Cities across the country are aware that revitalizing downtowns and urban areas is a viable way to boost local economies and protect property values. As some have already seen and others are likely to learn over the next few decades, successful revitalization requires a focus on historic elements and public transportation. Cities everywhere continue to understand the economic importance of and benefits to creating transit linkages between historic downtowns and surrounding historic neighborhoods.

Los Angeles is currently trying to address this issue. In December, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) and the City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning brought in an Urban Land Institute (ULI) advisory services panel to offer recommendations and alternatives for the city’s Union Station site. 

The panel was asked to provide strategic advice on how the city can create better links between the site and the greater downtown area. Specifically, the panelists were tasked with answering questions about how to fully develop the area’s distinct ethnic identity and how transit and other infrastructure improvements will influence the market potential of the surrounding area. Metro wanted to know how redevelopment of Union Station could strengthen activities in Chinatown and Little Tokyo, on Olvera Street, and along the Los Angeles River. In addition, the panel’s sponsors wanted advice on how to better connect the area north of the 101 Freeway to the Civic Center neighborhood and central city. 

Union Station—which encompasses more than 40 acres (16.2 ha) and is entitled for a remaining 5.9 million square feet (548,700 sq m) of office, retail, entertainment, and residential development—currently serves as the region’s primary center of transportation. How the city decides to redevelop the Union Station area is critical to the long-term economic and transportation goals of Los Angeles and the entire southern California region. If the state’s plans for a high-speed rail system are realized, its railways will stop at Union Station, heightening the importance of the area’s soon-to-be-adjacent properties to helping the city achieve the goals of its overall development master plan.

“Los Angeles is committed to the potential of transit and to creating civic destinations around a new world-class transportation system that places Union Station as its iconic centerpiece,” said Charles Kendrick, managing director of Clarion Ventures LLC in Boston. “The panel’s recommendations will help the city rethink how transit nourishes the places where people live and play. As Los Angeles embarks on building the largest, most comprehensive transit system in the country, reconsidering factors such as density and integration into the surrounding neighborhoods will determine how Union Station becomes a new heart and center for the city.”

What the panel recommended was the possibility of turning the historic station into a cultural and transit-oriented hub. As reported by The Source, other suggestions included working to attract high-rise commercial development, since employment centers often drive higher transit ridership numbers; improving the pedestrian experience in the surrounding areas; developing a unique experience for tourists by creating a coherent connection between the nearby neighborhoods; and moving the bus maintenance facilities and county jails to another location. 

In addition to the recommendations, several of the panelists discussed the potential for the area to become downtown’s “next South Park”—an area of downtown Los Angeles that experienced a surge in retail and entertainment development. The eight panelists also advised Metro on the possibility of developing retail space above the L.A. Mall and developing the surface parking lots that are positioned between Union Station and Hill Street. 

Across the country, historic rail stations and their surrounding communities are once again becoming dynamic places for transportation and tourism as well as engines for economic growth. The renewed popularity of these historic sites will require decisions that will all need elements of historic preservation and transit in order to help ensure effective revitalization. Government officials will need to work across agencies and look beyond simple station redevelopment, mending disconnects to the cultural and social needs of the surrounding neighborhoods in order to make their cities 21st-century magnets for economic prosperity.