A “Pit” for Union Station?

Preservationists oppose plan for hole in floor

Union Station, one of the loveliest buildings in Washington, is due for some upgrades.

As Washington City Paper's Lydia DePillis reported last week, its last major rehabilitation was a quarter-century ago, so planners now want to add “an intercity bus facility on the existing bus deck, an expanded mezzanine for the metro,” and a “giant mixed-use complex over the tracks feeding into the station from the north.”

What’s really causing controversy, though, is a plan to rip a huge hole through the floor of the iconic Great Hall, push the Center Café closer to the ceiling, and build spiral glass staircases connecting the whole thing. DePillis says the “design, reminiscent of New York City’s 5th Avenue Apple Store, is intended to open up sightlines on the main floor and open up access to the lower floor, especially for the disabled.”

Preservation groups spoke out against the plan, calling the planned "pit" an aesthetic nightmare that would also obstruct foot traffic across the Great Hall. Some folks even think the Center Café, which dominates much of the hall currently, should be removed altogether.

At Beyond D.C., Dan Malouff decries the idea of cutting “holes in the floor” just “to access the food court.” Malouff says the Great Hall’s “elegant classicism is fundamentally incompatible with a mundane food court,” and while he calls the food court a “valuable and worthwhile” place, he rightly notes that it’s not exactly “hurting for customers. On the contrary, it’s uncomfortably packed most of the day.”

Malouff says the plan “is a solution in search of an imaginary problem” and argues that the Great Hall “should not be torn up on a whim. … By any measure it is a place that is working tremendously well already, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Alex Baca, at Greater Greater Washington, has a less halcyon view. Baca, who says she has spent most of her life in the area and adores much of its architecture and design, says Union Station “should be on my personal list of attractive, engaging sights. But when I rode Amtrak in and out last weekend, it was as unremarkable as ever. Unfortunately, the station was marked by dim lighting, low ceilings, an unattractive boarding area, and a Great Hall marred by an ill-lit and looming Center Café.”

She likes the controversial Union Station Redevelopment Corporation plan, saying it offers “a prime opportunity to seize hold of an innovative design, while integrating some of the space's more traditional aspects.” Train stations across the U.S., she argues, “look as they did in the early 20th century. Why does Union Station need to be just like Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, Denver's Union Station, or Los Angeles' Union Station?”

Baca fairly notes that many of the Great Hall’s best features, like its beautiful vaulted ceiling, would not be affected, and argues that the new design could actually “draw a viewer's eye” toward the ceiling, which the current and rather ugly café does not.

There are many perspectives on how to update this historic space.  But while the "pit" may be up for debate, it seems everyone thinks the Center Café is the pits.

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