Trains For America

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Baltimore uses Penn Station as hub for urban development (good idea)

Here’s a great example of how intercity rail can interlock with local transit and just good urbanism in general. Baltimore’s Penn Station, on the Northeast Corridor, is already a multi-modal hub, serviced by Amtrak, Maryland’s commuter rail service, and the city’s light rail system. The City of Baltimore has been planning a revitalization of the area around the station for a number of years, and Amtrak is taking another step in that direction by commissioning proposals for a 77-room hotel in the station itself. Other projects include the conversion of a nearby parking lot (surface parking lots are the bane of good urban design) and renting more retail space in the station building. Here’s some details from the Baltimore Sun:

The inn is one of several steps that Amtrak, also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corp., is taking to improve its properties in Baltimore.

Amtrak has leased space to Faber, Coe and Gregg of Secaucus, N.J., to run a Java Moon cafe and limited-menu branch of Dunkin’ Donuts on the station’s main concourse. Faber’s operations will replace a coffee shop and cafe run by Eddie Dopkin’s Crazy Man Restaurant Group, which left the building on May 22 after 17 years.

Faber, which also runs the station’s newsstand, opened a temporary coffee shop this week and plans to open the permanent replacements this summer, according to senior vice president Roberta Rubin.

Amtrak is also preparing to hire architects and planners to complete a “highest and best use analysis” of the 185-space parking lot it owns north of the station, property that is considered a key to the area’s revitalization.

Fifteen teams, including some of the country’s top urban designers, sought the work after Amtrak issued a request for proposals in April. Amtrak has narrowed the list of candidates to three and is in the final stages of selecting a design team. All work by the winning team is scheduled to be completed by mid-September.

I’ve never been to Baltimore and can’t really speak to the area around the station or the project’s prospects (I’d love to hear some thoughts), but at least in principle multi-use stations are a great idea. The problem with many intercity rail stations is that they don’t feel lived in. The train comes once or twice a day and in between those times they sit empty and unused. Retail, hotels, and connections to more frequent local transit increase the level of activity, making a station feel more like a real place than a passenger rail warehouse. It also brings attention to the rail services offered there, increasing visibility and knowledge about intercity trains and where to catch them.

Train stations are not airports. When we’re looking at where to spend future money for passenger rail service, we should be attempting to integrate stations as much as possible with the community rather than isolating them from it. It’s great that this is happening with older stations, but our approach to new or relocated facilities should also follow this principle.

Filed under: Amtrak, Regional USA Passenger Rail

5 Responses

  1. Benjamin says:

    I have never been inside Baltimore’s Penn Station, but from my understanding it’s a little forlorn – mostly because it’s cut off from the rest of the city by the train tracks and I-83. Still, if Amtrak thinks they can make a go of it, good for them.

  2. Paz says:

    They’ve got their work cut out for them. 83 is is literally right in front of the main doors. I’ve crossed it before, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The good news is the station is very close to UMB, and educational institutions are usually good development anchors.

  3. Kyle says:

    Baltimore Penn is a classic station and it is great that it wasn’t torn down, like NY Penn. It definitely needs some updating and it is good to hear about the new food options, considering the old cafe (I use that term loosely) and coffee shop, were pretty lackluster.

    There are trains constantly running through the station and I believe the light rail to Camden Yards is right there. It’s true, 83 is right in front of it, but I don’t think it is cut off from the city by that much. The university is right there and the rest of the city isn’t very far away, I think there is a lot of potential.

  4. Great news for Baltimore. New Haven is also trying to integrate its two, heavily-used train stations into new mixed-use development.

    New Haven’s beaux-arts Union Station is quite grand, and is one of the busiest stations in the country, with frequent commuter rail service to Manhattan. There is a plan to convert adjacent parking lots into high-rise mixed-use structures using revenue from a new garage and retail building on the station’s north end. Existing interior spaces currently used for services, including the spectacular balcony area, would be converted to restaurants. The drawback to Union Station is that it is several blocks from the center of Downtown. This may be addressed with a new streetcar line, and the distance will feel smaller once other developments in the area are completed.

    The State Street station, a smaller facility completed a few years ago, is right in the center of downtown New Haven and can be a hub for future development, particularly if the adjacent sections of State Street are narrowed to create developable parcels. Train traffic to the State Street station is set to increase dramatically over the next 10 years.

    The potential for these smaller stations is definitely there, if planning, design, transportation and public financing considerations can be well-integrated.

  5. johnny says:

    cut off by i-83? not really, there are bridges that go right over it.

    the station is very accessible by bus, light rail, tons of commuter trains (MARC), and at least 10 amtrak trains a day.

    It is only closed for 1-2 hours a day, (the only hour(s) a train does not run through)

    I imagine that this restriction will be done away with once there is a hotel.

    The “lived in” feeling is not there, but this will surely be a big step in making that happen

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May 2009


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