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Transit Hub Back on Track

Times Staff Writer

Is this Los Angeles, the land of the Jetta and the Jaguar, the freeway interchange, the molasses-thick traffic? You couldn’t tell it, at least on weekday rush hours, by going to Union Station.

The place is full of commuters. None in a car.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 29, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Union Station -- A photo caption with a May 22 Section A article about Union Station incorrectly identified a marble plaza as being part of the station. The plaza is part of the nearby Gateway Transit Center.

They pile out of subway stations on their way to work. They run, shoulder to shoulder, to Metrolink trains. They sit on leather seats waiting for Amtrak and stand -- with briefcases and baseball hats and book bags -- waiting for buses that shuttle to points all over the region.

To wade through the foot traffic at this historic terminal is to sense that what Los Angeles transit planners have long desired -- mass transit that is easy to use, comfortable, even alluring through its beauty -- is at least partially becoming a reality.

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“You are beginning to see that this region has a transit hub,” said Jim de la Loza, planning director for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “It’s taking shape. This goes back to the vision that people like Mayor [Tom] Bradley had 20 and 30 years ago when they started talking about building a stop at Union Station.”

Since it opened in 1939, the terminal, on 51 acres at the northeast edge of downtown, has seen both boom and bust.

Union Station was a major gateway during Los Angeles’ rapid post-World War II development. In those peak years, about 40 trains a day arrived at the station. But as Los Angeles International Airport began handling more long-distance travelers, the station turned increasingly desolate. By 1971 as few as seven trains used it each day.

The downward spiral began to reverse in the early 1990s. Santa Fe Railroad, which owned the station, spun off its real estate division into a new company, Catellus Development Corp., in 1990. Catellus began refurbishing the station, with the goal of turning it into a magnet for new development.

In quick succession the Metropolitan Water District and the MTA bought sections of the station’s property and built new headquarters there, spending about $425 million in taxpayer money in the process. The MTA added a bus terminus and opened up a Red Line subway stop underneath the station. Metrolink inaugurated regionwide commuter service, eventually connecting Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties.

Because most rail tracks in Southern California already flowed into downtown, Union Station by 1995 had become the fulcrum of a burgeoning passenger network. By 1998, transit officials say, an average of 20,000 people were using the station each weekday.

This year, with use of the Red Line, Amtrak and Metrolink growing, more than 200 trains and an average of 40,000 people pass through it on weekdays.

Most use the terminal as a transfer point. A suburban commuter can take Metrolink to Union Station, transfer to the Red Line subway and end up at a job on Wilshire Boulevard. Others work at offices on the station site or within walking distance.

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Although the total number of daily visitors is smaller than at many East Coast rail terminals -- Union Station in Washington, D.C., handles about 70,000 people a day, including on weekends -- local transit officials foresee a time when Los Angeles’ Union Station will be just as busy.

Sometime around July, the 14-mile Gold Line railway will open, connecting Pasadena and Los Angeles, with its busiest stop expected to be at Union Station.

Within the next decade, planners at the MTA hope to extend the Gold Line east to Claremont and add a southeast spur to Boyle Heights. If those extensions happen, about 20,000 more riders are expected to use Union Station on most days. And thousands more could join them if regional or state plans to build high-speed rail, set for a public vote next year, come to pass.

“This place is going to look very different,” said Roger Snoble, the MTA chief executive, as he walked through the station recently. He noted that the station’s use significantly slows at times other than rush hour, a situation that will probably change in coming years. “It’s already a wonderful place ... but now it’s going to be active all of the time.”

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Though public officials hope for more commuter use of the terminal, private builders have their eyes on what Union Station can do to spur development of downtown’s northern end.

Catellus is poised to develop large swaths of terminal property that are now unused or serve as parking lots. The city will soon build a 32-acre park within a mile of the station. Parts of Chinatown that draw artists and clubgoers seem ripe for new restaurants and apartments. And the nonprofit California Endowment will soon build a new headquarters on six acres about a block from Union Station.

“It is inevitable. More interest and building is going to happen there,” said Dan Rosenfeld, whose firm, Urban Partners, is developing the California Endowment building. “The proximity to great transit and a great building is one of the drivers.”

Rosenfeld noted that part of Union Station’s attraction is its link to the city’s evolution.

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The terminal got its name because it represented a union of three railroad companies -- Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Santa Fe -- that once competed for passenger service and had separate train stations downtown.

City and state officials first broached plans for the station in 1915. For years, the proposal was the subject of intense fights, with the railroads opposing creation of a single terminal and The Times, then perhaps the city’s most forceful voice, supporting it. Competing plans, including one that would have created an elevated passenger rail network, similar to Chicago’s El, were tossed into the mix.

In 1926 city voters rejected the elevated train proposal and settled on the location for Union Station. The terminal would be built on what was then Chinatown, with residents and businesses relocated a few blocks northwest to the present-day Chinatown. Still, Union Station didn’t get a final go-ahead until 1931, when the U.S. Supreme Court turned back appeals by the railroad companies.

Like great East Coast rail terminals such as Grand Central Station in New York, Union Station was built to be a landmark. Architects Donald and John Parkinson, who had designed the Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and the Bullocks Wilshire department store, were commissioned to oversee the station’s design.

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Union Station wasn’t finished until 1939, perilously close to the end of train travel’s golden era. Still, the station flourished in the pre-jet age of the 1940s and ‘50s and was the entry point for tens of thousands of new residents, particularly as the region grew rapidly after World War II. But by the 1970s, with fewer rail passengers, the station’s Harvey House restaurant had closed. So had its cocktail lounge, barbershop and post office.

Today, the MTA’s adjacent 26-story headquarters looms above the station, as does the 12-story MWD building. Yet the train depot still stands out, a marriage of 20th century industrial design and Mexican adobe style, decked out in white and trimmed with orange and blue tile and Moorish detailing. The station’s main entrance, a 50-foot arch that leads into a wood-beamed waiting room lighted by hanging 10-foot-wide Spanish-style fixtures, sets the tone.

“There’s a special feeling there, almost hard to put into words,” said Leonard Robertson, one of the many riders enthralled with the place. A retired computer specialist, Robertson commutes on Metrolink from Irvine to Union Station and ends up in East Los Angeles, where he volunteers as an English teacher.

Robertson’s itinerary is just the type that transit planners hope to encourage. His commuter train takes him to downtown. The subway shoots him out of the hub to Pershing Square. A bus takes him to his final destination. The entire trip takes an hour and a half, about a third longer than if he braved the freeways, he says.

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“It may be faster in the car, but not always,” said Robertson as he stood on an escalator taking him to the Red Line platform. “And even though I’ve got to transfer, one thing I’ve got about my trip is I don’t have to worry about getting stuck in a car. I just sit back and relax.”

The transit complex also has its critics. Some argue that the subway portal and MTA headquarters buildings are a waste of public money that could have been better spent on improving the region’s bus system. Still others say the station is less effective than it could be if it was in the heart of downtown, many blocks away.

Catellus has been criticized in some corners for not doing more to create an even better experience for riders.

That’s because parts of Union Station remain undeveloped and without the kind of amenities -- large numbers of small shops, eateries and curio stands -- that can be found in airports or at places like Washington’s Union Station. For example, one of the largest and grandest open spaces at L.A.'s Union Station is the old ticket concourse. Its vaulted ceilings and 115-foot-long ticket counter, made of black walnut, are roped off from the public and used mostly for late-night parties or for shooting movies, such as scenes from the recent “Catch Me If You Can.”

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Doug Gardner, vice president of Catellus, said the company would like to rim the historic terminal with a series of low-lying office buildings and apartments. The firm, which owns land throughout California that once belonged to Santa Fe Railroad, also would consider adding small businesses and more restaurants, a pedestrian bridge that could span the property, and possibly a hotel connected to the old ticket concourse.

Such projects could mean millions in revenue and asset growth for Catellus. The key is keeping property values growing, and the anchor for that is the station itself.

“It’s a real responsibility here, making sure that any kind of change we bring is done with great taste and respect for the history of Union Station,” Gardner said as he strode through the station’s long, sloping main tunnel and past a group of construction workers. Sparks flew. The men were putting the finishing touches on the Gold Line station, its opening only weeks away.


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