DC’s Biggest Game Changer

A spectacular plan around Union Station could have broader changes than you might imagine. Most neighborhood revamps in the District may impact some surrounding areas, maybe even boost the city’s net tax income if it doesn’t give developers too much of a break. However, according to the Washington Post, what’s planned for Union Station “could well be the biggest game changer of all.”

View-NorthThe 14-acre addition will be named Burnham Place after the famed architect and city planner who designed the original terminal of Union Station. It’s nearly 3 million square feet of office, residential, commercial, retail and hotel space will certainly be a big one. But on the face of it, it seems no different than what is already happening at the Southwest Waterfront, Tyson’s Corner, Reston Towncenter or the McMillan Reservoir.

However, this is also the hub of the area’s largest train network. Some of the most ambitious parts of the plan have nothing to do with the buildings, but more to do with the transportation. Let’s not jinx it, but here goes the whole plan:

Physical Buildings

The raised track platform behind Union Station, which is currently a dead space 6 blocks from the Capitol building, is slated for the big change. According to the Burnham Place website, the project boasts the following:

  • 5 million square feet of office space
  • More than 1,300 residential units
  • More than 500 hotel rooms
  • 100,000 square feet of retail

All of this is split between 4 buildings surrounding the new “Train Hall,” south of H Street, and 5 smaller buildings north of H Street. Perhaps most curiously, is that H Street NE itself, would no longer be the heinous overpass void of any walkability in a generally walkable neighborhood.


It looks like that massive parking garage will be taken out. Actually, everything behind the historical section of the building would be redone. Commuter and long-rail lines would be availed in the well-lit, glass-covered Train Hall. In contrast, the Metro Red Line, currently a bit of an eye-soar and/or sound polluter, would be made subterranean, with green space left in its place. What I can’t tell is whether the old wall on First Street would be left in place, or taken down (I’m hoping the former).

The plan would continue the current path of mass gentrification similar to several urban areas of the District. It juxtaposes wildly with the midcentury-era housing projects that currently ring Union Station, and I suppose are next on the chopping block. However you may feel about that, I suppose change is the one constant.

View-North-Over-H-Street-PlazasTransportation Network

The new neighborhood, sure, would be pretty (and quite the overhaul). But its effect on the local area and the region would be much more significant than the few thousand new office desks and hotel beds.

The current 100,000 trips per day at the station, makes it the second busiest in the country. The development plans on tripling that figure, and doubling the amount of trains into and out of the station. The overcrowded tracks are often cited for keeping Amtrak, MARC and VRE trains from offering more service, despite demand. So, this “Track Hall” is intended to alleviate the problem while creating a whole new user-experience.

Most dramatic, the plan also includes 6 tracks for high-speed rail lines. The projected service would get folks to New York in just over 90 minutes (an hour faster than Acela trains), as well as several other destinations along the East Coast.

HiRes_V1What It All Means

This neighborhood seems to be the nail in the coffin for Washington, D.C.’s history of revamps—the pièce de résistance of the city’s fresh starts.

In 1907, the original old Irish neighborhood of Swampoodle (which is why there are still several Irish pubs in the vicinity) was converted to Union Station. The city was flush with the changes outlined by the McMillan plan and its new National Mall, set out in 1901. It was a time of urban renewal and renovation, much like today’s urban political climate.

800px-Union_Station_-_Washington,_D.C.Razing that much property the first time through cleared out  “undesirables” within reach of the Capitol building completely changed the land use (a civil rights issue waiting to happen in the following centuries). Today’s gentrification has a similar impact on the surrounding area and its residents as the ousting of Swampoodle would have. However the fact that current developers include below market price units, it seems that we’re at least slightly more sensitive to such massive overhauls.

This area again is the crown jewel of this current era’s urban renewal. Much like the original Union Station insert, this will have wide-ranging impacts. It will widen the range that commuters are willing to live, and it will make DC more a transportation hub between its extended hinterland. Just as the Washington Post says, if this goes through, it will be the biggest game changer of them all.

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