Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, pt. 4 – Let there be light

Perusing photos of Denver’s recently renovated Union Station and newly built platforms reveals one predominant trait: light. The station is amply illuminated by natural light and lots of it. The airy white concave canopy that shelters the platforms below is like a swoop of fluffy clouds moving in from across the high plains. A giant central open-air skylight lets in not just unobstructed views of the big blue skies above, but also the Beaux-Arts head house from the late 19th century. The station is another victory for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s (SOM) strong recording in architecture and urban planning. It is also a victory for American intercity and urban passenger rail, because it reminds us that certain things should not be sacrificed when building train stations: passenger comfort, beautiful aesthetics, the interests of the public and light.

Americans seem to have all too gladly embraced the habit of selling air rights above our major rail stations and terminals, especially in larger cities, to developers. The results may include profits and the rents of tenants located directly above platforms, but this is done by sacrificing the ability to provide natural lighting to stations and turning passenger areas in our stations into confusing and unwelcoming networks of corridors and tight platforms. Let there be light, open up the air space above platforms again and the most fundamental experience of the train station, boarding and disembarking from trains will return as a joy to rail travel.

The renewal of Denver’s Union Station is a sign that we’re moving back to what once was. Americans can experience the impact of looking up at light filled, great spaces above them when they arrive at their destination. The adoption of this new model at DUS represents a major cultural change in the USA that may be one of the most important in how we approach passenger rail travel: it gives renewed respect to the places, people and world of rail.

The platforms at Denver's recently redeveloped Union Station will be flooded with light by the open, above ground nature of new canopy over the tracks.

The platforms at Denver’s recently redeveloped Union Station will be flooded with light by the open, above ground nature of new canopy over the tracks.

This is a small victory for American passenger rail. In Denver, the reality of things may be that the amount of available space, the ease with which a renovation at a little used station, and the ample room for future development around the station were what allowed the city, Denver’s Regional Transportation District and Amtrak to go the route they did. This is the route Chicago needs to go in order to improve Chicago Union Station to its former glory. The importance of such a change here though will mean so much more for passenger rail in the USA than smaller victories at places like DUS and hopefully 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, which will also be redesigned for future redevelopment by SOM. While these small changes lead to a greater change nationally, the changes that take place in cities like Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago set precedents and guide trends in less visible places.

Albeit, smaller changers and incremental improvements may do just as much to increase efficiency and facilitate the movement of people and improve inter-modal connections at CUS, the removal of high-rises above at least a portion of the platforms at Chicago’s Union Station is vital for the long-term renaissance and viability of American passenger rail, because of the symbolic change it represents for the city and the country. It also offers the city the change to re-imagine the station in the same light as the world great stations. (One feature of which seems to be the ability to let natural light into the station.)

While Penn Station in New York City may be the more famous example of station deterioration in the United States, the focal point of so much passenger rail in the USA on Chicago’s Union Station puts it next to Penn Station as one of the most important station’s in the entire national system and as a gateway to the city and a transfer point for thousands of travelers and it represents the meeting point of the American passenger rail network. Yet we have a place that is defined by inefficiency, unsightly aesthetics and crudeness, dysfunction and faults. The willingness to put a light-filled, shed above the platforms at Union Station in Chicago would speak volumes to the renewed emphasis on comfort, passenger experience, efficiency and the complete aesthetics of traveling by rail in the USA. It would put us back onto level playing ground with our peers across the globe.

The platforms of Chicago's Union Station on the other hand are darkened by a low, dark ceiling with limited natural light entering from the open walls of the eastern walls. The ceilings also trap diesel exhaust fumes.

The platforms of Chicago’s Union Station on the other hand are darkened by a low, dark ceiling with limited natural light entering from the open walls of the eastern walls. The ceilings also trap diesel exhaust fumes.

Making such a move in Chicago would be particularly indicative of this change because of the sheer complexity of such a change–such complexity seems to be missing in the Denver and Philadelphia models of station renewal.

The platforms at Chicago's Union Station are hidden below high-rise office buildings like that pictured above, which is directly opposite the older head house.

The platforms at Chicago’s Union Station are hidden below high-rise office buildings like that pictured above, which is directly opposite the older head house.

The office tower above Union Station on the 300 block of south Canal Street is rather larger. However, the city is not devoid of free office space and indeed, there may be no better time to take an active role in spurring change and discussing the demolition of that particular building and moving forward with plans to open the airspace above that block and returning it exclusively to allowing natural light into the platforms of Union Station below. The West Loop and Near West Side of Chicago are showing signs of renewed growth and the space is available to redevelop less important and under utilized blocks into office buildings. A new 75 story tower has even been floated as a possible addition to the western edge of the city’s skyline and the still empty Old US Post Office building is begging for love and development. Develop even a portion of that space and move the offices in building above Union Station there and multiple problems are solved in one fell swoop: the Old Post Office is revitalized, the offices currently above Union Station find a new home near their old homes and life goes on.

The old concourse of Chicago's Union Station allowed ample light to enter  the platform areas of the station.

The old concourse of Chicago’s Union Station allowed ample light to enter the platform areas of the station.

That’s not to mention the open office space in the head house of Chicago’s Union Station that sit empty. Not only could they absorb some of the offices currently located east of the head house, the availability of store front spaces and spaces adjacent to the Great Hall have the potential to house some of the banks, shops and restaurants above the platforms of Chicago’s Union Station. Fill these and the Great Hall is revitalized as well. Put small kiosks at either end of the Great Hall, preserving the large swath of open space it provides, and again, life is brought into that space while shops that would be displaced by the removal of the office tower above the platforms find convenient new homes.

There is no reason why Chicago cannot remodel its Union Station after that in Denver. The infrastructure availability means displaced offices in the tower above the platforms have the means to find new spaces convenient to the station. The station’s head house provides some of this infrastructure and this would add much-needed life to that space.

Symbolically it would elevate the train station to new heights and rejuvenate the role they play in American urban spaces and transportation culture. Doing this in Chicago would also so such changes are possible at all levels and in all cities across the country. It would indeed show that passengers are cared for and rail given the respect it deserves. Great spaces and great experiences are as important to the vitality of rail transportation as efficiency and affordability. It becomes a case of, if built, people will come.

It is without a doubt a dramatic proposal though; to remove all the office towers even on one block of land in the West Loop would be a logistical mess and need to be completed with the utmost efficiency, care and speed. However, if this could be pulled off, which it can, it would say quite a bit about the possibility of actually achieving dramatic change (for the betteR) in the renewed efforts to truly impact how we approach rail infrastructure in the US.

So, let there be light.