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Metro's Union Station master plan a significant shift

Christopher Hawthorne
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Architecture Critic
Via @HawthorneLAT: Master plan for Union Station would remake 1939 station, swath of surrounding downtown

Union Station celebrated its 75th anniversary in May. This month we're getting a glimpse — encouraging if opaque — of what its next 75 years might look like.

A nearly finalized master plan by L.A. firm Gruen Associates and London's Grimshaw Architects imagines remaking not just the guts of the station, including the concourse that leads passengers beneath its tracks, but a swath of downtown surrounding it. The architecture of the 1939 building, designed by John and Donald Parkinson, will be largely protected, seeing only minor changes.

At the same time, the plan acknowledges that executing its boldest and farthest-reaching goals — making room for high-speed trains from San Francisco, building new towers around the station and forging new connections to the L.A. River and the Civic Center — will depend heavily on forces beyond the architects' control.

As a result the plan is both deeply, sometimes mind-numbingly technical and highly speculative. It aims to fix some past planning and design errors while also readying the building for a future as the central rail hub in a city with a revived downtown and a growing transit network.

Despite that uncertainty, the plan promises, in the short term, to bring significant and long-awaited changes to the station.

The board of directors of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which bought Union Station and 40 acres of surrounding land in 2011, is expected to approve its basic framework in October and start work on an environmental-impact report.

With landscape architect Mia Lehrer, the architects have proposed a new civic plaza — what they call a "forecourt" — at the foot of the building, filling the area between the building and Alameda Street and replacing a surface parking lot. Renderings show an attractively paved open space ringed by benches and cafe tables — and little shade.

The plan also calls for remaking Alameda itself as it runs in front of the station, making it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate. Complicating this goal, the city's existing plan for Alameda actually anticipates widening the street to make room for the heavier car traffic produced by a busier Union Station.

(Such are the contradictions of planning in contemporary Los Angeles. The master plan suggests crafting a memorandum of understanding with the city's planning office to help bridge this gap.)

Taken together, Metro argues, the perimeter changes "will soften the edges of the station" and improve connections to the nearby El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument and the Civic Center.

On the other side of the historic building, the plan calls for demolishing the existing Patsaouras Transit Plaza, where bus passengers now line up above an unfortunate, glassed-in semicircular entry hall, and moving bus traffic to a new linear terminal on the west side of the tracks.

In between will be the most dramatic change: to the concourse itself. Today passengers leave the station's historic main hall and walk past a Starbucks and a Famima market into what is essentially a very long and very low hallway, with tracks reached by stairs on either side. In the Gruen-Grimshaw plan this space would be replaced by a largely open-air concourse, with sunlight filtering in from above and large landscaped planters with benches around their edges.

The master plan arrives at a time when the station is seeing other significant changes, helping accelerate the idea that the building and the neighborhood around it are in noticeable flux. Using mostly federal money, Metro is redesigning the bus stops along Cesar Chavez Ave.

The basic track design is in the middle of a $350-million overhaul that will soon end the inefficient practice of trains pulling in and then having to back out of the station in favor of a so-called run-through setup. Making that switch will require raising the rail tracks by 5 feet, to allow them to clear the 101 Freeway as they move in a new loop around the station.

The change has direct implications, good and possibly bad, for the rest of the master plan; it's a reminder of just how many moving parts (and how much linked infrastructure) Gruen and Grimshaw and Metro's in-house planners have had to keep track of in remaking Union Station.

Good: Raising the tracks will make the concourse feel open and much less cramped, since the ceiling above passengers' heads will be 5 feet higher than it is now.

Possibly bad: If lifting the tracks in and around the station requires lifting them along the L.A. River as well, that could mean that several historic bridges will need to be replaced.

Meanwhile, back inside Union Station, one of the city's great and underrated rooms, the old Fred Harvey restaurant, will soon have a tenant after years of sitting empty. The downtown restaurateurs Eric Needleman and Cedd Moses have tentatively agreed to open a gastropub in the space, which was designed in a sort of Navajo Revival style by architect Mary Colter, the in-house architect for the Harvey company.

It remains unclear what will happen to the other exquisite and long-vacant space inside Union Station, the old ticket room just north of the main entrance. If it opened directly onto the new forecourt, it's possible a kind of market hall could fill that space, a blend of the Ferry Building in San Francisco and L.A.'s Grand Central Market on Broadway.

There is even more uncertainty about what will happen on the eastern edge of the station property, where the master plan imagines a new skyscraper reached by one of two new pedestrian bridges above the tracks. For starters, who knows how quickly efforts to remake the section of the Los Angeles River directly behind Union Station will bear fruit?

On top of that there is the fraught question of the state's bullet train project. The Union Station master plan calls for a high-speed station, largely built underground, on the east side of the tracks. Making room for it — and creating new connections from there to the banks of a remade L.A. River — would likely require demolishing the C. Erwin Piper Technical Center, a city-owned building that holds public archives and is known as Piper Tech.

Metro is by necessity hedging its bets when it comes to high-speed rail. Its staff report on the master plan backs the site near Piper Tech but says the agency is "flexible and open to other station alignments."

These are planning issues. A separate question is how and when Metro will choose architects – and designs – for the expanded station, which could include a new hotel to go with towers and the relocated bus terminal. Gruen and Grimshaw were officially hired just for the master plan phase.

Picking the right firms will be important not just on the remade edges of the site but also for the future of the original station. The master plan is careful to respect and give breathing room to the 1939 building, which achieves an unusual balance between grandeur and pedestrian scale, not to mention between ornament and spare abstraction. But the scale of the new development threatens to overwhelm it.

This is not to say that any new towers should aim to match the architecture of the older building. Metro and architecture firm McLarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners tried that in 1995 with the stolid, 28-story MTA tower, a building that unfortunately remains standing in the master plan, even as the bus plaza at its feet will be removed.

When it was new, Union Station's relationship to the city around it was direct. Its grand, arched main entrance faced City Hall and the rest of downtown.

It turned its back quite unapologetically on the tracks behind it and on the river, which had recently been encased in concrete by the Army Corps of Engineers. Los Angeles, like the nation as a whole, was expanding to the west; the station faced squarely and optimistically in that direction.

Over time this separation between front and back has eroded. The addition of the bus plaza and Metro office tower opened up the back of the station.

The central goal of the new master plan, its main urban and civic idea, is to extend and refine this evolution, ultimately turning the station into a transportation hub in the round.

The change would acknowledge not just the river behind the station but the whole of East L.A. on the other side of its banks. It would reflect the fact that people increasingly will be arriving and leaving Union Station on foot and by bike — and maybe even coming not to get on a train but just to have a drink or meet friends for dinner.

A building that once clearly occupied an edge, backed up against an unlovely and highly engineered river, is ready to take up a literal and symbolic place in the middle of something new.

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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