Union Station: Heading Down the Wrong Track

The groups involved with development of Springfield’s riverfront issued a request for proposals, or RFP, for the old Basketball Hall of Fame last month. The old Hall is the last piece in the new Hall development project, and officials thought that after 18 months of futility, they would shake the trees, in a manner of speaking, and see if the development community had any new ideas on what to do with the former Hall of Fame building.

The RFP has already generated one, very unofficial response. In a letter to theRepublican, an area resident proposed turning the old Hall into a transit center for the region. He argued that the site was well-positioned — right on the railroad tracks and right off I-91— and had plenty of parking, and abundant space for the buses, trains, and whatever else would run out of a transit hub in Springfield. And he argued that the project would cost a fraction of what it will take to turn the long-vacant Union Station into the intermodal transportation center envisioned by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.

The letter writer’s arguments are valid, although there are two large problems. First, it is highly unlikely that planning officials would take a facility they have designated for a tourist-oriented use and relegate it (that’s the word they would use) to a future as a transportation center. The hope is for the old Hall to be used as a museum or retail center that will bring a wider demographic to the riverfront — and not merely those who like basketball or the food at Max’s Tavern.

The second problem is that the state and federal money to be used for Union Station — which will constitute a large portion of the project’s $100 million price tag — has already been committed. The wheels are in motion, as they say, literally and figuratively, and Union Station is moving forward.

We really wish it wasn’t.

From the start, we have tried to find the logic in taking the 80-year-old station, vacant since the early ’60s, and bringing it back to life. But we really can’t find any. This is a project rooted far more in nostalgia than it is in common sense, and we fear that those state and federal dollars may well wind up being wasted.

It isn’t the transportation component of this project that has us skeptical. People will go to wherever the buses and trains are centered; currently, the trains run out of a small depot at Union Station while the buses are run out of the Peter Pan terminal across Main Street. Consolidating the buses, trains, and taxis at one facility makes sense — although the price of renovating Union Station for this purpose is quite steep.

Which is why the scope of this project has been broadened. Indeed, like other old train facilities around the country — many of them named Union Station — Springfield’s landmark is being eyed as an economic development engine.

Plans call for filling the vast spaces above the main concourse with offices, retail outlets, a Challenger Learning Center, and other facilities. The goal is to make the grand old train station a destination, and this is where we turn skeptical.

Union Station is only a half-dozen blocks from downtown, but it might as well be a few miles. People will need some compelling reasons to visit the station, and we’re not sure they will have them. Very few individuals ride the train these days, and in this part of the state, the buses are used primarily by those who don’t have cars.

Thus, it will take a first-class restaurant (or maybe two) and a fine shopping experience to get most people to visit Union Station. And while a restaurant is possible, we don’t see retail succeeding in that space — not without a critical mass of daily visitors with disposable income. As for office space, there is already a glut of Class B and C space in the downtown area, and more is planned.

We sincerely hope that we’re wrong about Union Station. It would be great if it becomes not only a transportation hub, but a true destination worthy of a state/federal investment of nearly $100 million. It would be a great boost for Springfield if its train station could become what Union Station in Washington, D.C. has become — the largest tourist attraction in that city, a facility visited not only by commuters, but many looking for a place to grab lunch, do some shopping, or have a business meeting.

Unfortunately, we see this project as a nostalgic leap of faith, one we don’t consider worth taking.