Star architects unveil wild plans for Union Station circa 2050

Architecture Critic

Architects from some of the most prominent firms in the world -- including Renzo Piano and UN Studio’s Ben Van Berkel -- joined a long list of well-known local designers Wednesday in presenting hugely ambitious if largely fanciful plans for expanding Los Angeles’ Union Station.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which now owns the station and a 40-acre parcel of land surrounding it, plans to choose a single team of designers as the master planner for the station site by late June.

Anticipating not only the possible arrival of high-speed rail service but also the construction of a massive mixed-use development -- Metro holds entitlements to build as much as 6 million square feet of new office, retail and residential space around the station -- Metro officials asked the six teams of architects, engineers and consultants to prepare “vision boards” imagining what the site might look like in 2050.

But -- talk about raining on your own parade! -- those officials stressed Wednesday in introducing the competing teams that the boards will play little role in their deliberations. A press release Metro handed out was even blunter. “The Vision Boards are not part of the formal evaluation process,” it read.


Instead, Martha Welborne, Metro’s executive planning director, said the idea was to try to find some inspiring ideas for the site and for downtown by asking the participating architects to let their imaginations roam.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa kicked off the event, which attracted a standing-room only crowd to Union Station’s Old Ticket Room. He said the master plan offered an opportunity for Los Angeles to pursue a major transformation, pivoting “from the city of congestion and sprawl” to a city with increased mass-transit options and a commitment to environmental sustainability.

Then each team gave a condensed, five-minute version of what it saw as the potential for the site, which sits between a resurgent downtown core and the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. In each proposal Union Station itself would be fully preserved, with new station buildings added to handle high-speed rail or other train traffic.

Several teams called for new ribbons of development stretching from Union Station either toward the river or across the 101 Freeway and toward the Civic Center. Others, including Piano, imagined a collection of new towers rising at the rear of the existing station.


Still others -- including the group made of up local architects Moore Ruble Yudell in collaboration with Mexican architect Enrique Norten and the Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8 -- put their focus on open-air amenities and taking advantage of the mild Southern California climate.

There was an embarrassment of design talent packed inside the room on Wednesday, to be sure. But it remains impossible to guess what the connection will be between these visions -- many of them unconstrained by political or financial realities -- and what is ultimately built.

Indeed, many of the key components that would help drive a revival in the area around the station -- including not just the proposed bullet train but also plans to revitalize the L.A. River and to build a park atop a sunken stretch of the 101 -- face an uncertain future.