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A Travel Palace

Washington, D.C.’s train station is just that — and also a model for all cities.

by Paul Gerald

Close your eyes and imagine a train station. Do you see men with fedoras waving from the steps and women running along beside the train, blowing kisses? That’s a movie. Do you see a run-down pit of a place that you’re scared to enter, day or night? That’s Central Station, before the city started spending $20 million on it.


Do you see lots of trains and shops and restaurants and people hustling and bustling? That’s what city planners are hoping Central Station will become. It’s also exactly what Union Station in Washington, D.C., is right now. It isn’t just the best train station in America; it’s a palace of public transportation.

I pulled in there not long ago on an Amtrak trip from New York to Chicago, and since I had a layover of several hours, I decided to walk around. The station is just a 10-minute walk from the Capitol, so I went up there first and looked out over the Mall, past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Looking beyond the marble monoliths on both sides of the Mall — the Smithsonian building, the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives — I thought a hundred fortunes must have been made in the D.C. construction industry.

Just to prove that the world is a small place, while standing on the steps of the Capitol I took some abuse from a Mississippi State football fan, proud of the whipping his Bulldogs put on my Ole Miss Rebels this year. I told him, “Wait ’til next year,” then continued my stroll.

You could easily spend such a layover just in Union Station. It was built in 1907 as another of those marble monoliths — arched ceilings over a massive lobby and wrought-iron railings on the spiral staircases give the whole place a grand feel. It was closed from 1974 to 1989, when it reopened after a multimillion-dollar renovation that put it back in its original condition.

It is a model for all cities that want to renovate their old train stations. There are now 108 shops in Union Station, including dozens of food stalls and eight full-service restaurants. I saw everything from McDonald’s to places with white tablecloths and waiters with towels over their arms. Back in the corner of the food court, between the Greek place and the Japanese place, I scored a tremendous Jamaican Jerked Chicken. Right around the corner they make a fresh-squeezed lemonade to kill or die for.

There were coffee shops, a bakery, two ice-cream parlors, a frozen-yogurt stand, a jewelry store, a Godiva store, rental-car stands, sightseeing tours, Ann Taylor, an eight-screen movie theatre, and a newsstand with more newspapers than you ever realized existed. I saw in the Addis Abbiba Tribune that the Ethiopians were celebrating the 103rd anniversary of the victorious Battle of Adwa. That news probably failed to reach Memphis.

Central Station, for many reasons, will never be Union Station. Size of station and city population are the primary factors, of course. But there are also 117 arrivals and departures in Union Station every day. In the Northeast corridor, Amtrak is actually a viable means of transportation, rather than the middle-of-the-night service it is in Memphis.

Union Station is also an intermodal hub — that’s city-planner talk for a place with city buses, subways, and regional light rail, in addition to intercity rail service. It’s also a mall and even a tourist attraction. Whether Central Station adds up to all that remains to be seen, of course.

But in the meantime, if you ever want to see a really serious and beautiful train station, you don’t have to close your eyes. Next time you’re in D.C., just go check out the one at the base of Capitol Hill.

Here Abouts

Memphis’ own, smaller version of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station should be ready for occupancy by November, a MATA official says.

Tom Fox, MATA’s director of planning and capital projects, says leasing for Central Station’s 14,000 square feet of commercial space and 63 apartments will begin in earnest late this summer.

“We think [leasable space] will go quickly,” Fox says. “Right now we’re concentrating on the construction aspect, so we can get a model apartment together and show people what they’re getting.”

Central Station is a $23 million project. Eighteen million of those dollars are public (80 percent federal, 10 percent city, 10 percent state), and the rest is coming from a Wisconsin-based private developer who is managing construction and leasing.

Plans for the lower floors call for commercial storefronts on the Main and Calhoun sides, a main lobby that Fox says will house exhibitions and other public uses, a new Amtrak ticket office, and a police precinct. The third floor on up — as well as the old REA Package Express building south of Central Station on Main Street — will be residential.

“Rents should be in the range of the market for South Main,” Fox said. “We’re looking at about $600 to $850.”

One other building, the powerhouse with the smokestack on Calhoun, is also being restored for retail space.

“We’ve had plenty of inquiries [about leasing]; we just haven’t focused on drawing up leases and negotiating yet,” Fox says.

Fox says that Union Station in Washington is “the model that people look at. They had 10 times as much money to work with as we did, but that’s the idea, to combine intercity transportation with local transportation with some other retail and commercial uses. Our feeling was that there’s a strong residential market in the South Main neighborhood, and having apartments there would be another thing that would bring activity into the building.” — P.G.