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Should Union Station’s Great Hall be less great?

click to enlarge
This would not make Union Station better.

Union Station’s Great Hall is one of the city’s most fantastic public spaces. It is beautiful, engaging, and lively. And somebody wants to tear a couple of giant holes in its floor.

Earlier this week, Washington City Paper reported on a proposal to cut holes in the Great Hall’s floor in order to provide better access to the basement food court, and to replace the Center Cafe with a new larger and more modern version.

Yes, holes in the floor. To access the food court.

Why, exactly? Nobody knows. It’s not like that food court is hurting for customers. On the contrary, it’s uncomfortably packed most of the day.

On the other hand, there are very good reasons why there should not be a couple of holes in the floor.

Most important, that such a successful public space should not be torn up on a whim. Union Station is the most visited destination in Washington. By any measure it is a place that is working tremendously well already, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Unnecessary changes that don’t benefit anything important threaten to make things worse rather than better.

Beyond that, there are good preservationist reasons not to change the Great Hall in this manner. The hall’s elegant classicism is fundamentally incompatible with a mundane food court. They’re both valuable and worthwhile spaces, of course, but making the Great Hall more like the food court inherently intrudes upon the elegance of the Great Hall.

Finally, there’s the small matter of this having been tried once before, and having failed miserably. In the late 1970s Congress spent more than $100 million on a pit in the middle of the Great Hall. It was so unpopular that it was filled in by the early 1980s. While that 1970s boondoggle is only barely comparable to the current proposal, it is nonetheless instructive: Turns out magnificent classical spaces are not appropriate places for large holes in the ground.

In the City Paper comments thread, some responders suggest that opposing changes to Union Station is just like opposing overhead streetcar wires. Nothing could be further from the truth. The streetcar plan promises to greatly benefit the city by virtue of better transportation and revitalized neighborhoods. This Union Station plan offers no such benefits, and as described above, it involves real risk. I oppose it for the same reason that I support streetcars: I want the city to be vital and prosperous. Streetcars would make Washington more so; ripping a couple of holes in one of the city’s best spaces wouldn’t.

At best, this proposal is a solution in search of an imaginary problem. Even if you think it’s harmless, it doesn’t solve anything that needs to be solved. At worst, it could ruin one of Washington’s most magnificent public gathering places.

Why take the risk?

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

Cross-posted at the Washington Post Local Blogging Network.

August 26th, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: development, fun, preservation



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