Peter Callaghan: State, Amtrak warming to new ideas for Freighthouse Square

Staff WriterFebruary 4, 2014 

The difference in tone between the first meeting on how to place a new intercity train depot inside Freighthouse Square and the second meeting was considerable. And it wasn’t just because the second meeting was in a heated conference room at Tacoma’s City Hall rather than a frigid space in Freighthouse Square.

At that first meeting in December, the Dome District neighbors and city officials were surprised at a proposal to tear down the most-historic western section of the century-old Milwaukee Road freight office and warehouse. They were even more surprised at the design — admittedly preliminary — of what Seattle-based architects wanted to put in its place.

It was ugly and uninspired. But I was less concerned about what a new building would look like than I was that there would be a new building at all. Like others, I had figured the existing wood-framed building at the corner of East 25th and D streets would be used for the new Amtrak and Amtrak-Cascades depot.

But the architects and state Department of Transportation staffers said that would be too hard and a bit more expensive and seemed to have decided to demolish rather than reuse it.

The only one in the room who didn’t leave agitated was Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms. When I stopped him on his way out, he’d already begun to fashion a strategy to enlist state and federal politicians to persuade DOT to reconsider.

The reaction from interested people in Tacoma and elsewhere (the proposal was “awarded” a Heritage Turkey prize by’s Knute Berger) put some oomph behind Thom’s message that people were not willing to put up with bad ideas about cherished buildings.

The train station currently on Puyallup Avenue must be relocated to serve a different set of tracks. Those tracks, just east of Freighthouse Square, will send Amtrak and Amtrak Cascades trains on a new route that bypasses the current route that wraps around Point Defiance. The new tracks are already used by Sounder trains between Lakewood and Seattle.

Whether DOT and the architects from VIA realized the mistakes they inadvertently made in the station relocation plan or whether they were convinced by folks such as state Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, of that fact, they were all ears at the second meeting.

First, the state agreed to cover half of the cost of an $18,000 contract with Tacoma architect Jim Merritt who would, as Thoms put it, provide a Tacoma voice and vision for this project.

Merritt knows Tacoma and has experience in finding adaptive reuses for historic buildings – especially train stations, having been part of the grass-roots movement to save and redevelop Tacoma’s Union Station and also having worked on historic train stations in Kelso, Bellingham, Morton and Hoquiam.

DOT then scheduled two listening sessions last month. Rather than tell the locals why their ideas couldn’t happen — as was prevalent at the December meeting — the architects and staff repeatedly said that challenges could be met with creative solutions.

One of those ideas came from the local committee advising DOT on the project. That task force thinks that putting the station in the far eastern section of Freighthouse — a section rebuilt after a 1992 arson fire — is a better location.

Being at the east end raises different issues because the track level is three stories higher than the street level. It also has more space than Amtrak needs. But Ian Munce, a planner for the city of Tacoma, said Merritt is looking at ways to solve the elevation issues and come up with other uses for the lower floors, including live-work studio spaces.

Merritt said he wants to help find a plan that solves Amtrak’s needs for security, safety and functionality while still meeting Tacoma’s interests in the building and the Dome District. He expects to present a few different concepts at the next meeting on the topic, tentatively set for Feb. 19 from 4-6 p.m. at the Tacoma Municipal Building.

“I feel confident the state isn’t pushing one solution over another,” Merritt said.


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