LA’S UNION STATION REVITALIZATION EMPHASIZES MASS TRANSIT
BY STAS MARGARONIS, RBTUS
On August 1st, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) released preliminary concepts for revitalizing Union Station in downtown Los Angeles with modest and sweeping proposals that could have a far-reaching impact on transit and development for Los Angeles and Southern California.
Metro acquired the iconic Union Station in 2011 and plans to upgrade the historic station to attract more riders to its bus and subway systems and make it a major destination in Los Angeles.
It proposes to locate a new bus station to better coordinate bus to rail transfers, build a more spacious passenger concourse and site a new high speed rail station in anticipation of the completion of the California high speed rail system.
Through its Joint Development Program (JDP), Metro has been developing hotels, housing and commercial development around its subway stations. Plans for Union Station would expand this development scope.
The station was built in 1939 with an art deco Southwestern style which still resonates today. However, the interior of the station needs a makeover in the style of Union Station in Washington, DC where improvements to its interior include a spacious food court and high end shops and restaurants that retained the station’s historic design and made it a destination in the nation’s capital
Union Station Los Angeles serves Amtrak, the national rail system, Metrolink, the Southern California regional rail system and the LA Metro bus and subway system. However, accessing the various systems requires better directions within the station. For example, the Metrolink ticket machines are not well marked and resist taking credit cards. The Amtrak counter is easy to find, but the Metro subway is off to one side and using the ticketing machines can be a challenge. Current shops and fast food facilities detract from the high quality architecture and décor of Union Station.
In a September 18th update, Metro projects that rider trips will increase from 116,000 in 2013 to 190,000 in 2040. This is based on ridership increases of:
- 4% bus
- 69% Metrolink and Amtrak
- 47% Metro Gold Subway
- 36% Metro Red & Purple Subway
A New Mass-Transit Vision For Los Angeles
The Union Station revitalization is part of a broader rail and subway expansion championed by Arthur T. Leahy, Metro Chief Executive Officer who, with the support of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villlaraigosa, built up the Los Angeles subway system and now wants to build up Union Station: “Our goal will be to create a thriving, family-friendly transit destination that will effectively serve all of the burgeoning demands for transit as Metro works to dramatically increase transit options within L.A. County. Our efforts today will help make the new Union Station one of the premiere transit hubs in the country.”
Union Station Possibilities
In an interview, Calvin E. Hollis, executive officer at Countywide Planning told RBTUS of the next steps that Metro will take to revitalize Union Station: “We will look at two possibilities for the new bus station at Union Station. We will consider a north-south configuration behind the station and an east-west configuration parallel toCesar Chavez Avenue. The Metro Board will decide which configuration to adopt.”
Once the bus station location has been agreed upon by the Board, “then we will locate the new passenger concourse contingent to the new bus station.”
He said that there is currently an underground passageway for riders to access the trains. The new passenger concourse will expand that passageway and allow for better connectivity between the Metro subway, Amtrak trains and Metrolink regional rail.
The next step will be to decide where to locate the new high speed rail station and whether to locate it above or below ground. Currently there are four possibilities.
Hollis said that the idea of a plaza in front of Union Station is not realistic because it would require closing Alameda Street and “you can’t close Alameda”. Plans are for a pedestrian overpass to link the Union Station front entrance to the historic Olivera Street area located opposite Alameda Street.
Hollis said that planners are charged with four principles regarding the Union Station revival:
- Protect its historic heritage
- Maintain its iconic status
- Enhance multi-modal uses
- Enhance investment potential
Hollis said Metro is studying plans to extend the rail lines beyond their current location and create circular tracks around the station. The plan has five components:
- Western-most tracks will become “run-through” tracks
- In procurement for design, engineering, and supplemental environmental impact report
- Construction anticipated to start by 2017
- Will require raising all or a portion of the rail yard by 1 to 4 feet
- Should include planning for changes above and below the yard
These circular tracks will improve the current terminus or dead-end configuration and allow a train to arrive, and move around the station so that the departure process will be efficient. Hollis projects that this will increase the deployment of trains through the station by 40%.
Hollis says that Metro is working closely with Metrolink, but the regional carrier has problems that if solved could drive more passengers to Union Station. The service’s average weekday ridership was about 42,000 passengers in FY 2012 down from 47,000 in FY 2008 due to the economic downturn. The service has punctuality challenges, suffered under a cash flow problem and still cannot prevent deaths from accidents and suicides along its rail lines. Fortunately, new management at Metrolink is buying new locomotives, improving security, acquiring a better rail traffic control system and reforming its cash flow management. These improvements should reverse Metrolink’s downward slide.
Revenue for Metrolink comes from Southern California counties: Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura. Together, they compose the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA). LA’s Metro is a partner with Metrolink and has a major stake in the success of its regional service.
As baby boomers retire, some are moving from the suburbs to downtown areas likeLos Angeles and other cities. Retailers report major growth as money flows to rejuvenated downtown areas. The Union Station revitalization comes at a good time. Revitalizing Union Station should improve Metrolink ridership by attracting more people to Union Station.
One consideration that is not in Metro’s plan is to expand the Union Station strategy to improve other regional Metrolink stations so as to encourage more passengers to use Metrolink. This would help regional rail station hubs at Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties. It would also attract more passengers to Union Station. Instead of trying to get people out of their cars, Metro planners could market the success of Metro’s affordable housing with convenient pedestrian-oriented amenities near the subway stations. Less fuel consumption, lower car mileage and less pollution are additional attractions.
Metro Joint Development Program
The potential for new development deriving from Union Station depends on the scope of the revitalization plan. Housing and commercial development possibilities can be seen in the smaller scale developments Metro has already achieved on 2-3 acre sites around its new subway stations. Metro’s Joint Development Program (JDP) develops property it owns around the stations. Metro works with real estate developers to build condos, hotels, apartments, affordable housing and retail and commercial developments. These projects also expand facilities for Metro’s subway and bus services. On its website, Metro describes JDP’s mission : “Joint development is a real property asset development and management program designed to secure the most appropriate private and/or public sector development on Metro-owned property at and adjacent to transit stations and corridors.” The projects are designed “to reduce auto use and increase transit ridership by directly linking Metro’s transportation network with retail, commercial and housing opportunities, while enhancing the overall land use and economic development goals for the surrounding community.“
Two examples of completed JDP projects are:
1) Wilshire Western development along Metro’s Purple Line was a joint venture between KOAR Wilshire Western , LCC and Metro: “The $160 million “Solair Wilshire” project features a 22-story, contemporary glass-walled building that contains 186 for-sale residential units and a 40,000 square-foot retail plaza. The project also includes a large Metro bus layover facility. The 2.6-acre development is the second mixed-use project and the first high-rise development to be built for the Koreatown / WilshireCentercommunity along the Metro Purple Line.” http://www.metro.net/news/simple_pr/koar-l-metro-celebrate-grand-opening-solair-22-sto/
2)Hollywoodand Vine Project along the Metro Red Line features a 2.35 acre Apartments Development with 375 apartments of which 78 are affordable with 28,000 square feet of ground floor retail. It also includes a new bus layover facility. The second site is a hotel and condo complex on 2.30 acres with 300-room hotel, 143 condominiums and 30,000 square feet of ground floor for retail. Public amenities include an improved public plaza and second subway elevator plus new subway portal canopy, bus layover facility and bike room. The project was completed in 2009.