Think big on Raleigh's train station

June 28, 2013 

It will be, when completed, one of downtown Raleigh’s symbols, signatures and welcoming outposts. The Capital City and the state must not let plans for and construction of the Union Station train hub on Martin Street, at the old Dillon Supply Co. Viaduct building, be held up. For this is not just a local project. Raleigh is the gateway to North Carolina for many travelers and a convention spot as well. The entire state could take pride in this facility.

Steve Schuster from Clearscapes, an imaginative design firm, showed off and explained plans for the site to city officials and residents. It will first be a train hub for Amtrak, but much more.

Passengers – and visitors, for this will be a hang-out spot – will enter the site through a civic plaza covered by a large “urban canopy” (architects’ description), and they’ll wait for their trains in a Grand Central-style station. It may feel like a Cary Grant movie. Upstairs will be a restaurant, and there will be retail on site as well.

Food trucks will be nearby.

Schuster rightly aimed for and hit a design that he believes “has to be authentic, has to be memorable and has to be unique.”

It also has to be paid for, and there’s a rub. The state Department of Transportation moved $15 million of the project’s $60 million in funding to another cause, a Charlotte-Raleigh rail line. Raleigh Planning Director Mitch Silver has tried to reassure city officials that the project remains a top priority.

Anyone who has caught a train in Raleigh over the years or picked someone up has been dismayed if not depressed by the antiquated, run-down facility now in place. It’s simply not up to the standards a train hub in a capital city should meet. Often, visitors are taken aback by the small station.

Raleigh and North Carolina can and must do better. And Clearscapes has offered a spectacular vision, truly.

The site as envisioned – and hats off to Raleigh for showing a little vision in recent years after decades of, well, nearsightedness – could spur retail and residential development in an area of town that has seemed, at least in places, almost deserted.

The “wow” factor is tremendous, and the plans even include a performance venue, something the city could use for smaller gatherings. Union Station, in other words, will call to mind the romance of train stations in their heyday and will offer youngsters a chance to spend an afternoon or longer watching trains. If one doubts that’s still a favorite way to pass the time, might we introduce you to the multibillion-dollar Thomas the Train industry?

An appropriately spectacular train station will be a burst of energy for the area and exciting for residents of all ages. There aren’t many such projects that fit that bill. But this is one. A great one.

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