Seven years ago, when state officials began thinking seriously of changing the route passenger trains take through Tacoma, the 104-year-old Freighthouse Square was an obvious choice for a new passenger depot.
The long, narrow former Milwaukee Road freight warehouse was in several ways the best of sites for a passenger station.
It abutted the renewed passenger route; it already was Tacoma’s main commuter rail depot; and it was close to downtown, the Tacoma Dome and other attractions.
But, as planners are discovering as the rerouting grows nearer, the building at East 25th and D streets, for all its virtues as a replacement for Tacoma’s Puyallup Avenue Amtrak passenger station, is in many ways a difficult site.
The discussion about where the station will be located in the 1,000-foot-long warehouse has become an active political issue even as engineers and architects struggle to find an aesthetic, functional, affordable and historically sensitive way to build a passenger station in a building never intended for that use.
Building professionals are clambering over the old building to assess its technical issues — and there are several — to find creative solutions to its shortcomings and to craft a design that will satisfy the Tacoma populace.
David Smelser is the state Department of Transportation’s leader for the Point Defiance Bypass project, the $89 million initiative to route passenger trains through South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont on a rehabilitated rail line.
He says he hopes to have the field of possibilities narrowed to two or three by March 12. That’s the day Tacoma’s Amtrak Station Relocation Citizens Advisory Committee will meet in public session at 4 p.m. on the Tacoma Municipal Building’s seventh floor.
Tacoma architect Jim Merritt, hired this year by the state Transportation Department and the city, presented 14 station location concepts at a public meeting last month. Merritt’s job was to restart the site selection process after the December unveiling of an early concept of a new station in Freighthouse’s western end drew citizen criticism.
That early concept would replace the western end with a metal-and-glass building unconnected with the rest of the Freighthouse, its retail spaces, restaurants and Sound Transit’s commuter rail station in the building’s center.
That concept — which Smelser now says was meant only to show an interior arrangement that met Amtrak’s space and technical needs — was not meant to be taken as some kind of final design. That rendering was criticized as being insensitive to the historic structure, unhelpful to Freighthouse’s shops and restaurants, and generally unattractive.
Now Smelser says, the Transportation Department is open to a wide range of options in nearly any part of the building.
Brian Borgelt, Freighthouse’s owner and perhaps the private player with the most at stake in the project, said he favors putting the station in the eastern end of the building.
“I think that’s what would be best for the merchants in the building, for the district and for train riders,” he said.
Borgelt has been talking with the state for months about how to structure the deal either as a purchase or a lease.
Smelser said any real estate deal would have to minimize the state’s long-term costs and ensure that the station proved a benefit to the building’s other tenants, not a detriment.
If it proves detrimental, the state would have to buy the whole building, something neither the state nor federal government would sanction.
“This is ultimately about getting the best deal for the taxpayers,” Smelser said. “We’re not in the retail business.”
John Gillie: 253-597-8663