Can Tacoma’s new Amtrak station spur development in the city’s Dome District?

When Amtrak three decades ago announced it was shutting down operations at Tacoma’s grand but crumbling and oversized Union Station and replacing it with a pedestrian brick box of a building on Puyallup Avenue, critics and civic leaders weren’t happy.

The new building, then a better, more affordable fit for the volume of passenger train service through Tacoma, was derided as an “Amshack” and called unsuitable as rail gateway to the “City of Destiny.”

That move left Tacoma, a city that now has more Amtrak rail passenger traffic than Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis-St.Paul and Miami, with perhaps the most modest and ordinary station among the cities on Amtrak’s Cascade Corridor between Vancouver, B.C., and Portland.

Now, the impending rerouting of passenger trains from the traditional waterfront route through Tacoma to a route that passes near the Tacoma Dome, through South Tacoma, Lakewood and Dupont before rejoining the main line in Nisqually, has given Tacoma yet another opportunity to create the kind of imaginative, welcoming and functional station the community says it wants and needs.

But local merchants and civic activists are concerned that a tight timetable and what could be a lean budget present challenges to taking full advantage of the do-over.

“This is the kind of opportunity that happens maybe once every 50 years,” said Brian Borgelt, the owner of Freighthouse Square, the former Milwaukee Road railroad warehouse-turned-retail-and-restaurant center, that will be the site for Tacoma’s new Amtrak station.

“We have a chance to make decisions that could help spur new development in the Dome District and to create a station that reflects the rich heritage of the city and of the Native Americans who lived here before the city was built,” he said.

The state last December rolled out a preliminary design concept for the station that alarmed some Tacomans. The early design showed the station in the far west end of Freighthouse with a design more akin to a metal farm building than a rail station. The state, which will build the new station, quickly back-pedaled on its initial design and location. Over the last eight months, the state and a citizens advisory committee have settled on a new site in the middle of Freighthouse Square, but design work on the building’s appearance and configuration is just beginning.

Borgelt is among a core group of Dome District property owners and entrepreneurs who believe a well-done rail passenger station and the 150,000 or so annual riders it attracts could be the spark that engenders new growth and development in the area near the dome.

David D’Aniello, co-owner of the district’s Celebrity Cake Studio and treasurer of the Dome District Business Association is one of those station advocates.

If the state builds the new station with an eye not only toward functionality, but also toward interactivity with the rest of the district and Freighthouse Square, said D’Aniello, Tacoma could find the station could become the axis of activity for the business district.

“I’m looking at cities like Denver and Portland where the stations have become a catalyst for rail-related development,” said D’Aniello.

Borgelt, who recently spent two weeks in Spain traveling by rail among the country’s major cities, said Europe provides the example of how a rail station can spin off commercial and residential activity.

In numerous cities in Spain, he said, the station area was the center for commerce with streets near the terminals lined with restaurants, markets and retail shops plugged into the energy the stations create.

The new Tacoma Amtrak station, when it opens in 2017, may handle as many as 14 daily trains. The adjacent Sound Transit commuter rail station will see the arrival and departure of a dozen daily trains.

The Dome District already has the kinds of attractive assets that could make it a lively nexus for residential and commercial activity, said Janice McNeil, a district property owner and president of the district association.

The district is home not only to the namesake Tacoma Dome, but also to one of the nation’s largest automobile museums, the LeMay, to Tacoma’s local and regional bus station, to Sound Transit’s commuter rail terminal and to Freighthouse itself which includes a handful of established restaurants surrounding a food court and a group of boutique merchants and an event center.

The district is home to a local company known worldwide, Brown & Haley Candy Co., and to a variety of merchants from a large bookstore to a gun shop.

All of this is conveniently connected to downtown Tacoma by free Link light rail service that stops just outside Freighthouse Square’s doors.

The Sounder commuter train terminal and the adjacent parking garage brings hundreds of commuters through Freighthouse daily, said Douglas Huntington, the building’s leasing manager, but too few stop to buy anything from the Freighthouse.

“The commuter traffic hasn’t lived up to its promises,” he said.

He and Borgelt believe the Amtrak passenger will be different – more inclined to explore the rest of the building and to take in the district’s attractions and those of nearby downtown Tacoma and the Foss Waterway.

Borgelt plans to rename the Freighthouse Square building once the new station is in place to Freighthouse Station to build on its connection to the station.

Now that the site question is settled, the state and its architects and engineers are in a hurry-up mode to complete the preliminary design to submit to the Federal Railway Administration in November. The FRA will review those plans and presumably grant its approval in two to three months, said David Smelser, the head of the state’s Point Defiance Bypass project.

Smelser, knowing the sensitivity of the station design question, invited the advisory committee to embed one of its members in the design process to ensure that work wasn’t going awry. Ian Munce, a senior planner from the City of Tacoma, is participating in that process and keeping the advisory committee informed.

The city also has hired Tacoma architect Jim Merritt, whose firm designed the conversion of Tacoma’s grand Union Station into a federal courthouse, to provide design input to the state on integrating the new station into the Dome District.

It will be Munce’s job to ensure that design guidelines promulgated by the advisory committee are followed as the design moves forward. Those guidelines – to create a station with an open and airy feel, to protect the easy connection between Freighthouse and the station, to respect the traditional feel of the simple, timber structure of the Freighthouse, for instance – could be accomplished with several different ways, said Smelser.

“We could go the glassy route or we could try to carry the wooden siding look from the rest of Freighthouse in the station,” the project manager said.

Maybe the state should develop several different variations and ask the committee for its input, he said.

Borgelt said he hopes what emerges from the process shows the kind of imagination, creative use of materials and sensitivity to the community that will make the new Tacoma station something the community can point to with pride.

Just how much money the state will have to buy the site from Borgelt and to build the station is still up in the air, said Smelser. Engineering and design work on other segments of the bypass project are now far enough along that the Washington Department of Transportation may soon be able to say how much of the $89 million in federal money set aside for the whole bypass project can be spent on the station.

Smelser said that budget may come into tighter focus by the end of September.

Don’t expect a lavish budget. Sound Transit is replacing its temporary wooden platform it shares with Amtrak at Tukwila with an upscaled station that’s basically a two-sided platform with fancier canopies, benches and fixtures. That station budget is $46 million for a structure less ambitious than Tacoma’s.

Tacomans and Dome District business people aren’t the only constituents Smelser must make happy. The Federal Railway Administration gets a say, as does Amtrak, which wants a station that’s easy to operate and secure. WSDOT itself is concerned not only with the building’s capital cost but also with its operating funds appetite because Congress has mandated that the states pick up the costs of running the stations.

Sound Transit likewise has a big say. The regional transportation agency is rebuilding the trestle just east of the station to handle its trains as well as those of Amtrak. Pierce Transit, whose bus system hubs in the massive garage north of Freighthouse, is adding new capacity near the station. Even Tacoma Rail, the city-owned shortline railroad that formerly owned the route that Amtrak will use and whose freight trains serve industries on the passenger line and beyond, will be consulted. And the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, which owns the property south of the proposed station and whose big Emerald Queen casino lies within a few hundred feet of the route will provide input.

Can all of these objectives be accomplished? Smelser says that within reasonable bounds he believes they can.

“I think we all want this to be the kind of benefit. I think we can make it happen.”