State releases preliminary designs for a new Tacoma Amtrak station

Those who have taken an active part in the struggle to site and design a new Amtrak station for Tacoma knew all along that the fourth-generation station would never be the monumental building that the city’s historic Union Station was when it opened in 1911, but they wanted something more than the humble brick structure on Puyallup Avenue that succeeded the crumbling station in 1984.

Now, after nine months of sometimes fractious hearings, meetings and conversations among the Washington State Department of Transportation, citizens’ groups, Amtrak, Sound Transit and Dome District leaders, they seem to have reached a consensus at least on the basic elements of the new station design and siting. The new station is necessary because the department is rehabilitating an old rail line that cuts through South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont to bypass the longer waterfront line through Tacoma. All passenger trains beginning in 2017 will be routed on that updated line. The present Amtrak station is on the waterfront route.

The early design concepts for that new station are being made public by WSDOT on the Internet, at city advisory committee meetings and in public meetings set for next month.

Those preliminary design concepts little resemble the early design that the department rolled out last December to sour reviews from local citizens, architects and planners. Brian Borgelt, Freighthouse Square owner, Dome District vice president and a member of that committee, said he now thinks the department is mostly on target with its new ideas about the station.

“I’m happy to see what they’ve produced. I think it could be a good beginning for new life in the Dome District,” he said.

For the most part, those basic new proposals have been received without much negative comment by the city committee charged with reviewing the transportation department’s work. It was that same committee last year that complained that WSDOT wasn’t sensitive to the city’s concerns when it rolled out an early design of the station. But while the committee seems to have accepted the basic design concept for the station, it issued further recommendations for changes and upgrades to the basic WSDOT designs in a letter to David Smelser, the the Point Defiance Bypass program manager.

Here are the basic elements of the most recent designs:

• The designs emphasize simple over spectacular attempting to create a functional but attractive station compatible with the 100-plus-year-old Freighthouse Square building of which it will become part. Some people who have closely watched the station’s design evolution over the past nine months privately say they’re disappointed that the design is not more distinctive, but they concede it is a step forward from the state’s first design.

• The new station will be sited in the center section of the 1,000-foot-long former Milwaukee Road railroad freight warehouse that abuts Amtrak’s new route through Tacoma near the Tacoma Dome. The location of the new station had been the biggest topic of discussion during the nine months since the transportation department initially proposed razing the west end of Freighthouse adjacent to East D Street and replacing it with a utilitarian glass and metal building.

The Tacoma Amtrak Station Citizens Advisory Committee proposed last spring putting the new station in the far eastern end of Freighthouse where an assembly hall now is sited. But a transportation department study found that location would raise operating costs as much as $800,000 a year over other locations in the building. Much of that expense was because the station at that end of the building would rise some three stories above East 25th Street to match the level of the tracks there. That meant a multi-story operation with elevators, stairwells or escalators to provide access from the street level to the ticketing lobby. The department, which is in charge of the $89 million project to relocate passenger trains from the present water-level route instead proposed the center location.

• Whatever final design is chosen will include an enclosed arcade or corridor along the north side of the station linking the remaining west end of Freighthouse with the Sound Transit commuter rail station and the existing Freighthouse food court on the east side of the new station. The original west end concept proposed last December didn’t include such a corridor, necessitating station patrons to exit the building and walk outside to enter Freighthouse to visit its food vendors and shops. Freighthouse merchants hope that rail passengers and their families waiting for trains to arrive will provide new patronage for their businesses. The corridor will allow customers to move from one end of the building to the other even when the Amtrak station is closed.

• The station will be a new, 10,000-square-foot structure built on the footprint of the section of the Freighthouse that WSDOT will buy and demolish. Freighthouse owner Borgelt said state crews already are visiting the space in preparation for negotiations to purchase the needed section. Engineering studies showed the century-old building couldn’t be economically updated to meet present codes and functions, thus the need to start afresh. The city’s review committee is recommending that the new station facade be at least as high as the existing Sounder station and the Freighthouse section to the west of the station rather than dropping to a single story height.

• The preliminary layout of the station shows public lobby space in the eastern 40 percent of the station. Those public spaces include the waiting room, public restrooms and ticketing counters. The western end of the 178-foot-by-55-foot station is backroom space for offices, break rooms, baggage storage and other functions. Because East 25th Street is lower than the track level, preliminary designs show ramps and steps to take patrons up to the lobby level.

• The station construction will add a second track and platform on the south side of the station allowing two trains to serve the station simultaneously. Freighthouse already serves Sound Transit as its Tacoma station for commuter trains headed north to Seattle or south to Lakewood. Together with Amtrak Cascade trains serving the Interstate 5 corridor between Eugene, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Coast Starlight serving Los Angeles, the new station could be handling nearly two dozen trains daily.

Not included in the state’s basic plan for the station is an overhead passenger bridge equipped with elevators on either side of the tracks to carry passengers between the station and the south platform. Without the bridge, passengers will have to trek to East D Street to walk around the train stopped on the south track. Such an overhead passage is part of plan for additional amenities proposed by Tacoma architect Jim Merritt, who was hired by the city to propose further station enhancements to make the station a more usable and to integrate it better into the existing urban fabric. The citizens’ committee recommended the construction of that overhead walkway. That overhead walkway also could connect with a pedestrian path to the Tacoma Dome. In addition to the pedestrian bridge, Merritt has proposed canopies on both sides of the buildings and a landmark clock tower to give the station visibility and identity from afar. That clock tower also was among the additions to the basic design endorsed by the citizens’ committee. The state hasn’t yet committed to funding any of these extra features.

Merritt said he believes the design should address not only the immediate basics for a new station but the look and feel of Freighthouse Square and the surrounding area.

“The goal should be to make all of Freighthouse part of the station fabric,” the Tacoma architect said. He believes that to be successful the building needs to be opened up to the outside like Seattle’s Pike Place and Vancouver, B.C.’s Granville Island Market. Merritt said the station and its surroundings should impress not only those arriving and departing from here with its welcoming atmosphere but also the hundreds of thousands of rail passengers who will pass through Tacoma on trains.

Denver’s recently updated Union Station, Merritt noted, uses fabric roofs over the tracks to create the impression of an even larger and lighter building than the historic station itself.

“And Denver has 10,000 fewer rail passengers than we have here in Tacoma,” he said.

• The basic layout and siting of the station is well-defined at this stage, but the design of the exterior and interior remain undecided. That’s where public has a chance to let its preferences be known, Gayla Reese Walsh, spokeswoman for the rail project, said. WSDOT has published an online survey at

for the public to register its choices.

• Exterior choices range from a building clad with wooden siding that matches the siding on the existing Freighthouse with the station entrance a double glass door that pierces that facade to an all-glass exterior transparent from top to bottom and end to end. Two other options include a glass facade framed on the outside with wooden siding and a single-story glass wall topped with a row of square clerestory windows that admit light and match similar windows in the historic building. The full-glass facade creates an appearance paired with the historic building on either side not unlike the updated Foss Waterway Seaport building on its namesake waterway where the museum building, once a waterfront warehouse, had its north facade replaced by glass.

The city’s advisory committee told Smelser late last week it favors the design that includes the line of square windows above the larger glass opening to tie the new structure to the design feel of the existing building.

• Interior options center around the ceiling treatment. There the state’s architects have proposed either rectangular wooden beams spanning the width of the station, beams that appear to be gently curved or arched, or a wave-like undulating ceiling that lets artificial light in from above.

• Other options that the state wants public input include the shape of the columns supporting the structure — rectangular, rounded or sculpted.

• The advisory committee also has recommended that East 25th Street be converted to a one-way street to improve the traffic flow past the station and to make dropping off and picking up passengers safer and easier.

Once the committee and the state compile the results of the surveys, the state plans to incorporate those winning ideas into a more refined design it will present the the Federal Railway Administration, which is providing funding for the station and the waterfront bypass project. The state expects federal approval by February, Walsh said. Then WSDOT will begin final engineering and design on the project. That final design will be submitted to the federal group next fall.

If the process goes without a hitch, construction will commence in December 2015 with the station completion set for March 2017. Amtrak trains will begin running on the track that fall.