Donald Fry: Don’t treat Penn Station like whistle-stop

 

By Donald C. Fry

If you’re looking for a study in contrasts, there are few more compelling than to examine the activity related to two historic train stations – one in Washington and the other in Baltimore.

Both Washington’s Union Station and Baltimore’s Penn Station are more than 100 years old, were designed by celebrated architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and today handle major amounts of passenger traffic in the crowded Northeast rail corridor.

Union Station, designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham and built in 1907, and Baltimore’s Penn Station, designed by New York architect Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison and built in 1911, handled 4.8 million and 950,000 Amtrak passengers, respectively, in 2011. Both rank among the eight busiest Amtrak stations in the nation.

One could argue both stations need revitalization, although the appearance and utility of Penn Station pales in comparison with that of Union Station.

Unfortunately, the contrasts between the two stations’ prospects for future capital improvements and what’s being done about those prospects are, at the moment, less than encouraging for Baltimore’s Penn Station.

Here’s why.

The plans for Washington’s Union Station are being managed by the 30-year-old Union Station Redevelopment Corp., whose board is chaired by the U.S. secretary of transportation and where the president and CEO of Amtrak is the vice chairman.

The future of Baltimore’s Penn Station is in the hands of Amtrak corporate vice presidents.

No plan here

A massive and ambitious master plan for revitalizing Union Station was announced by the Union Station Redevelopment Corp. on July 25.

Amtrak has no plan for Baltimore’s Penn Station.

To Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s credit, she has responded to the vocal complaints from business and university officials about the urgent need to enhance the appearance of Penn Station.

The mayor established the Penn Station Advisory Committee over the summer months. On July 13, members of the advisory committee met with a contingent of Amtrak officials who introduced themselves, explained current efforts underway to improve the station and formed a small working committee with city officials.

The Union Station master plan calls for a $7.5 billion station reconstruction and capacity expansion, coupled with plans to spend billions more to build a transformative, 3-million-square-foot, mixed-use development that would create a new urban neighborhood atop the rail yards north of the station.

At Baltimore’s Penn Station, the advisory committee recently reported that a planned $1 million bathroom replacement project is expected to be completed in early 2014. “Preliminary design is underway” and Amtrak and the Maryland Transit Administration are negotiating to fund the project, the committee reports.

Other Penn Station “improvements” made by Amtrak since the committee met with the railroad officials include minor aesthetic work, including the planting of marigolds at the cab stand, addressing a broken pay phone and broken water fountain by removing both and not replacing them and regrouting the bathroom.

You get the picture.

It’s crystal clear where Amtrak’s priorities lie between the two stations.

In fairness, I should note Amtrak has negotiated a memo of understanding with Harbor East Development Corp. to create proposals to develop the Lanvale Street parking lot adjacent to Penn Station and the upper three floors of the station. A feasibility study, conducted by a coalition of five nearby universities for converting the station’s upper three floors into a conference center and innovation space, is expected to be completed this fall.

That’s progress, I suppose, but it certainly dims in comparison with the type of work being advanced for our neighbor Amtrak station 35 miles to the south.

The drastically contrasting scales of vision between plans for Washington’s Union Station and Baltimore’s Penn Station – and the dramatic contrast in levels of Amtrak commitment to the two stations – prompt concern at best and anger at worst if you’re a Baltimore advocate.

The blatant and obvious disregard for what should be a vitally important asset to both Amtrak and Baltimore is appalling.

Of course, the reality is there is likely nowhere near the money in today’s fiscal environment, or in the foreseeable future, to accomplish a massive $7.5 billion train station revitalization in either Washington or Baltimore.

A city landmark

But at least in Washington, they have a vision for their station. The question is why similar vision and master planning for Baltimore’s Penn Station, a truly historic site that has been left to languish over the years, was not seen as priority of equal importance?

The station is a landmark of our city and serves as the first impression of Baltimore to many of our visitors. In Baltimore, we should not accept minor cosmetic repairs for Penn Station.

Instead, we should demand that Amtrak design and fund a capital plan for significant improvements to Penn Station that are elevated to a level of importance equal to the Washington Union Station master plan.

The City of Baltimore and Penn Station deserve that respect from Amtrak corporate leaders.

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