Train of Thought

Is the Time Finally Right for Springfield?s Union Station?
Train of Thought

John Judge says that, given the priority status attached to commuter rail regionally and nationally, Union Station may be able to turn back the clock and thrive.

The hands on the large clock in the main lobby of Springfield’s Union Station haven’t moved in nearly 40 years. For this landmark built in 1926 by the Boston and Albany Railroad, time has stood still — literally. But time hasn’t run out, insist those now working to advance yet another redevelopment plan for the station, one they say is unlike previous concepts, because it is grounded in market realities.

John Judge understands that, when he says he’s “hopeful and “optimistic” about the prospects for Union Station, he’s echoing the comments of myriad Springfield officials, Pioneer Valley Transit Authority administrators, and area economic-development leaders, some of whom have watched the landmark sit idle and deteriorate for almost 40 years.

When he says he believes the timing is right for the station to soon end its long hibernation, he knows that others have been saying words to that effect since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.

Judge has been Springfield’s chief development officer for only 11 months now, but he knows all about Union Station’s long and recently quite sad history. So he understands why so many are skeptical about something positive ever happening there.

“I can’t blame them. They have every right to be skeptical; one thing after another has created roadblocks for this property, and the years have turned into decades,” said Judge, who was enthusiastic but also quite realistic as he talked about the latest in a series of plans — some formal, some just idle talk — for reuse of the station on Frank B Murray Street. This one is far more grounded than the ones that have come before it, said Judge, noting that previous incarnations have included everything from a hotel to an IMAX theater that have never come close to seeing the light of day.

This version, called Union Station II by some and ‘Option One’ by the consulting firm that drafted the plan, is based mostly on transportation-related components, including a 23-bay bus terminal, and comes at a time when the nation and the region are making commuter rail a priority matter, said Judge. He expressed the hope, but also the expectation, that Springfield could become a hub of commuter-rail service running from Southern Vermont to New Haven, Conn. and, ultimately, New York.

The plan has other components, including plans for a day-care center, what is called ‘transit-related retail’ (kiosks, newsstands, coffee shops, and fast-food operations), and what the consultants call ‘opportunity space’ for other retail.

It’s a nice picture, and variations of it have been painted before, many times, which explains why so much skepticism remains about Union Station. And those doubts are just one hurdle to be overcome. The economy is another, as is a sluggish commercial real-estate market that has property owners of all kinds, from private developers to Springfield Community College and its assistance corporation, vying for the same small pool of office tenants.

And then, there’s Worcester’s Union Station, which was renovated a decade ago and has sat mostly empty since then, becoming a poster child for historic train-station redevelopment gone awry — or gone nowhere — thus casting further doubt on Springfield’s efforts.

Judge is optimistic that 2010 will yield the first real, visible signs of progress at Union Station in many years, which he says could start to erase some doubts. He expects there might be movement to solidify some of the transportation components, especially the PVTA’s eventual move from its headquarters on Main Street to the train station, and also some of the other pieces to this puzzle, such as a day-care center, a senior center, and that transportation-related retail. And he anticipates that work to begin razing the so-called ‘baggage building’ adjacent to the station could begin late this year or early next, providing some tangible evidence that redevelopment is happening.

The economy is still quite soft now, which is actually good, from a timing perspective, for this project, in that those working to redevelop Union Station can position it for the day — not far off — when times are better and the appetite for commuter rail will be much greater.

“We’re in a unique time in history in that we have an administration that’s committed to high-speed commuter rail, and we also have a society that’s embracing the idea of regionalism and how important that is,” he explained. “If gas goes to $4 a gallon again, people are going to have few if any options in terms of commuting. What we want to do is reposition Union Station as not simply an intermodal facility for Springfield, but as a hub for the Pioneer Valley.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look at the latest plans for Union Station and their prospects for becoming reality.

On the Right Track

Judge calls it the “Union Station task force.”

That’s the name he’s given to a small working group that now gathers around the conference table in his office on Tapley Street every Tuesday morning starting at 8:30. The group began meeting a few months ago, he told BusinessWest, and he intends to stay with the weekly schedule for the foreseeable future to keep this latest Union Station project on the front burner, where he says it belongs.

“We want this to be a priority,” he said, “and when you meet every month or every other month, it’s not a priority.”

Recent meetings have had a number of agenda items, but especially the steps — legal, financial, and technical — needed to make the Springfield Redevelopment Authority the lead agency on this project (a memorandum of understanding between the SRA and PVTA was signed last summer making them partners in this initiative) and the entity that would be the direct designee for the close to $60 million in state and federal funds that have been awarded for Union Station redevelopment.

The money is in place, technically speaking, and has been for many years, said Judge, adding that the individual earmarks must be “re-energized.”

In general, discussion among task force members, who include Judge, Kevin Kennedy, senior aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, a strong advocate for re-development of the station; Maureen Hayes, president of Hayes Development and a consultant to the city on this project; and others, centers around a redevelopment plan crafted in late 2008 by the Nebraska-based consulting firm HDR.

As they talked about the plan, Judge and Kennedy echoed what HDR said in its executive summary of the latest redevelopment initiative:

“Past efforts to redevelop this facility were not successful due to a variety of reasons, but the common denominator was that the plans were not based on market realty,” said the report’s authors in reference to such concepts as the hotel, IMAX theater, upscale restaurants, and other components of previous plans. “This redevelopment plan takes a grounded approach based on well-defined objectives, available funding, economic viability, and the realities of the real-estate market.”

At the heart of HDR’s redevelopment plan is something the consultants call simply ‘Option One,’ or the best of several scenarios for revitalization of the Union Station complex.

Option One has several components, including:

  • Restoration of the terminal building, with approximately 33,000 square feet for PVTA, Amtrak, commuter rail, and intercity bus operating facilities; 58,000 square feet of transit-related retail and office space, including day care, PVTA administrative offices, and a transportation conference center; and 30,000 square feet of commercial ‘opportunity space’ for future economic development;
  • Removal of the baggage building and construction of a new, 139,000-square-foot bus terminal with 23 bays;
  • Construction of a 400-space, two-level parking garage connected to the terminal building to accommodate transit and public parking above the new bus terminal; and
  • Reopening of a passenger tunnel, providing a safe, walkable connection from the terminal building to the Amtrak station and platforms, and Lyman Street.
  • Funding is essentially in place for these various components, say the report’s authors, adding that $4 million would still be needed to complete the build-out of the opportunity space, which could be financed by a loan or “obtained through some other funding source.”

    The HDR report also lays out budgetary projections:

    “A fully occupied Option One is expected to generate an annual revenue of budget of approximately $1.9 million, of which $1.5 million is associated with the transit-related operations and $400,000 from the opportunity space. The total annual operating cost is estimated at approximately $1.5 million. A net balance of about $400,000 would generate enough cash flow to cover the debt service of the financing needed to build out opportunity space.”

    Getting Everyone On Board

    All this looks good on paper, but there are many questions involving whether the plan can become reality. They concern everything from whether Peter Pan Bus Lines will be a player in this new plan (and if the project can go ahead if it’s not) to whether there will be any interest in that aforementioned opportunity space.

    Judge and Kennedy said those questions will be answered over time, but both expressed optimism that the plan can come together as HDR has outlined it.

    “With a lot of projects of this magnitude, it comes down to timing and circumstance,” said Kennedy, who has a long history with Union Station — he was an aide to then-Mayor Neal when the city took possession of the landmark. “Looking to the future and what will be a greater emphasis on rail, I think Springfield is positioned to be a hub of a commuter rail line and also positioned for an economic-development project in the north of its downtown blocks.

    “To do nothing with Union Station would be a bad idea,” he continued, “and I think we have a much better chance for success now, because this plan is based on market realities.”

    As for specific components for a revitalized Union Station, Judge said some discussions have taken place with administrators at Square One, the Springfield-based day-care provider, and there is some interest in possibly creating a new facility in the station, which would be a natural location if it were to become an intermodal transit center. And such an operation would help create additional vibrancy in the station, something that would be needed to attract other forms of retail.

    A senior center would provide similar benefits, said Judge, adding that he can visualize a facility that seniors could reach via mass transit and stay at during the day.

    “We have to look at what we can do to make this a vibrant, 24/7-like spot for the city,” he explained, “and not a situation where a train pulls in, people walk through, and you’re missing that added vibrancy.

    “Having Square One there would be critical,” he continued, “and another thing I’d like to have, and I think it would be innovative, would be a senior center. There would be some inter-generational opportunities, and a place where seniors can go to do a power walk, grab a bite to eat, use wifi, and maybe volunteer some time with the kids.”

    Another possibility, he said, is creation of facilities, such as conference rooms and other amenities, that could be used by businesses and individuals with virtual offices. “The region doesn’t have anything like that, and it needs one.”

    But to achieve real success with this project, Springfield, and Union Station, would need to become the hub of much more extensive commuter-rail service, said Judge, who firmly believes that day is coming.

    “The scenario works out this way … you live in Sixteen Acres, take a PVTA bus to Union Station, walk through the station, get your coffee and your bagel and your ticket, and then get on a train to New Haven, and from there you can go to New York,” he said, adding that many business executives currently drive to New Haven and take a train to Gotham.

    This scene that Judge lays out is similar to the way things were decades ago, before air travel and the interstate highway system crippled the railroads — and dozens of once-proud facilities like Union Station. A return to those days, and a commuter-rail system approaching what is seen in most European countries, could enable Springfield’s landmark to come full-circle.

    Last Stop

    As he talked about moving plans for Union Station off the drawing board and to reality, Judge said he has an excellent team in place for that assignment (his task force), that the timing is right, with the state and region due to emerge from the recession at about the same time the project heats up, and that the latest plan is realistic and doable.

    As he spoke those words, he realized that many before him, in various governmental capacities, have said essentially the same things.

    Time will tell if things go differently with this plan for the landmark that time forgot, meaning that things will go right. But Judge firmly believes that soon — a relative term if ever there was one — people will talk about Union Station using something other than the past tense.

    George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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