ULI Award for Excellence winner Union Station in Washington, D.C., is an iconic urban mixed-use center and one of the most visited, with about 32 million people passing through its vaulted arches each year. The Daniel Burnham–designed beaux-arts masterpiece is the most visited place in the District today, not only because it is a key transit hub for local and regional trains, but also because it offers great shops, restaurants, and public spaces in a format that many cities may wish to emulate. In a city with many grand public spaces, Union Station is one of the grandest, and it sits only five blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

This was not always the case

Union Station—nearly abandoned, structurally unsound, and considered an eyesore—suffered an ignominious and nearly fatal middle-age crisis in the 1960s, but was resurrected with great effort by many sources, including a little-known but influential ULI advisory services panel in 1981. Among the station’s many overlapping constituents, Amtrak had perhaps the most at stake and enlisted ULI and its panelists—Donald R. Riehl, Edmund N. Bacon, Warren Beck, Lance Burris, James Coker, Charles M. Kober, and Peter McGill—to take a hard look at what could be done to redesign the space.  

UStation_1_351 Union Station was resurrected with great effort by many sorces, including a little-known but influential ULI advisory services pane in 1981. 

Union Station is a cornerstone of Washington history, though it was not named to the National Register of Historic Places until 1969. The station opened its doors in 1907, and at its height during World War II, some 200,000 people passed through it on peak days. The building contains 349,000 square feet (32,400 sq m) of space, including an 85,500-square-foot (7,800-sq-m) grand concourse. For most of its early existence, Union Station served as a nexus of service for an array of lines, including the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad, and Southern Railway. As American railroad travel declined in the years after World War II, Union Station fell into financial and physical disrepair, losing much of its former glory.

In 1967, the chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission expressed interest in using Union Station as a visitor center during the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations. A six-year funding effort led to reconstruction that was to encompass renovations, including a much-needed parking garage, and a slide show presenting the historic sites and attractions of Washington—this despite the fact that the real sites were right outside the door. The reconstruction project was completed except for a half-finished parking garage, and opening ceremonies were held on the bicentennial Independence Day in 1976.

Because of a lack of publicity and convenient parking, the National Visitor Center was never very popular and could not attract enough people to sustain its operating costs. By the late 1970s, Union Station had fallen into such a state of seediness that some in Congress were advocating tearing it down. The visitor center closed in 1978 following a 1977 General Accounting Office report citing danger of imminent structural collapse. The ULI panel that convened four years later did not mince words: “The general opinion [is] that Union Station’s current situation is an embarrassment to the nation, to the federal government, and to Washington, D.C.”

But Union Station did not succumb to the wrecker’s ball as many feared. The dire situation awakened citizens groups, public and private constituents, and even Congress, which, with its budgeting and oversight responsibilities, had been part of the problem.

The advisory services panel was given the task of taking a hard look at Union Station to “determine whether or not viable commercial space could even be developed within the complex,” and “the types of commercial development and the steps required to realize such development.”

To crystallize the challenge ahead, the panel got everyone’s attention with its top conclusion—that “due to limitations and constraints,” Union Station was not viable for commercial/retail activity and only could be if Congress and the key jurisdictions considered extreme measures. The first of these measures was to cede control of the structure to a single agency that would open the door to public/private partnerships and commercial activity.

Other key recommendations of the panel included the following: 

    – Recognition that the building is a valuable, national architectural landmark worthy of preservation and enhancement; 
    – Establishment of a single oversight committee responsible for the facility, rather than the hodgepodge of agencies that had stymied good decision making; 
    – Adequate funding by the federal government —namely Congress—for basic improvements in the parking, roof, and other infrastructure; and 
    – Establishment of proper leases and occupancy agreements for current and future retail businesses, and cooperation among all interested parties.

Other recommendations included extending existing train tracks to the concourse to shorten walking distances to the trains and accommodate future service, and a restructuring of the National Visitor Center to free up space for commercial use. (The center eventually moved out of the station entirely.)

With these adjustments implemented, the panel said, 100,000 square feet (9,300 sq m) of space could be created for ground-floor retail space crucial to making Union Station a viable commercial project.

Long-range planning goals included offering developers air rights over the tracks to accommodate development such as offices, hotels, and retail space, and bringing in more Metro subway lines and car rental companies to allow people to use the station not only as a destination, but also as a link to other parts of Washington and the surrounding suburbs.

“In conclusion, the panel feels that Union Station can serve as a vital transportation terminal and bring in thriving revenue-producing commercial space,” the panel wrote.

Congress decided to save it by congressional act, and control over the entity was transferred from the National Park Service to the U.S. Department of Transportation on December 29, 1981. In 1988, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole designated $70 million to the restoration effort. Currently owned and operated under a public/private partnership and revenue-sharing agreement, Union Station continues to serve millions of passengers and visitors. And though no plaque or monument commemorates it, a ULI advisory services panel played its own, important role.