Can Metro turn Union Station in LA's 'second downtown?

Union Station has come a long way since it was first built in 1939. At the time, racial and anti-railroad tensions were high in Los Angeles, and the new station spurred heavy debate throughout the community, especially since the development was located at the center of the city’s former Chinatown.

Nearly 80 years later, the station now spans 41 acres and is considered the largest passenger railroad terminal in the west.

Earlier this week at FutureBuild 2018, which featured curated sessions from some of the top thinkers and innovators local and worldwide, Metro CEO Phillip Washington discussed the transit company’s upcoming plans for the station. Comparing its potential to renowned station hubs like Japan’s Tokyo Station, San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center, and Denver’s Union Station, Washington’s goal is making the Los Angeles Union Station an ultimate destination. 

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An estimated 170,000 transit users travel through Union Station daily, and the number is steadily climbing every day. The majority of commuters are there to catch a train or transfer to another railway line, but Washington voiced bigger hopes for the station. “We feel this has tremendous potential to be a very vibrant station,” he stated. “We think it can be a second Downtown for Los Angeles.” 

So what’s it going to take for Union Station to become a place where people come to hang out? 

According to Washington, the Metro is in the process of shopping the area around Union Station to potentially create a master-plan. He believes that in order for Union Station to become an activated area, developers should focus on building offices, retail, hotels, and residences in the areas around the station. 

Right now, the nearby properties include a vacant jail, the Metro headquarters, a plumbing service, bail bond offices, and a collection of parking lots. 

It seems like Union Station is light years away from becoming a central hub. However, Washington insists that if planners think about using the surrounding land more efficiently, the potential for Union Station to become a gathering spot can come to fruition by 2028. The project’s end game is to create a new neighborhood that is both welcoming and iconic to Los Angeles locals.

Investment around these unactivated parts of Downtown can help answer the area’s demand for more housing and hotels. As for funding the project, the Metro hopes the area around Union Station can become a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, which is a public financing method used to subsidize redevelopment, infrastructure, and other community-improvement projects.

Proposed Plan for Union Station / Courtesy of LA Metro

Although Los Angeles voters passed Measure M in 2016, which awarded $120 billion for transit projects over the next 40 years, the Union Station master plan won’t be receiving much from it. 

Washington, who also worked on Denver’s Union Station, didn’t seem too worried about financing, stating, “the project can almost pay for itself.”

The Metro is currently in its initial stages of planning. If the LA Board approves the above-grade designs, the next step for the transit giant would be to solicit community feedback.

The Metro is already working on a number of station improvements including an above-ground concourse and a new brewpub.

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