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To Form a More Perfect Union Station: Redesigning Columbus Plaza for Pedestrians

Union Station and Columbus Plaza. Credit: Rob Ketcherside (Flickr Feed).

Washington, D.C.’s Union Station is a major destination for tourists and commuters, with about 29 million people visiting it each year.  As a first glimpse of the city for many people traveling by rail or car, Union Station was designed as a grand entryway to the nation’s capital.  It’s classical Beaux-Arts architecture influenced other popular landmarks in Washington, D.C., such as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.  But as public transit increases in the city, and the surrounding neighborhoods rapidly undergo redevelopment, it is clear that the 104-year-old-railroad facility needs a facelift.

We recently came across an article in The Washington Post about an 18-month reconstruction project to improve access and safety throughout Columbus Plaza in front of Union Station.  Many years in the making, the $7.8 million redesign will include new sidewalks and upgrades to the traffic signals to enhance the flow of pedestrians and vehicles throughout the plaza.  The plan also calls for eliminating a fishhook-shaped road that cuts through Columbus Plaza, restoring the plaza to its earlier appearance and allowing for easier pedestrian access to the station from the Capitol and other areas.  Additional transit improvements to the area include the very successful bicycle storage and rental facility added to the west side of the station, and laying tracks for the future H Street streetcar route that will terminate at Union Station.

As with any huge endeavor undertaken in Washington, D.C., there are many agencies and interested parties involved in this complex project, including the federal government (who owns Union Station), National Park Service (manages Columbus Plaza), city government (controls the roads), and the Architect of the Capitol (land on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue).  Other partners involved include Amtrak, Greyhound, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation.  And of course, any structural changes at all to Union Station must also take into account its historical prominence.

Because the “downtrodden appearance” of the plaza when compared to the magnificent train station often confuses the thousands of pedestrians and motorists who use it each day, locals and visitors alike are anxious to see how the reconfiguration will create a more welcoming transportation hub.  As Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, summed up, the idea is to have the space in front of Union Station “be more about a plaza and less about trying to walk across nine lines of vehicle traffic.”

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