RyPN Editorials July 1, 2002
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Rethinking Adaptive Reuse, or, How Not to Save a Great Urban Terminal
When it comes to adaptive reuse, call me a booster. I've always looked with favor on proposals to transform abandoned or decaying railroad sites--especially large urban stations--into new, multi-user facilities. Such projects can be controversial in our railway preservation community; RyPN's own Editor Bob Yarger has questioned the value of such efforts many times in these pages. Adaptations involve substantial and permanent loss of historic fabric. Also lost can be any connection to railroading as a living industry and mode of transportation. Even so, I for one have long felt that these projects give more than they take by returning the pulse of life to great urban railroad terminals. Concourses again handle throngs of visitors, just as they are intended to do, and the stations are restored to their proper place as vital community centers.
Or so I thought. However, the ignominious failure of such a project as the Indianapolis Union Station has me questioning my former views.
Completed in 1888, Indianapolis Union Station was one of the earliest attempts by a major American city to unite the passenger and express freight services of several competing railroad companies in a single convenient downtown terminal. The headhouse and its barrel-vaulted Main Waiting Room are among the best surviving examples of the Romanesque Revival style of the late 1800s (sometimes called Richardsonian Romanesque, for its main advocate and practitioner, H.H. Richardson). The Historic American Buildings Survey praises the designer's skillful use of brick and granite in combination, and hails the building as "one of the finest large-scale public spaces in the city."
In its original form, Union Station possessed a large iron trainshed at street level. By the early 1900s, the surface-level train traffic was getting seriously entangled with growing vehicle traffic in the downtown area. The solution was to create an extensive new grade-separated right-of-way through downtown. As part of this project, the original iron train shed was replaced with a new, larger, poured concrete shed in 1916-1922. The new shed offered 12 through passenger and two stub freight and express tracks. It's this combination of 1888 headhouse with 1922 trainshed which survives today.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Indianapolis Union Station suffered from the same pattern of deferred maintenance and slow decline common to most of the great urban terminals. By 1979 the building had become a municipal eyesore, decrepit, largely vacant, and served by only a handful of trains a day. Then the city government stepped in. Inspired by the success of festival marketplace projects in Boston's Faneuil Hall area and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the city decided to try its hand at a similar adaptive reuse project for Union Station.
Step one was relocating active rail traffic out of the facility. Though Amtrak passenger schedules had withered to a skeleton service, the right-of-way through the station remained a major freight artery for Conrail. The active railroad lines were relocated to a modern, high-clearance train shed grafted onto to the South side of the 1922 concrete structure, with Amtrak operations relocated to a small waiting room--really more like a bus terminal--below the new shed section.
Freed from active traffic, the 1913-1920s trainshed was now available for redevelopment. Seven years and $50 million later, the renovated Union Station opened its doors in 1986. The fine 1888 headhouse became the grand entrance to the complex, housing an upscale restaurant on the former concourse floor. The eastern half of the shed became a festival marketplace, with specialty stores, bars, and a food court, while the western half was converted into a hotel, with new room modules built in the area occupied by most of the old tracks. Four tracks at the north and south ends were retained, and stocked with old heavyweight Pullmans, which were gutted to the shell and rebuilt with completely new interiors containing two rooms each. Though dressed up in inauthentic colors and lettering, the cars did at least broadly recreate the sightlines and overall images one might have seen along platforms in the 1920s or 1930s.
When I visited Indianapolis for the first time in 1991, the project seemed a triumph. The headhouse itself was wonderfully refurbished, with sunbeams shining again through the great rose windows down onto the polished waiting room floor. Glass windows in the festival marketplace portion offered a view through to the active tracks, tying the station's present to its past. The revitalized station became my nightly destination during my two-week stay in town.
Returning to Indianapolis this past winter, I was shocked by the change that greeted me. I had heard rumblings that the project had fallen on hard times, but I was still unprepared for the magnitude of the failure. Faced with declining patronage and continued high maintenance costs, city officials had shuttered the mall venture in 1996. Since then, the city has scrambled to find paying tenants for the various parts of the property. The festival marketplace had been torn out, replaced by (of all things) a go-kart track, where executives on corporate retreats drive tiny scooter cars around an Indy-style racetrack. The hotel is still in business, now in operation as a Crowne Plaza. Saddest of all, the lovely 1888 headhouse is essentially vacant, reduced to intermittent use as a ballroom floor for special events at the hotel. When not in use for an event, the building is locked, shuttered, and empty again.
What lay behind this failure? Several factors apparently came into play:
1. Size. Dividing the trainshed into two sections--the marketplace and the hotel--may have been a major strategic mistake. The 50% of the trainshed devoted to the marketplace and mall may seem like a large area, but it paled in size compared to any suburban mall. The result was a mall which did not have a wide enough range of tenants and activities to attract repeat business. Likewise, the hotel itself was not large by the standards of contemporary convention facilities, and was particularly light on meeting rooms and ballrooms in its original configuration.
2. "Pioneer Effect." Union Station itself made it safe to think about reinvesting in downtown, and it ultimately did spark a revitalization boom on the South side which has since become self-sustaining. However, as the pioneer project, the Station mall had to be able to go it alone until additional redevelopment and new attractions moved into the area. With its small size and limited selection of merchants, it proved not to have the staying power to wait for the turnaround to gain momentum.
3. Competition. As patronage at Union Station fell off in the early 1990s, the city threw its backing behind a still-more-ambitious adaptive reuse and downtown revitalization project one block north--the $319.5 million Circle Centre mall. In this massive project, developers and the city hollowed out two full city blocks, preserving only the facades of the original 4- and 5-story brick-and-stone commercial structures. Inside, they fabricated a completely new suburban-style mall behind the facades of the old buildings. The ground floor spaces facing the sidewalk became restaurants and bars, with the shopping concentrated in a standard arcade-style 3-level mall and movie theaters inside. Circle Centre's advent spelled Union Station's doom--there was no way for the smaller, decade-old project to compete with the (admittedly more thorough and better planned) new development.
So, what conclusions can we draw from Indianapolis Union Station's disappointing failure, as well as the collapse of a similar festival marketplace project in Cincinnati's magnificent Art Deco Union Terminal? I'll tentatively draw some, and invite your comments on the Interchange.
So after two decades as a booster of the festival marketplace/railroad station conversion proposition, I'm throwing in the towel. For cities considering the future of their great railroad buildings, I'd recommend careful consideration of a revitalized transit purpose first, conversion to a museum or other civic use such as a courthouse or city/county office building second, and conversion to a commercial marketplace last if at all.
I invite your thoughts, comments, and other examples of how to do it and how NOT to do it on the Interchange.
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