Monday, February 08, 2010

Union Station Terminal Illness?...

The Hartford/Springfield community centered blog, Urban Compass by Heather Brandon reported last month that the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority would give up its role in the redevelopment of Springfield Union Station on Frank B. Murray Street in downtown Springfield.  Instead, the bulk of the work would be handled by the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA).  As Urban Compass noted, the priority for redeveloping Union Station appears to be shifted to economic development and not transportation and as the blog implied, the reasons are political.

The SRA and the PVTA had developed a Memorandum of Understanding last year that would dictate how the two agencies would work together to reestablish the station as a transportation nexus and as a result an economic asset.  Instead, according to Urban Compass, "the PVTA confirmed that the memorandum is now null and void."
The removal of the PVTA as a component of this project connects to a number of political and historical realities.  The project has been in neutral for well over fifteen years.  Initially, the project was a grandiose scheme intended to bring buses up to track level while renovating the entire structure for retail and commercial space.  However, as costs mounted and securing easements from CSX, the railroad that owns the stations East-West through tracks, prove impossible, the project faltered.  The Memorandum of Understanding came hand in hand with a scaled back proposal, drawn up several months before the memorandum, that would demolish the baggage building and use its space for a new bus terminal.

Earlier on, when the PVTA was essentially the sole agency behind the plan, the larger plan was bogged down by internal city politics and toward the end of the Albano administration, the federal corruption probe.  Although not directly a part of the FBI's investigation, Inspectors General from the US Department of Transportation and elsewhere demanded some accountability before funds appropriated by Congress could be released.  Together these roadblocks essentially doomed the old plan.  Additional realities about the climate of retail and commercial development at Union Station and the adjacent site of the former Hotel Charles kept private interest to a minimum.

Complicating the matter further was the relationship between PVTA Administrator Gary Shepherd and then-Mayor Michael Albano.  Although never directly accused of wrong-doing, he was viewed, probably correctly, by many observers to be an Albano stooge.  By the time Shepherd left the PVTA, the efforts at Union Station had all, but petered out.

The new plan (see this Urban Compass entry for more images) was far more sustainable than the last however.  It was significantly less expensive and, although it included the demolition of the historic baggage building, offered a more reasonable integration of bus and rail, while leaving provision for targeted retail and commercial space appropriate for a transportation center.  Because the process would include restructuring traffic patterns in the area and could be a means to further economic development, the role of the SRA proved necessary.  Indeed, the SRA's role materialized only after the PVTA was accused of mishandling the project.

Still, the absence of the PVTA entirely from the project could doom Union Station's success.  It is, however, not surprising.  Although Springfield dominated the PVTA, it is subsidized and run by many communities in Hampden and Hampshire counties.  Springfield's control is not monolithic and certainly other communities the PVTA serves might have felt that the focus on Union Station, to the detriment of similar, if phenomenally smaller projects in Holyoke and Westfield, was unfair.  Ongoing delays and conflicts may have simply led the PVTA to walk away entirely.  Needless to say, the political squabbles and minutiae were not aired in public.

This change does not doom Union Station, but without a transit agency or transportation department behind the project, it casts doubt on its success.  Its central tenants, regardless of the PVTA exit, would/will be Amtrak, Intercity Bus Providers headed primarily by Peter Pan, and the PVTA's intra-city bus lines.  The PVTA is not taking a planning/development role; Peter Pan has no interest to walk away from the terminal it owns without incentive (nor is an "agency"); Amtrak can afford to do little below track level except move its offices.  This leaves nobody with transportation experience to run the project, which despite the claims of the SRA is naturally a transportation project before an economic development one.

Sadly, should the project move forward without adequate guidance from the PVTA or the Massachusetts Transportation Department there are two outcomes.  Either nothing will happen and the city's transportation facilities will remain decrepit.  Or, worse yet, the city engages in the same cart before the horse economic development it did under the Albano administration.  City money will be sunk into a project to bribe "entrepreneurs" to set up shop, only to fold when the money or interest runs out, leaving the station as a partially renovated unsuccessful husk.

Union Station Redevelopment is, in a broader long-term sense, an economic development project.  Anecdotal evidence from dozens of transportation centers across the country attest to this.  However, the economic success of these projects happened because government kept its attention where it should remain: on the infrastructure.  They left it up to developers and interested parties to take advantage of the opportunities the transportation projects could glean.

In the short term, whoever redevelops Union Station, be it the SRA or the PVTA, must focus on restoring the main building to its primary purpose: transportation hub.  Improving bus and rail connections and restoring the tunnel under the tracks (and with it handicap accessibility) is the primary concern of any government agency to make the station an economic success.  Concessions, shops, and services for travelers will follow.  As Springfield-New Haven commuter rail marches forward (the line got a federal rail grant) and Amtrak's Vermonter is rerouted through Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield (also thanks to a federal grant), the demand for such traveler services will only increase.  None of this is significant economic development per se.

Rather, the economic development that will be worth writing home about will occur around the station as demand for traveler services, parking, car rental, and possibly, down the road, commercial space.  One commenter on Urban Compass noted Union Station's disconnect from the rest of downtown Springfield (it sits on the opposite side of the railroad viaduct) makes it a low priority in the context of overall downtown redevelopment.  Although this is true, with a little bit of refurbishment, lighting, and security improvements, a renovated Union Station could act as a new north pole along a lengthened "walkable" area in downtown.  Furthermore, the current Lyman Street entrance could be maintained to improve downtown accessibility.

Odd as it may sound, Union Station's northward facing main entrance looks out on even greater opportunity.  Excluding Union Station itself and the Hotel Charles next door (which was demolished in the 1990's), the rest of the area boxed in by the railroad and I-291 was "redeveloped" in the 1960's and 70's during the height of urban renewal.  Even by Springfield standards, north of Union Station, which is technically downtown and not the North End/Memorial Square neighborhood, the area is pretty desolate.  The buildings and offices are prime examples of the anti-urban, anti-pedestrian philosophy of the era that built them.  Some of those structures are there for the long-haul, but others could easily be torn down and tailored to contemporary ideas about cities, which call for integrating cars, pedestrians, streets, and businesses responsibly and effectively.

There is no guarantee that such a redevelopment of North Downtown (marketed as NorDown?) will happen, but a poorly planned execution of Union Station's redevelopment or nothing at all will make it impossible.  Transportation has to be the priority there, because such activity facilitates economic development.  Not the other way around.  The Springfield Intruder described last July how Hartford may have begun to learn its lesson when it focused its economic development, again on infrastructure.  Considerable effort was made in Insurance City to build-up its waterfront, long-neglected since Constitution Plaza was built to reconnect that city's downtown after I-91 construction.  It is too early to determine whether such efforts will pay dividend, but if it means more foot traffic between downtown and the riverfront, it means more bodies walking by storefronts.  If Hartford's Fourth of July Celebrations or First Nights are made more popular because there are comfortable, safe, fun places for people to gather and celebrate, then merchants, restaurants, and the city benefit.

Whatever happens, the city cannot afford to keep fumbling Union Station.  Massive changes are coming to rail service in Springfield whether the station is redeveloped or not.  The question before the city, the PVTA, the region, and business leaders is whether they will undertake the correct steps to make the 84 year-old building and Springfield itself a destination or allow both to be little more than a whistle stop, blurred outside the window of a passing train or bus as it travels down the line.

 *Interior and Development images from Urban Compass (development shots originally from Union Station redevelopment plan), Amtrak Vermonter photo from wikipedia, Hartford Riverfront Park photo from Springfield Intruder, Union Station Exterior from Springfield City Website.

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