Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Penn Station: A huge opportunity not yet captured

The former University of Baltimore moot court room was packed by Baltimoreans curious about what's next with the Penn Station redevelopment plans which have inched forward at a snail's pace.
Amtrak Vice President DJ Stadtler assured the audience that he cares about Baltimore. He even proposed to his wife here, he said. Thirty years ago. Almost as far back reaches Amtrak’s attempt to do something with its Baltimore station, after all it is the one of the busiest stations in the nation.
Station redevelopment massing diagram:
Overpowering height as a backdrop (source: Amtrak/Beatty)

Over a year ago, and after Amtrak had selected a development team in 2017, the first public workshop had been conducted. Now expectations were high to see the progress. But from what was presented, not much design work has happened since 2017 in spite of the high caliber team including Gensler Architects and a British firm specializing in modernizing stations. The development team leaders Tim Pula of Beatty Development and William Struever of Cross Street Partners heaped praise on Amtrak which is spending a $90 million chunk of its $2 billion Northeast corridor budget on Baltimore for additional platforms and to rehabilitate old ones. Amtrak wants to be ready for the moment when in 2022 the new Acela fleet will roll out.

Bill Struever enumerated everything that is great in Baltimore (including that it has many more trains than Denver) and the progress that has been made along the Amtrak corridor east of Penn Station. He emphasized how much Baltimore can benefit from the Amtrak Northeast corridor with its planned high speed trains leaving every 30 minutes to Philadelphia, New York and Washington. (Currently all trains stop in Baltimore). All very true, but woefully underfunded. Some Baltimore leaders and the governor, instead of focusing on the Amtrak projects, wax poetic about impractical projects like MagLev or even Hyperloop. Meanwhile, there is no money for the replacement of the age old B&P tunnel south of Penn station). Struever cited a $400-600 million funding shortfall for the station area vision plan alone. Surely, such an important node deserves to be the "mother of all transit oriented developments (TOD). But the vision as presented was far from being that impressive. The limited ambition could be the result of the lack of funding, but it can also be its cause.
First in line: Much needed Amtrak platform improvements
(Photo: Philipsen)

The vision plan includes a few nice things: it creates a new north-south connection from Lanvale Street to the area south of the station, an added concourse and a several  new buildings on currently derelict lots, especially, the current surface parking lot along Lanvale Street.
I agree that Denver’s Union Station is a good model for the re-use of our station, and I love the idea of building a new headhouse on the north side of tracks and extending the existing over-the-tracks concourse to meet it.  I even agree that high-intensity development on Amtrak’s various sites would be a good thing.  I would of course have been happier if they’d made it all dependent on my own pet ideas - converting Charles and St. Paul Streets to two-way flow, or building a subway line from Penn Station to Charles Center Station (Charlie Duff, President Jubilee, a Station North stakeholder)
But the plan is limited to the Amtrak property along the tracks and the relationships to Station North. All the universities and colleges, and strong players in the area mentioned by Bill Struever remain only an aspiration, since none of them contributed to the masterplan or were integrated to expand the plan's limited scope.

The team mentioned Union Station in Denver a lot, a station that has only one single Amtrak train a day but has managed to spawn a huge amount of redevelopment around its refurbished station and to redefine the entire city.

In fact, the Penn Station team gets it backwards when they refer to Denver: There the development in the surrounding area was the cake and the train station refurbishment was just the frosting, understandably so, with one lone intercity train a day serving Denver. Lacking significant train travel, the beautiful and large Denver station has become a kind of historic food hall with some adjunct train functions. By contrast,  the smaller Baltimore station is already bursting at the seams from current ridership. Amtrak predicts to double its passenger numbers. Baltimore’s station needs to be a functional transportation hub, not a food hall or mall. As in Denver, the emphasis should be on area redevelopment.
The platform and track area behind PennStation with the
waiting area across the tracks (Photo: Amtrak/Beatty)

Denver's real lesson is that a sound masterplan succeed because everyone in a large partnership consisting of the City of Denver, Amtrak, the transit agency RTD and a development team, committed and stuck to it to for over ten years, no matter the headwinds.

Strategic investments systematically opened up the station area to become a giant transit oriented development. One of the first infrastructure improvements was an iconic pedestrian bridge over freight tracks connecting a previously cut-off area for new development. The new footbridge became the optimistic symbol of the redevelopment that was linked to massive public infrastructure such as the relocation of an underground bus hub, a new light rail train station, two new commuter lines, a large iconic tent structure covering the tracks  and finally the historic rehabilitation of the station itself with all its coffee shops, ice cream parlors and restaurants.
“I am a little disappointed in this design, especially with the extensive curbside drop off zones surrounding the station. I am afraid that the design not only fails to accommodate present and future bicycle traffic, but may also jeopardize existing bike infrastructure in the neighborhood. These folks need to visit Western Europe or East Asia to see what a real multi-modal rail station looks like. Greg Hinchliffe, bicycle advocate.
The "vision plan" presented on Tuesday includes neither massive public infrastructure investments nor a partnership and the associated large TOD initiatives nor any iconic structure that would set a signal. Team member Struever himself complained that State and City were mostly absent in the planning and have no money in the plan.

As a result, the vision is geographically shortsighted, constrained  to the narrow strip of  Amtrak right of way instead of casting the net far and wide as Denver did, redefining the entire center city in the process. Denver's strongest aspect is how the various modes of transport from bus and light rail to commuter rail and intercity trains come together in one place and how this intermodal hub is embedded in dense development where there was wasteland before. Baltimore has all those transportation modes as well, but the "intermodal" aspect is actually the vision plan's weakest point. 
Connections diagram  (source: Amtrak/Beatty)

Aside from the noted platform improvements, no transportation improvements are envisioned at all. The light rail link still consists of the barely used orphan spur, buses are still relegated to regular bus stops along the curb, the intercity Bolt bus stop isn't even shown at all. It is unclear where taxis would line up since traffic has been banned from the front of the station and the much touted rideshare services (TNCs) get only a token curb space on Lanvale Street, the stations new north access. The plan assumes that other uses on its own property somehow will make transportation more attractive, a fairly unsupported assumption. The concept plan doesn’t realign a single street or walkway notr does it create additional space for taxis, buses and pick ups, for example by covering more of the sunken track or JFX area. Sure, such moves would cost more money, but they also would make for a much more exciting and functional project, potentially attracting funds.

Most troubling is that the plan doesn’t work well even in its core focus area, the station and adjacent Amtrak property. For example, the quite pleasant but at times already crowded historic waiting area above the tracks. In the new scheme it becomes a connector between the great old station hall and a second train hall on the north side shown as a glass box. It isn't clear how the bridge area can be a connector and a waiting room at the same time without being widened, something that would destroy its historic exterior and interior. It is here where passengers queue up with their luggage before they are let onto the platforms to board their trains. For example the front plaza. Disliked by many for its sculpture and the occasional traffic chaos and almost unlimited car movements that make walking hard, it is still simple in terms of orientation. No question where the door is, where to get a taxi or where to be dropped off. With its additional entrances, clarity of access and movement will be diminished in the suggested plan, especially since all taxis and drop off and pick up have been banned from the front, leaving those functions far less resolved than they are today,  even if the front Plaza is frequently hopelessly congested, which is actually quite expected at a central station in a big city.
Diagram of intermodal connections (source: Amtrak/Beatty)

One can only hope that the design team sits down with MTA, the City, the taxi companies and TNCs (Uber, Lyft etc.) as well as the area’s stakeholders to hash out what space is needed for all the transportation functions and what additional space can be created to allow spacious bus and taxi functions.

Tim Pula of Beatty Development pointed out correctly that TOD needs density. But the suggested solution of the two massive chunky buildings towering over the smallish Beaux Art station and burying the new Nelson Cole apartments on the north side of Lanvale are not a convincing design yet. 

Improving circulation would certainly reduce the space the team has envisioned for income producing uses, at least on the ground floor, but a train station has to function foremost for transportation, not for retail. Amtrak’s Union Station in DC has been cluttered with retail to the detriment of riders. But the recently added bus transit center and a nice bike facility present the right idea of  integrating other modes. 
Development block plan (source: Amtrak/Beatty)

Even more importantly, the State and the City have to realize how vital this project is for Baltimore. They must come to the table with their own planning teams and concepts for economic development and intermodal connections. It is unconscionable to leave all the sins of current conditions such as the dead-end Oliver Street, the dangerous anti-urban I-83 on and off ramps and the sad state of Lanvale Street west of Charles Street untouched. Baltimore has a huge opportunity of playing a strong role along the Northeast rail corridor. The proposed vision falls short of tapping into itt, even if it would be funded which it isn't.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The full presentation and a survey (until 8/30) can be found here

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