Union Station chugging forward

From the Chicago Journal:

Chicago’s train hub plans future, from rehabbed retail to new offices and traffic patterns

Nobody would be surprised to see Chicago’s Union Station busy during rush hour. On weekday mornings and evenings, the concourse and the second-floor mezzanine become nearly impassable. But even on the weekend, the food court on the second floor still gets decent traffic. Nearly every seat in the dining area is taken.
About twelve passengers, many with luggage on hand, line up in front of Gold Coast Dogs as the staff briskly processes their orders. A smaller group of college students studies the menu at the Corner Bakery location a few feet away. The McDonald’s across the aisle is also decently packed, with several families and other groups sitting around most tables. Even the more low-key eateries such a Kelly’s Cajun Grill got an occasional customer.
It’s because Union Station is the third-busiest train station in the country, serving as the terminal for six Metra lines and 18 Amtrak routes. As the ridership continues to increase, Amtrak working is working with Metra and the Chicago Department of Transportation to renovate and improve the station. The company hopes to better utilize the existing space and make it a bigger retail destination for passengers and area residents alike.
Rental income from retailers helps Amtrak to offset maintains and security costs, and retail expansion goes a long way toward reducing expenses. When Washington D.C.’s Washington Union Station was renovated during the 1980s, it gained 100 shops and restaurants, a foot court and a nine-screen AMC theater. This brought in significant revenue and made the station an attractive destination to those who would otherwise ignore it.
The Union Station has been home to a variety of retailers since it opened in 1925. As the station changed in response to shifting traffic patterns, so did the retailers. Today, most of the businesses are either restraints or eateries around the food court. Other businesses include three Press Relay newsstands, a shoeshine service and the Flowers Ala Carte location.
But while Amtrak and Metra passengers patronize those businesses in decent numbers, it gets little outside traffic. Lucia Diaz, a sales clerk at the Press Relay near Jackson Street exit, explained the issue in simple terms.
“Everything is more expensive inside [Union Station],” Diaz said. “Most people just go somewhere else.”
Aside from the Metro Deli, all of the businesses within the Union Station are franchises that are well represented throughout downtown, and, in some cases, within the station’s immediate vicinity. For someone who’s walking through the neighborhood, there is little reason to look for the Corner Bakery at the Union Station mezzanine, when they can stop by another, more visible location in the skyscraper right above it.
Another issue Amtrak faces is space. Broadly speaking, Union Station is made up of three parts — the historic headhouse, the concourse that runs between northbound and southbound tracks and the mezzanine that runs right above it. The concourse and the mezzanine can’t expand any further.
The headhouse, on the other hand, offers possibilities. It is the only part of the Union Station that survived largely intact. Standing eight floors high, this Beaux-Arts building makes for a distinctive visual amidst the surrounding skyscrapers. The Great Hall, the station’s historic waiting area, is a well-known landmark and a filming location for a large number of movies and TV shows.
But while the concourse tends to be crowded even off-peak, the historic headhouse tends to be largely empty. Today, the passengers have little reason to remain here. The concourse contains most of the Metra and Amtrak facilities, including ticket offices, baggage services, storage lockers and boarding lounges. Most of the retail spaces around the Great Hall are empty.
Since 2010, Amtrak has been working to change that. Its first priority is to make the Great Hall more welcoming to visitors. In 2011, the Great Hall was equipped with modern air conditioners and upgraded to more energy-efficient lighting. Amtrak is currently planning to relocate the Metropolitan Lounge, a waiting room reserved for sleeping car passengers, to one of the unused retail spaces near the Great Hall.
Amtrak has also been working to renovate the unused offices above the Great Hall. The company announced its intentions to rent out the offices, estimating that it can help it recover as much as 80 percent of the operating costs. But before that happens, the offices need to be safe. The 2011 and 2012 Amtrak budgets indicate that the company is currently working to remove lead-based paint and asbestos from the upper floors.
The project was originally scheduled to be finished at the end of 2012. But according to Marc Margliari, Amtrak Media Relations Manager for the Union Station, the deadline was pushed back to the end of 2013 at the earliest.
Amtrak is also working with CDOT to improve traffic flow along Canal and Jackson streets. The traffic along Canal has been an issue for years, as taxicabs and buses struggled to load and unload passengers at Union Station entrances. Margliari indicated that work on Canal Street should begin in a few weeks time.
When discussing the project in its documents, Amtrak listed a number of goals. After talking about infrastructure and logistics, it spoke to the role of the station in the community, stating that it wanted to “create a terminal that is vibrant, a civic asset, and a catalyst for growth in the West Loop and region.” For the people who work and live in the neighborhood, achieving that may be the most important goal of all.