Union Station: It Still Doesn’t Make Sense

They’re calling it ‘Union Station II.’

That’s the name some officials and observers have attached to the latest plan to revitalize the long-idle train station in Springfield. The ‘II’ fits if one considers this to be the sequel to a plan that was conceived more than a decade ago — one that never really got off the ground, for many good reasons — but the reality is that this is more like Union Station IV, V, or VI.

That’s how many proposals, formal and informal, have been forwarded for this white elephant since the mid-’70s, and none of them have gotten off the ground.

And speaking of reality, that’s what Union Station II (OK, we’ll call it that) is supposedly grounded in. At least it’s more realistic that Union Station I, say those involved with piecing this together. But that’s not saying much.

Indeed, the plan first conceived in the mid-’90s and then formalized at the start of this decade included an intermodal transportation center, but also grandiose plans for everything from a high-end restaurant to an IMAX movie theater to Class A office spaces that would offer lease rates about half again what was being charged in the downtown office towers. Springfield was going to recreate what happened with Washington’s Union Station and Boston’s North Station, both huge success stories.

But there was no real market for any of this, and the plan was ultimately scrapped while the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority sorted out a huge internal mess that ultimately led to the firing of its director.

Now, we have Union Station II, new, improved, scaled down, more realistic — all of that. But this plan still doesn’t make a great deal of sense for Springfield and still seems like a desperate attempt to salvage a building that no one under the age of 60 can probably remember well or with any fondness.

Apparently, the main reason it is being redeveloped is because the city has secured tens of millions in federal funding to do so. This money can’t be applied somewhere else, and if we don’t use it, we lose it, as the saying goes. But that’s not enough reason to go ahead with this project, as we see it.

There are plans — again, formal and informal — to move organizations ranging from the PVTA to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) to Square One into Union Station, thus filling a large chunk of the available office space there. Meanwhile, an intermodal transit center would be created to handle Amtrak service as well as inter- and intra-city bus services. A large parking garage is also in the mix.

It’s not a bad plan overall, but one has to ask whether it’s needed or even wanted.

There are probably dozens of privately and publicly owned office buildings in downtown Springfield alone that could easily meet the needs of the PVPC (currently located in West Springfield Town Hall), PVTA (administration-wise, anyway), and Square One, and would love the opportunity to do so. The federal building is vacant, Tower Square’s lower level is a ghost town, One Financial Plaza has more than 100,000 square feet of dark space … the list goes on. Meanwhile, the PVTA already has administrative offices, and there is a functioning intermodal transportation center (Peter Pan’s facilities) on the other side of Main Street.

Economic development does not mean picking up existing businesses and organizations and moving them a few blocks or a few miles — thus creating vacancies in a host of other buildings. Rather, it means attracting new businesses and new jobs. Aside from construction jobs, this Union Station plan doesn’t accomplish that.

As we said, Union Station II is more plausible, more realistic than Union Station I. But from our view, it still amounts to little more than an effort to force the issue — in this case restoration of a landmark that most have forgotten and that some simply don’t want to forget.

Union Station is an intriguing link to Springfield’s past. There is history and a touch of romance there. But bringing the old train station back to life has to be about more than nostalgia and spending federal dollars that no one wants to give back.

It all has to make sense. And Union Station II, or whatever number we’re up to, is still lacking in that department.-

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