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Amtrak hungers for an upscale food hall at Union Station

The project would restore long-vacant space and improve the Clinton Street frontage.

Rendering shows the proposed food hall’s entrance from the Great Hall at Union Station.
Rendering shows the proposed food hall’s entrance from the Great Hall at Union Station.
Amtrak/CBRE/Goettsch Partners

Amtrak, as part of its ongoing renovations at Union Station, is climbing aboard the food hall express.

The railroad wants to add a “bespoke” food hall to the downtown station, which it owns. It is seeking operators to move into space along the building’s Clinton Street side that has been off-limits to the public since a devastating fire in 1980.

Amtrak is turning to one of the hottest trends in commercial real estate in hopes of bringing to the landmark building an amenity for travelers and those who live and work nearby. “With all the development that is going on around Union Station, we think a food hall is just a natural for this space,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

Food halls have opened at numerous sites in and near downtown to general acclaim the past few years. They can have various menu items and formats from one operator, such as Chicago’s Eataly, or are more commonly a collective such as the French Market at Ogilvie Transportation Center. With higher prices and a little style, food halls are the refined relatives of the humble food court, where fast-food franchises reign.

Rendering shows the proposed food hall at Union Station.
Amtrak/CBRE/Goettsch Partners
Rendering shows the proposed food hall’s entrance from Clinton Street at Union Station.
A rendering showing the proposed food hall’s entrance from Clinton Street at Union Station.
Amtrak/CBRE/Goettsch Partners

Amtrak has circulated a “request for interest” from potential food hall operators, asking for ideas and qualifications. Respondents have until Oct. 4 to reply but Magliari said the deadline could be extended.

The federally backed national railroad isn’t obligated to take a low bidder. “We will evaluate what’s best for us and for our customers,” Magliari said.

He said Amtrak intends to finish renovations on about 21,000 square feet by mid-2020, allowing the food hall to be established by the end of that year. The space is between the Great Hall and Clinton Street on the station’s west side. Long ago, it was the Fred Harvey Lunch Room, part of a national chain that catered to rail passengers.

That west wall hasn’t had an entrance since the 1980 fire, after which soaring windows were removed and the openings bricked over, said Len Koroski, principal at the architectural firm Goettsch Partners, which is working with Amtrak. “It’s a pretty foreboding look,” he said.

Workers will replace the 8-by-17-foot windows and three 9-by-30-foot windows that once overlooked the Great Hall, said Koroski, the self-described “old building guy” at his firm. “We will give this space a sense of relaxation and light and texture,” he said.

Koroski said Amtrak already has accomplished much behind the scenes at Union Station, such as replacing electrical and plumbing systems. In late 2018, it unveiled a restored skylight in the Great Hall, bringing back its grandeur and fixing a decades-long problem of leaks.

Still to come is renovation of the building’s office space and a one-story addition to the eight floors that surround the Great Hall. The City Council approved plans that allow for two hotels with a combined 400 rooms within the building.

Magliari said Amtrak is using $10 million, part of the proceeds from its sale of a parking garage immediately south of Union Station, to fund the food hall work. He said the garage will be demolished in the next 90 days. It is to be replaced by a 50-story office tower anchored by BMO Financial Group.

Other activity in the neighborhood includes the vast Old Main Post Office’s renaissance as office space for tenants that like large floor layouts.

An old postcard of the Fred Harvey Lunch Room at Union Station.