New Tacoma Amtrak station concepts presented for Freighthouse Square

Staff writerFebruary 20, 2014 

A Tacoma architect hired to help reboot the site selection and design process for a new Tacoma Amtrak station Wednesday unveiled more than a dozen concepts for creating the new station in Freighthouse Square.

Jim Merritt’s 14 basic concepts ranged from a station combined with work-live units in one end of the more-than-1,000-foot-long former Milwaukee Road freighthouse to a new structure built over the street at the building’s east end.

Merritt’s proposals were designed to meet public complaints that a preliminary design for the new station unveiled by the Washington Department of Transportation in December failed on several levels to respect the historical integrity of the freighthouse, to integrate the station into the retail activity in the building and to create a structure that the Tacoma community found attractive.

David Smelser, the transportation department’s Cascades program manager, said the state and Merritt studied virtually every combination of options for the new station location.

“We looked at all parts of the building except the food court and Sound Transit station area as locations for the station,” Smelser told the crowd of about 50 people gathered late Wednesday afternoon at Freighthouse Square’s Rainier Room.

Merritt’s concepts were designed to fulfill the wishes citizens expressed in several public forums over the last six weeks.

The state must complete a new station for Amtrak by 2017 when passenger trains are switched to a new route through Tacoma that cuts through the city near the Tacoma Dome, follows a gulch to South Tacoma and subsequently to Lakewood before rejoining the BNSF Railway mainline again near Nisqually.

That route will replace the route that now follows the Tacoma waterfront along Ruston Way, cuts under Point Defiance in the Nelson Bennett Tunnel and follows the Tacoma Narrows shoreline under the twin suspension bridges and proceeds southward past Steilacoom, McNeil Island and JBLM.  The rehabilitated route is designed to cut the trip between Seattle and Portland by nearly 10 minutes and reduce bottlenecks on the present route.

That route requires a new Tacoma station as part of the $80-million rerouting project.

Merritt, a longtime Tacoma architect and former mayoral candidate, said each of the concept designs has its merits and issues.

The task of creating a station within the long, narrow Freighthouse is complicated by the fact that the tracks that border the structure are beginning a long, uphill climb toward South Tacoma.  That means that those tracks are below the Freighthouse’s floor level on the building’s east end and rise to above main floor levels by the time they reach East D Street.  The Freighthouse itself on the east end is four stories tall while on the west, it’s only two stories.

Many of the Tacoma architect’s concepts maintained a corridor through the station area for connection to the Freighthouse’s retail and restaurant operations.  WSDOT’s December design  walled off the station from rest of the historic wooden structure in a new  utilitarian building at the Freighthouse’s west end.

One of Merritt’s designs placed the Amtrak station just east of the existing food court, the building’s busiest section.  The existing Sounder commuter rail station is located just west of the food court.

The food court could then serve as a waiting area for both the Amtrak and Sounder stations, said Merritt.

Another concept called for placing the Amtrak structure at the building’s far east end either in the existing building or in a new structure spanning East G Street.  If the existing structure were used there, the floors would have to be lowered to track height, a doable, but possibly costly, feat.  Building on the east end would offer the possibility of using ground floor space off East 25th Street for vehicular access and handicapped parking.

Several of the design concepts, such as creating work-live apartments above the station, called for public-private partnerships because federal grant money used to build the station can't be used to create retail or residential spaces.

No clear favorite among the concepts emerged at Wednesday’s meetings, though several attendees praised placing the station in the central part of the building near the retail activity.

Smelser said the concepts will now go to the Amtrak Station Relocation Citizens Advisory Committee next month to narrow the choices to a preferred location. Once that preferred location is decided, the department will conduct a building condition assessment in that location and present conceptual designs and materials to the committee by midsummer. Engineering and design would begin next fall.

The department, reacting to queries from citizens attending, said it will look into posting the basic design concepts on-line or displaying them publicly for further comments.

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