Freighthouse too weak for Amtrak station remodel; new structure needed

Staff writerMarch 12, 2014 

Renderings that were discussed Wednesday.

Weak foundations and swampy soil beneath Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square will likely dictate that the city’s new Amtrak station be an all-new structure built on the footprint of a section of the historic structure, a Washington Department of Transportation official said Wednesday.

David Smelser, the department’s chief planner for the $800 million Cascades rail corridor improvement project, said preliminary engineering studies conducted in the last several weeks show the existing building, which is more than 100 years old in some places, has foundation problems that make remodeling the structure for a new station difficult.

Smelser spoke at a Tacoma Amtrak Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday afternoon, revealing three semi-final concepts for the Freighthouse Square station. The three were chosen from 14 station layout concepts presented at a public meeting three weeks ago by Tacoma architect Jim Merritt.

One concept would site the station at the far east end near G Street. The second would put it just west of the existing Sounder commuter train station in the building’s center. A third concept would build at the structure’s western end at East D Street.

Freighthouse abuts a pair of tracks that will become Amtrak’s new route through Tacoma beginning in 2017. That new route leaves the BNSF main line near the Emerald Queen Casino and passes north of the Tacoma Dome. It then cuts through Nalley Valley and South Tacoma to Lakewood. It ultimately rejoins the BNSF main line near Nisqually. The transportation department is rebuilding that track to cut five minutes off the Seattle-to-Portland train trip and to improve the on-time record of the Cascades trains.

Smelser said the new structures could be designed to be compatible with Freighthouse’s simple, rugged architecture, but the foundations and infrastructure would have to be new, even if the new station is built at the freighthouse’s east end. That end of the building is the newest part of the structure, having been rebuilt after a devastating fire several decades ago.

The east end site for the new station was the heavy favorite among those speaking at the committee meeting. Freighthouse owner Brian Borgelt told the group that building the new station on the east end of the structure would be the least disruptive of the three options.

“With construction of the new trestle at that end, building the station there would concentrate all of the construction activity in one area,” he said.

Demolishing either the building’s center or western section and building a new station there, he said, would cut off Freighthouse patrons from a parking lot at the western end of the building and separate groups of merchants from each other in the long, narrow building.

Smelser said each concept has its merits and issues:

  • The east end station would allow taxis and cars to drop off and pick up passengers in a drive-through area built beneath the station’s main waiting room. The east end station waiting room would be several stories above the adjacent East 25th Street because the land beneath Freighthouse drops from the west to the east. The east site also would be the closest to bus connections and a multistory garage across the street. The east end, however, has the weakest soils, and access for fire trucks could be difficult at that site.
  • The center station would have the advantage of adjoining the existing Sounder station and being just a short distance from the building’s food court. The department’s concept called for an arcade on the north side of the station that would allow Freighthouse patrons to move from one part of the retail building to the other without entering the station. The preliminary drawing showed roll-up doors between the arcade and the sidewalk outside to bring light and air into the building. The building side of the arcade would feature historic displays of railroad artifacts and photos. The center station location would likely pose more problems for buses, taxis and cars lining up to discharge passengers. That holding area would steal street parking from the retail building.
  • Smelser said the west end station as modified in the new concept would allow Freighthouse patrons to walk through the station to the building’s retail section. The department said a restaurant on the far western end of the building would give the station more life. That restaurant, however, couldn’t be built with federal funds. A private owner would have to step forward.

The western end station drew criticism from Dome area merchants who said they envision a use for that end of the building that has more consistent activity than the train station, which will have multiple periods of heavy activity interspersed with hours of idle time.

Smelser said the department plans to continue its technical studies and its negotiations with the building’s owner. More detailed plans are likely to emerge early this summer, he said.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

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