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A Look at Union Station's Ambitious Restoration and Redevelopment Plans

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Curbed Chicago/Jay Koziarz

On Tuesday the Metropolitan Planning Council hosted a roundtable discussion regarding the future of Chicago's Union Station. The presentation not only focused on efforts to bolster passenger capacity, widen platforms, and improve pedestrian flow, it also highlighted a master plan for transforming the historic 1925 station into a mixed-use destination for both travelers and non-travelers alike. Serving as a vital hub for the Metra commuter line and the Amtrak national system, Union is the nation's third busiest train station with an annual ridership of 3.3 million. Yet, despite the high traffic, most commuters descend from the street directly to the concourse level and typically bypass the station's landmarked Headhouse Building and its impressive Great Hall. The plan hopes to change this by restoring Union Station's many empty spaces to their former glory and to follow the example of New York's Grand Central Station by creating new destination restaurants, bars, and retail food markets.

Roundtable presenter Ray Lang, President of Amtrak's Union Station Company, touched on some of the specifics of the plan which includes new pedestrian connections to Ogilvie Transportation Center and the CTA Blue Line. He was followed by architect Silvio Baldassarra of NORR who shared the challenges and unique solutions his firm discovered while upgrading downtown Toronto's busy Union Station. The panel also included Fulton Market developer Jeffrey Shapack of Shapack Partners who presented his perspective on Union Station's incredible potential and local restaurateur Chris Bisaillon of Bottleneck Management who touched on the hospitality aspects of the redevelopment. The roundtable was followed by a behind-the-scenes tour of Union Station led by Mr. Lang and Senior Facilities Manager Paul Sanders.

The tour's first stop was a vacant space prime for redevelopment located just west of the Great Hall. Formerly home to the Fred Harvey restaurant, the area has remained unoccupied for several decades following a fire. Union Station management is hopeful the large room and mezzanine will find a high-profile restaurant or retail tenant now that new HVAC and sprinkler systems have been installed and asbestos remediation work is complete. The reactivation of this area may also see a new pedestrian access to Clinton Street above.

Perhaps Union Station's most beautiful room off limits to the public is the former Woman's Lounge located off the northwest corner of the Great Hall. Restoration work is underway on the room's original but neglected wallpaper murals and ornate plaster ceiling. The lounge is expected to serve as a new event space after its scheduled reopening in October of 2016.

Atop Union's recently restored travertine stairs made infamous by "The Untouchables" stroller shoot-out scene is yet another empty space that is ripe for a new restaurant concept. Located at the building's northeast corner near the Canal Street colonnade, the multi-level room has recently solved its ADA accessibility issues thanks to a recently installed elevator.

The newly opened Legacy Club offers a glimpse at the sort of upgrades that the Master Plan envisions for the rest of the building. Much like an airline lounge, travelers are treated to a well-appointed private space that provides free wifi, coffee and tea, and complimentary alcoholic beverages during happy hour in exchange for a monthly or yearly membership fee. The club also includes the station's old barbershop. With its detailed tiled mosaic walls carefully restored, the space now hosts events and private meetings.

In the center of Great Hall is Amtrak's new modern ticketing kiosk. Recently moved from the crowded concourse below, the structure must be technically temporary to get around the building's landmark regulations. Work on a new permanent ticketing counter just off the Great Hall's concourse access ramp is underway along with a new 16,000-square-foot Metropolitan Lounge which features special accommodations for Amtrak first class sleeper car and business class passengers. The space is expected to be ready for occupancy by June of 2016.

Though a previous effort to redevelop Union Station by a Jones Lang LaSalle and Youssefi-Scott partnership fell through during the economic collapse of 2008, the current restoration and redevelopment work could not come at a better time, according to Amtrak's Lang and Sanders. Economic stimulus money provided the funds to add the air chiller and sprinkler system necessary to move forward with the site's redevelopment, and rail ridership is expected to continue to grow. The new Union Station Transit Center bus terminal is opening later this year to better connect train passengers to the rest of Chicago. Meanwhile the booming West Loop has created conditions ideal for supporting Union's upcoming retail, dining, and office propositions. Interestingly, the Union Station Master Development Plan may also include a new tower component to be built atop Amtrak-owned foundations already in place that are capable of supporting something in the 20-30 story range. While not much information has been released regarding the vertical expansion aspect of the project, the timing is certainly favorable with Chicago currently enjoying a highrise construction boom.

·Amtrak's Big Union Station Transformation Moving Ahead [Curbed Chicago]
·Union Station Repairs and Upgrades Are on the Way [Curbed Chicago]

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