Progress breaks out at Baltimore’s Penn Station

By Donald C. Fry

The bright orange umbrellas, and colorful blue and red tables and chairs at the plaza in front of Penn Station are more than simply a new outdoor lunch location for passengers, workers and residents in Baltimore City’s North Charles area.

They are visible, encouraging signs of progress at the 102-year-old station that handles more than a million passengers annually and is the eighth-busiest in Amtrak’s national network.

Amtrak, Baltimore City, the Maryland Transit Administration and private-sector partners have begun collaborating in earnest on long-sought improvements intended to transform the station from a sore subject for city leaders and business travelers into a community resource.

The station’s new outdoor ambience serves as a reminder of what planners and architects have long known – never underestimate the power of a nice plaza.

“I just came out of Penn Station in Baltimore, and I don’t know who is responsible, but the new orange umbrellas and moveable seats around the sculpture look fantastic and the whole area was full of people,” an executive recently emailed me after returning from a business trip.

The rejuvenated plaza is part of more than $1 million in renovations Amtrak and the MTA, working with the office of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and private-sector partners, are making to the station this year. The plaza renovations were accomplished through a joint effort between the Mayor’s Office, the Parking Authority of Baltimore, Station North Arts & Entertainment District and Amtrak.

Amenities also include free wi-fi in the plaza to help encourage its use. Meanwhile, Station North has been hosting monthly events at the plaza with music, food and drinks. Partners are working on creating public art for the plaza as well.

Funding for the plaza was provided by the Deutsch Foundation through the Spruce-UP Grant program administrated by the Central Baltimore Partnership, a coalition of organizations and city agencies focused on community development in 10 neighborhoods from Penn Station north to the Johns Hopkins campus.

The plaza and other improvements underway and being planned for station stem from the work of Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s Penn Station Advisory Committee, which she formed in June 2012 to pursue her vision for the station to be a world-class gateway into Baltimore and a catalyst for economic development in Charles North.

Among other things, the committee is working to address long-time vocal complaints from business leaders, including the Greater Baltimore Committee, and community advocates about the urgent need to revitalize the station. The facility had been allowed to deteriorate to the point where it was widely cited as an “embarrassment” to anyone who invited clients or friends to travel on Amtrak to Baltimore.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from this group,” a senior Amtrak executive told city officials, Congressman Elijah E. Cummings and GBC leaders during a March meeting. “We’re taking this task very seriously. Baltimore is absolutely at the top of our list.”

Amtrak, which owns the station and surrounding property, is keeping its pledge. It is following up more than $7 million in previous improvements to station infrastructure – including HVAC upgrades and a new passenger information system – by turning its attention to passenger comfort and improving what is, in effect, Baltimore’s “front door” to northeast corridor rail travelers.

In addition to the plaza, improvements underway at the station include a dramatic upgrade and expansion of restroom facilities. Demolition of the old restrooms – a target of chronic complaints from travelers – has begun. They will be replaced by bigger, modern facilities with new stainless steel fixtures, electric hand dryers, a new baby-changing station and ENERGY STAR drinking fountains, according to an Amtrak brochure detailing improvements to the station. Quality temporary facilities have been provided for passengers during the renovation.

The more than $1 million in funding for the restroom renovation, projected to be completed this winter, was provided to Amtrak through the Maryland Transit Administration.

At track level, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and Visit Baltimore are sponsoring the installation of an LCD video-enhanced “welcome” sign and landscaping improvements along the rail entry path into the station from the northeast. The sign currently being designed will promote Baltimore and local events.

Meanwhile, Amtrak has turned to Harbor Point Holdings, an affiliate of the Beatty Development Group, and architects Ayers Saint Gross to craft a plan for commercial development of Penn station’s now-vacant top floors and adjacent land. Additionally Amtrak has begun developing master plans for station maintenance and operations that make the “highest and best use” of station facilities.

It’s understood that converting Penn Station into a state-of-the art terminal and a catalyst for commercial growth in the Charles North area will not happen overnight. But it’s very encouraging to note Amtrak’s renewed commitment to the station and the substantial collaboration between government and the private-sector that has developed around the project.

It’s still early, but it’s always worth celebrating when progress breaks out.

All who are involved in moving this project forward deserve credit for demonstrating how things can get done in the fiscally-tight post-recession economy.

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