Back to square one for Amtrak station plans at Freighthouse Square

Staff writerJanuary 14, 2014 

Tacomans have likely seen the last of that red, boxy train station derided as “Amshak.”

The state Department of Transportation plans to go back to the community for suggestions after an outcry to its first design for the new Amtrak station at Freighthouse Square in the Dome District.

During a public meeting in December, attendees sat in silence when the design was unveiled, then gasped when they realized the plan called for demolishing the westernmost 150 feet of the 104-year-old building near East D and East 25th streets.

The Transportation Department essentially will go back to the drawing board in public meetings Jan. 23 and 30, seeking suggestions for the proposed Amtrak station. Then, in mid-February, the agency will present the public with “more design concepts” for the station.

“We are still in the design process for this project and we are really encouraging people to come to those meetings in January,” said Alice Fiman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. Meeting times and locations have yet to be announced.

State Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said he and Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms met last week with Transportation officials.

Fey, a vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the transportation officials “were feeling kind of embarrassed because (the December meeting) set things in the wrong direction. … If they could do a do-over, they would not have released (the design) or brought it up. (The design) was in the very early stages.”

Thoms said he and Fey told state officials they would like the state to hire “local architectural expertise” and that the Transportation Department agreed.

“It’s going to meet the sensibilities of Tacomans and meet the specifications of Amtrak,” Thoms said. “We can do both. To do one without the other makes no sense.”

Moving the Amtrak station from Puyallup Avenue to Freighthouse Square is part of $89 million expected to be spent in Pierce County on the Point Defiance Bypass.

A state Transportation official said in December that moving the Amtrak station to Freighthouse Square alone would shave six minutes off the total travel time from Seattle to Portland, 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.

After the December meeting, Ian Munce, a planner with the city of Tacoma, collected comments from residents and sent them to the state DOT. He also forwarded a letter signed by Don Erickson, chairman for the 19-member Amtrak Station Relocation Citizens Advisory Committee.

In the letter, Erickson said the Amtrak station’s footprint should be moved from the west end of Freighthouse Square to the east end — without demolishing the exterior of the building.

“We want them to respect the architectural integrity of the building to the greatest extent possible,” Erickson said in an interview. “I don’t think it will make the National Register (of Historic Places), but it could be designated locally as one of the listed landmarks here in Tacoma.”

The suggestions outlined in the letter are worth a serious look, said Reuben McKnight, the historic preservation officer for Tacoma.

The Milwaukee Road railroad built what became Freighthouse Square near the turn of the 20th century. The building doesn’t have national or state historic preservation status, and McKnight said it wouldn’t qualify because too many modifications have been made to the building.

Nevertheless, the Freighthouse Square building has “high historic value,” said Michael Sullivan, a local architectural historian and University of Washington Tacoma professor who teaches Tacoma history.

“My bottom line, and that I heard very loudly after that meeting in December, is this building is important and it’s important to the community,” McKnight said. “This is the old Milwaukee Line. It has got to be adapted to a new use.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542

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