Wednesday, August 10, 2016

New hope for Amtrak TOD at Penn Station

Maybe this time is the charm: Another request for development of the Amtrak sites around Baltimore's Penn Station, an area that has had its share of starts and stops with little to show for in the last fifteen or so years. What was done is cleaned station facade, new train announcement panels, the plaza with the much hated he/she sculpture, an emergency generator, new lighting and improved bathrooms which received the seal of approval from Congressman Cummings at today's press conference held by Amtrak. But the upstairs rooms still stand empty, and the large parking lot along Lanvale is still just that, a surface parking lot.
Congressman Cummings in Penn Station today
(photo Philipsen)

In a press conference in the station hall today Amtrak's Senior Director of Major Stations and Development, Rina Cutler, said that the purpose of a new Request for Qualifications to come out this month  is to transform existing assets into revenue producing assets, to produce stronger communities and is part of a nationwide initiative across Amtrak's entire portfolio. "Design matters, community matters, money matters", she said, "to bring the city to the station and the station to the city". 
"Today we announce the official solicitation for a master developer.  This will be a game changer", Cutler explained.  The Request for Qualifications follows (RFQ) a Request For Information which had been published in January of this year to solicit interest in the project. Finally, in late fall there will be a Request For Proposals (RFP) among those shortlisted later in the fall of 2016. 

Cutler described Baltimore's  station as one with challenges. Infrastructure matters, she said and praised the ongoing work of valued partners in community and state, UB is one of them. "The object of planning is action, not plans. Let's get on with it."  
One can hope Rina Cutler, previously known for her innovative transportation work in Philadelphia, really means it. Baltimore can't wait. 

That was also underscored by Ellen Janes of the Central Baltimore Partnership and by District 7 Congressman Elijah Cummings. 
Baltimore's Penn Station, an yet to be tapped asset (photo Philipsen)
Janes sees three exceptional possibilities, a center with vitality that is a destination, a proud gateway to Baltimore and an opportunity for entrepreneurs and young workers. 

Elijah Cummings, Congressman of the 7th district and senior member on the house committee on transportation and infrastructure told reporters that "I make it my business once or twice a week just to check the bathrooms". They are doing a good job there, he determined. He said that "enormous potential was untapped for too long....For years I have worked with stakeholders to jumpstart this area." Basic improvements on bathrooms, facade, signage and facade have been made but they were modest. Amtrak doesn't have the resources to do it all. "It needs a partner". He then pivoted to a recurring theme he strikes when speaking about development: "Baltimore is going to be fine. We attract Millennials and we attract corporations. The question is will all of Baltimore rise together?" 
He then thanked various parties for their collaboration and noted especially the Central Baltimore Partnership and the Greater Baltimore Committee's Don Fry.

Upon being asked specifically about previous planning efforts, Rina Cutler stated "There never has been a Masterplan, there have been pieces. This is a very different process than before, we never had a formal design or financial commitments."
Development parcels and ownerships at Penn Station
(Photo: Philipsen)

The last team to work on a planning concept for the lots around the station included Beatty Development and architects Ayers Saint Gross. That team had exclusive negotiation rights and identified several additional development parcels initially not in Amtrak's focus as potential development sites. Beatty's 2013 proposal included 1.5 million square feet of new residential and commercial space, a $500 million TOD. Then suggested new construction included apartments on the Lanvale Street parking lot and office buildings to be constructed over Amtrak’s air rights between St Paul and Calvert Streets and between Charles Street and Maryland Avenue. Beatty back then said about designing a gateway: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression". Adam Gross also included suggestions for linear parks along the Amtrak line as they traverse Baltimore's dis-invested communities.

When I asked Rina Cutler about those previous plans, she said that Amtrak remains on good terms with Beatty and that likely the developer would submit in this round as well. However, she confirmed that none of the findings of the previous planning round will become the base for the coming round. The RFQ will be released shortly and be due six weeks after being issued. There will be a pre-proposal conference and a site tour as well as opportunities for Q&A. A shortlist of developers that made the cut and the RFP will be issued late this year if all goes by plan. 

The hope for transit oriented development (TOD) on Amtrak owned sites near stations is part of a nationwide "asset monetization" effort by Amtrak which includes similar initiatives in Chicago, DC, New York and Philadelphia, all going through the same three part proposal stages. Clearly, Amtrak doesn't have the money to keep its own facilities in good repair and is looking to leverage what real estate it owns towards a private public partnership (P3) that self funds facility improvements and the creation of attractive multi modal transportation hubs. One of the nation's larger P3 efforts involving a historic Amtrak station is in Denver where TOD around Denver's Union Station has created a flourishing new development area.

Except for Chicago, the station projects are part of  modernization of the Northeast Corridor, America's only viable high speed passenger rail corridor. As part of gradual improvements in rail service, Amtrak plans to double Acela premium service in the corridor by 2020. For that platforms in Baltimore's station will be reconfigured, upgraded and another track and platform added. There was talk about "bypass" facilities raising the prospect that not all future Acelas may stop in Baltimore. About 1 million passengers pass through Baltimore's station per year. This makes it one of the top performing stations in the Amtrak system. However, this is nothing by European rail station standards. In Stuttgart, Germany, same size as Baltimore, 1,280 trains and about a quarter million travelers use their main train station per day. 3.7 million rode the Baltimore Circulator last year. 


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

RFI announcement in January 2016
Amtrak Procurement Portal
2014 Amtrak Fact Sheet