agricultural village,” says Ortonville Village Manager Pete Auger. “Celebrating our past is helping us to better define our future downtown.”
Additionally, a former school building in downtown Merriam, Kan., has been converted into the city’s community center. According to Mayor Irene French, the community center has provided a focal point. “It helped create a new downtown partnership and a whole new enhancement program that embraces all of downtown Merriam,” she says. Some downtown anchors might be perceived as ordinary in other cities. In Richland, Wash., for example, the Hampton Inn, located at the edge of the Columbia River in a city park, draws business travelers and tourists to the heart of the city. And the main branch of the public library in downtown Burien, Wash., has enough patrons to warrant long hours – it stays open until midnight on Friday nights.
Specialty retail stores often can act as strong downtown anchors. For example, Fetch, a bakery and boutique for dogs has opened in Old Town Alexandria, Va.; customers at Hot Pots in Medford, Ore., can paint their own pottery; and residents of Cedar City, Utah, can enjoy the old-fashioned soda fountain at Bulloch Drug.
A downtown anchor can encompass almost any type of use, as long as it appeals to potential patrons and is well-publicized. The anchor serves as a hook to draw people downtown and then encourages them to stay or return to enjoy additional businesses and attractions.
This article was written by Dolores Palma and Doyle Hyett, founders of HyettPalma, an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firm.