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Design team chosen for phase one of Union Station project

A design firm has been selected to work on improvements to Chicago's Union Station. | Sun-Times file photo

Relief may finally be in sight for commuters forced to endure the congested, polluted and uncomfortable passenger experience at Chicago’s 90-year-old Union Station.

After years of headlines and precious little progress, the massive project is taking two giant steps forward.

Planning and engineering giant Arup has been chosen to design 13 “near-term” improvements identified in the city’s master plan for Union Station aimed at boosting passenger capacity, improving safety and increasing mobility in and around the station.

They include wider platforms, expanded concourses and entrances, pedestrian passageways, and new ventilation systems so commuters don’t have to hold their breath like motorists driving through the Lincoln Tunnel.

The design work will be jointly funded by Amtrak, the city, Metra and the RTA.

Equally important is the bill approved by the Illinois General Assembly that would grant Chicago sweeping power to create 35-year tax-increment-financing districts to bankroll mass transit projects, including Union Station.

Specifically, the bill would pave the way for new TIF districts within a half-mile of the center of Union Station and within a half-mile on either side of 46 miles of CTA tracks.

“This has been a great last 10 days . . . for what will be billions of dollars of economic development in the West Loop — from the Old Post Office to the future of Union Station,” RTA Board Chairman Kirk Dillard said.

“The value capture TIF bill will clearly give us some economic value to especially match and maximize federal resources. The untapped potential of the Near West Side will just get springboarded ahead with the Old Post Office and Union Station renovations. The sky is the limit. The potential is unbelievable.”

RTA Chairman Kirk Dillard, left, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk at an event to announce improvements at Union Station. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times
RTA Chairman Kirk Dillard, left, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk at an event to announce improvements at Union Station. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Earlier this year, Amtrak took the first concrete steps to redevelop Amtrak-owned Union Station, the air-rights above it and the land around the station.

A “request-for-information” was sent to local, regional and national developers. That signaled the start of a competition to identify firms capable of implementing a “master development plan, design, construction, financing and potential operation and maintenance of non-rail assets.” Those plans are likely to include a healthy mix of hotel, residential and commercial development.

On Monday, Dillard called development above and around Union Station a pivotal piece of a complex financing puzzle.

“Air rights in the real world are gonna have to be part of the economic financing stream if you want to do Union Station the right way,” Dillard said after a news conference Monday at Union Station.

Only after the design team has completed its work will there be a price tag for the short-term improvements.

That’s apparently why Mayor Rahm Emanuel was less definitive about the jackpot of new revenues created by the new TIF around Union Station.

“The transportation TIF was primarily for the [CTA’s] Red-Purple modernization as well as for the extension of the Red Line. It doesn’t really figure into this. But if it’s a potential resource, we’ll look to it. Because it’s gonna take a lot of people and a lot of efforts by both RTA, Metra, the state and the city to make that investment once we have an analysis of what the costs are,” Emanuel said.

Metra Board Chairman Marty Oberman said his “first and only” marching orders on the day the mayor appointed him was to fix a station that, as Emanuel likes to put it, has been “fighting below its weight class.”

Oberman noted that all but 10,000 of the 120,000 daily commuters who pass through Union Station each day are Metra riders.

“The platforms were built for another era. They’re far too narrow. When we have weather back-ups and so forth, we can have very serious crowd control problems with the way this station is designed. The concourse has way outlived its usefulness . . . We all know that the ventilation system desperately needs to be redone. We hear about that constantly from our passengers,” Oberman said.

“The only way it’s going to get redone is with this fundamental redesign and rebuilding. This is a major step forward bringing in an engineering firm to do the design work. We’re just talking about the area underneath us: the platforms, the concourse, the ventilation system . . . That will tell us how much it’s going to cost.”

Oberman acknowledged that the price tag will be “several hundred million dollars” that has “not yet been identified.”

“All of the partners are going to have to step up to the plate. I am here to say that Metra will take a leadership role and will step up and help fund getting this job done. [But] we cannot do it alone. The job is tremendous,” he said.

The skylight in Union Station’s Great Hall. | File photo
The skylight in Union Station’s Great Hall. | File photo

After the commuter nightmare that followed the January 2014 deep freeze in Chicago, Metra surveyed its customers and got an earful about the dreadful passenger experience at Union Station.

Commuters complained about everything from dripping ceilings, dangerously crowded and polluted platforms to rude conductors and inaudible announcements.

“Amazed at the lack of organization and crowd control at Union Station,” a commuter from Oak Lawn wrote.

A Bartlett resident called Union Station an “accident waiting to happen. … It’s too loud, and the water dripping from the ceiling is disgusting.”

And a commuter who rides the UP-Northwest line from Barrington, added that if Metra were United Airlines, it “would be before a Senate committee for your inability to communicate effectively with your customers.”

Five months ago, Chicago-area transportation and elected officials showcased another small sign of progress: a renovated marble staircase in Union Station’s Great Hall made famous in the classic movie, “The Untouchables.”

The new staircase — embedded in the memory of moviegoers because of the tumbling baby carriage rescued by Eliot Ness — highlighted $14 million worth of improvements in the works bankrolled by Amtrak and expected to be completed by the end of 2016.

Union Station’s refurbished marble staircase was unveiled earlier this year. | Sun-Times file photo
Union Station’s refurbished marble staircase was unveiled earlier this year. | Sun-Times file photo

Those projects included relocating and enlarging a passenger lounge to double the space available for business-class and sleeping-car passengers and allow expansion of seating for coach passengers at the concourse level.

The Amtrak-funded improvements also included replacing door systems, upgrading an antiquated heating system, restoring the barrel-vaulted skylight that’s 219 feet long and hangs 115 feet above the Great Hall, and turning a former women’s lounge into banquet and event space.

Over the years, there has been no shortage of grand plans for Union Station. It is the nation’s third-busiest commuter rail station, which has grown increasingly crowded and uncomfortable for arriving and departing passengers who ride 300 trains into and out of the station every weekday.

The problem is, many of those plans have been too grand and too costly. As a result, it’s been more than 20 years since the last remodeling.

Three years ago, City Hall lowered its sights to more realistic short-term projects with identified funding while still maintaining a list of medium- and long-term plans that could be done if money ever were found.

Short-term projects included improved station entrances, expanded Amtrak waiting rooms, enhanced bus lanes on Clinton and Canal Streets, and construction of an off-street CTA bus terminal on a surface parking lot south of Jackson Boulevard between Canal and Clinton.

The plan said projects that might be delivered in five to 10 years include reallocating space currently occupied by baggage platforms to make way for wider commuter platforms, converting “unused mail platforms” to accommodate “inter-city passenger trains,” reorganizing existing station facilities to “improve capacity and flow,” and rebuilding the Canal Street viaduct above parts of the station in a way that “improves street access” to the station concourse below.

Long-term ideas described as more “visionary” included “expanding or completely replacing” Union Station in the 200 or 300 blocks of South Canal.

The master plan also evaluated the concept of adding more “track and platform capacity in one of two alternative underground alignments: Clinton Street or Canal,” according to a news release issued by the city’s Department of Transportation.