Overcoming 104 years’ worth of obstacles at Frieghthouse Square

Staff writerFebruary 28, 2014 

FREIGHTHOUSE SQUARE

Freighthouse Square building owner Brian Borgelt says he favors putting a proposed Amtrak passenger station in the eastern end of the building.

LUI KIT WONG — Staff photographer Buy Photo

Freighthouse Square’s limitations might ultimately restrict what’s possible in trying to turn the 104-year-old building into a passenger rail depot. Consider:

The station is long and narrow.

If the station is sited in the center of the building, a pedestrian corridor maintaining a connection between the station and the retail parts of the structure would steal width from the station.

The track abutting the station rises going from east to west while the station is level.

That means the track is level with the building’s floor only in the middle of the building. At the building’s eastern end, the floor is well above track level. At the western end, the floor is below the track level. That means that if a station is built on the eastern end of the building, the floor will have to be lowered, a task that could add expense and complication to the project.

Freighthouse is a combination of new and old construction.

The western end near East D Street is largely as it was built more than a century ago. That construction poses complications because the major support structures are too close together to allow Amtrak the full-width doors it says it needs to handle passengers and baggage carts.

On the eastern end, the construction dates from the 1990s, when that end of the building was rebuilt after a devastating fire.

The building is largely built of wood.

That could dictate extra fire protection measures such as sprinklers and protective barriers, particularly where it rises four stories above East 25th Street.

The height would necessitate constructing elevators and stairwells not needed on the building’s western end.

But that elevation also could allow handicapped parking, passenger drop-off zones and bus zones under the station, features that would require traffic rerouting on the western end.

The building has historic significance.

Freighthouse is on no national or local historic register, yet residents have expressed concerns about altering the old Western facade. The eastern end of the building, not so visible as the building’s more public face and of newer vintage, might lend itself better to modern alternation, Tacoma architect Jim Merritt said.

The access alley between the building and the rail tracks at the eastern end could be an issue.

Some way would need to be found to bridge that alley at track level, said David Smelser, the state Department of Transportation’s leader for the Point Defiance Bypass project. But the alley sits atop remnants of an old mill pond, where pilings might have to be driven deep to support the bridge.

The long trestle approaching the eastern end of the building is going to be rebuilt and widened.

That could add complication to any adjacent station project. The trestle and track near it is owned by the city of Tacoma, but Sound Transit is negotiating to buy it. Negotiations are ongoing, said Dale King, superintendent of Tacoma Rail.

Multiple actors have large stakes in the project.

Those include the Transportation Department, the city of Tacoma, the Dome District Association, Sound Transit, Amtrak, the Amtrak Station Relocation Committee, and Freighthouse Square owner Brian Borgelt.

The Federal Railway Administration, which is providing the funds to build the bypass, has ultimate authority to approve the station project.

There is no clear budget figure on how much is available to get the job done.

Smelser said he can’t set a specific cost limit on the station project until later this year when more of the 17 improvement projects on the Cascades rail corridor in Washington are finished or underway. If those come in under budget, more money could be available.

Those projects, such as the Point Defiance Bypass, are designed to cut time out of the Seattle-to-Portland train schedule, improve on-time reliability to 88 percent and to allow the state to add two round-trip Seattle-Portland Cascade trains to the five that operate daily now.

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