Amtrak station could bring major alterations to Freighthouse Square

Staff writerDecember 11, 2013 

When the Amtrak station moves from Puyallup Avenue to Freighthouse Square in a few years, it will occupy a brand-new building — if the state has its way.

On Monday night, Dome district residents got their first glimpse of what the Washington state Department of Transportation and its architect would do with the 104-year-old structure that stands where the new train station is planned.

“This building is an old, wood building,” said Mahlon Clements, director of VIA Architecture of Seattle. “To meet all of the codes and to not cost too much to operate, it would require extensive renovation. We weren’t even sure how much of the structure we would be able to keep.”

The new design made some in the audience gasp. The reason: the westernmost 150 feet of Freighthouse Square was gone.

“I’m trying to be calm about this,” said Jori Adkins, a Dome Business District representative. “This building is the icon of the Dome District other than the Dome itself.”

Some likened the replacement — a glass and steel building with a roof line similar to Freighthouse’s and louvers to shade passengers from the sun — to a metal shed, an “Amshak.”

“It looks unimaginative. It looks like a cross between a county fair pavilion and a used-car showroom,” Michael Sullivan, a local architectural historian and University of Washington Tacoma professor who teaches Tacoma history, said later after seeing the drawings. “(The design) doesn’t really respectfully give a nod to what went on at that location at all.”

The Milwaukee Road railroad built Freighthouse Square near the turn of the 20th century. The building doesn’t have national or state historic preservation status.

Sullivan said it’s not an architectural masterpiece, “but I would say that it does have high historic value.” He said moving the Amtrak station there is a “kind of an echo of past times.”

These types of warehouses, constructed adjacent to a railroad track, were built to sustain a lot of vibration and industrial use, Sullivan said. As such, they are extremely sturdy.

But the building’s bones may mean keeping it intact is not an option. The columns are spaced too close together for Amtrak to use its baggage handling equipment correctly, said David Smelser, Amtrak Cascades program manager for WSDOT.

The building also has a laundry list of other problems, he said, including not enough water pressure to power the sprinklers, walls that are not earthquake safe and some slopes that are too steep for federal disabled access requirements.

“When you get into all of the details, you’re rebuilding the whole thing, anyway,” he said.

The Freighthouse Square project is one of 20 in an

$800 million statewide package that aims to cut train travel time between Portland and Seattle by 10 minutes. Tacoma’s new station is part of $89 million expected to be spent in Pierce County on the Point Defiance Bypass.

Smelser said moving the Amtrak station to Freighthouse Square alone would shave six minutes off of the total time, allow two more round-trip trains between Vancouver, B.C., and Eugene, Ore., and avoid the one-way tunnel bottleneck on Point Defiance. It also would allow the trains to run on-time more often.

“Without this project, we can’t run two additional round trips,” Smelser said.

WSDOT has an agreement with property owner Brian Borgelt to buy or lease the property. Borgelt said he believes Amtrak would bring more business downtown — and to the remainder of Freighthouse Square.

The city’s sub-area plan for south downtown says a new Amtrak station would be a valuable addition, “and the station can be expected (to) catalyze the rejuvenation of the Freighthouse Square building, tenant businesses and the surrounding area.”

Janice McNeal, president of the Dome District Development Group, said she is convening a group to write a letter to Amtrak and WSDOT that outlines their concerns about the project.

“What we are saying is there’s a lack of creativity here, and it looks like a very mediocre building,” she said. “We think Tacoma deserves better.”

Ian Munce, a planner with the city of Tacoma, said he will gather comments and submit them to WSDOT by the end of the month. People can email him at

“For whatever it’s worth, I’m optimistic that they will make some adjustments,” Munce said.

Amtrak operations at Freighthouse Square could begin in 2017. The new Amtrak station in Tacoma could see 200,000 riders per year.

But at the cost of demolishing a century-old landmark? Sullivan isn’t so sure.

“I think there’s a higher test than just looking at the building and saying you can build a newer building for cheaper,” Sullivan said.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542

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