Two New Skyscrapers, Otherwise a Modest Future for Union Station

Proposed Amtrak Tower at 300 South Canal Street

Proposed Amtrak Tower at 300 South Canal Street

Last night Amtrak and the Chicago Department of Transportation detailed plans for the future of Chicago’s Union Station.

Union Station is the last of the historic train stations still active in Chicago. On an average weekday, it handles almost 120,000 local, regional, and long-distance Metra and Amtrak passengers. The station is at capacity, yet Metra wants to run 40% more trains into Union Station in the next 30 years, so expansion is imperative.

In recent years, plans have been floated for a massive intermodal transportation hub with new skyscrapers, subways, and high-speed rail at Union Station. But with the global economy currently pining for the fjords, the plan put together by a cavalcade of state, local, and federal agencies is necessarily yawn-inducing.

The biggest changes that people will likely see are on Canal Street, where traffic chaos is nothing new. If you haven’t been there lately, it’s a life-sized kinetic sculpture made up of honking cab drivers, fanny-packing tourists, lost suburban SUVs, angry CTA buses, clueless commuter coaches, and an increasing number of long-haul gypsy buses disgorging slack-jawed yokels who stop in the middle of the crosswalks to stare at Willis Tower like a sunflower at noon.

The proposed solution is to turn a block of West Jackson Boulevard south of Union Station into a transit center, with three canopied medians and as many as seven bus pick-up lanes.

Also on tap is a plan to eliminate some of the unused baggage platforms in the station concourse. This will allow Amtrak to widen the passenger loading and unloading areas, and also install stairwells to connect Union Station’s concourses directly to the street.

A little further out is a bit of future-proofing for the station. If you’ve ever taken a train across the country (and if you haven’t I fully recommend it), you know that you can’t get from Seattle to New York without changing trains in Chicago. This is part of the city’s legacy as the historic transportation nexus of the nation. But these days, it’s mostly an inconvenience. So Amtrak wants to put in a pair of through-tracks on the east side of the station, along the Chicago River. This will let the train company, theoretically, run trains from Oakland, Seattle, and Los Angeles all the way to New York, Washington, and Boston. More likely, however, will be trains that can do a full Midwestern Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Detroit-Cleveland run.

How much of what Amtrak and CDOT want to happen depends on money, so their combined wish list has been broken into short, mid-, and long-term goals. The short term projects have been funded. Everything else is up in the air.

Short term:

  • Union Station bus terminal.
  • Rapid bus lanes on Madison and Washington Streets through the Loop.
Proposed 222 South Canal Street drawing

Proposed 222 South Canal Street drawing

Medium term:

  • Improve passenger flow into and out of Union Station.
  • Improve passenger flow through Union Station and its concourses.
  • Rebuild Canal Street.
  • New entrances to Union Station from Canal Street.
  • Remove unneeded baggage platforms.
  • Convert unused mail platform to make space for wider passenger boarding areas.
  • Build stairways for direct access from street level to Metra platforms.

Long-term:

  • Develop some kind of riverwalk along the Chicago River, and improve access into neighboring buildings.
  • New CTA subway line under Canal Street.
  • New CTA subway line under Clinton Street.
  • New skyscraper at 222 South Canal Street.
  • New skyscraper at 300 South Canal Street.

Other notes:

  • Union Station was designed so that an office tower could one day be built on top of it.
  • The station was designed for long-distance trains, and express mail; not daily commuters.
  • Amtrak wants to turn Chicago’s Union Station into a retail and restaurant hub, like Grand Central Station in New York, or Union Station in Washington, DC.
See the slides below for highlights, or download the entire PDF presentation here: Union Station Master Plan
Editor

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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7 Comments

  1. So a couple notes and observations from me:
    • The 222 Canal Street building is proposed because the old one needs to come down for new tracks, correct? I find that design hideous though, so I hope they just threw any ole structure out there simply as a placeholder.
    • The 300 South Canal is equally ugly. Please no to both of them.
    • A riverwalk sounds nice but isn’t practical. I walk past Union several days a week coming from and to Ogilvie, and I routinely see the engine exhaust pouring out the sides onto the river. No one would want to walk down there with the exhaust and rumble of the locomotives.
    • What should be built is finishing the elevated riverwalk between Jackson and Van Buren. The land is there. The access is there. Heck, on the north side of Van Buren there’s a decorative railing which looks like it was supposed to be where a pedestrian path connects. Build that and consider that the public’s “riverwalk” for that part of the south branch.
    • Retail in Union Station: are there enough passengers? I know Apple just opened a major store in Grand Central Terminal, but GCT handles way more passengers than Union, and stays open longer. Are there enough residences with all the loft conversions going on over there to justify the retail? I don’t know that answer, I’m legit asking.
    • The West Loop Transit Center, which I believe would cost 1 or 2 BILLION dollars is a huge boondoggle. So is the Clinton subway, and even more so the Canal Street subway. Why do we need subway lines that go 8 blocks between the Green line and the Blue line? Are American’s really that lazy they can’t walk that distance? How many stations would there be and how many trains? I just don’t get it. I walk 2 miles each way to and from work, and it keeps me fit, even in inclement weather I don’t mind. And where did this Canal subway come from? How many subways do we need in a 1 block radius? The bridge to nowhere failed, now can we please get this subway to nowhere to fail? If we can’t get the Block 37 CTA “Superstation” finished, why even bother building these two subways?
    • Platform widening is a good idea. I don’t take the Union Metras very often, but when I do those platforms do easily get crowded.
    • Street access would be a nice thing. The first couple times I was in a hurry in Union I got myself lost and barely made the train.
    • That bus terminal is a brilliant idea and a much better use of that surface lot then there is right now. BUT, will the MegaBus be included in that? The MegaBus people, which I feel you were referencing as the “gypsies” have no place to wait, not even a bench. They make the area look like a homeless shelter. The single garbage can over there is always overflowing. And the area having no greenery, not even lame planters, makes it feel so 1960s and 1970s urban.
    • The Jackson and now Monroe viaducts over the Metra tracks have or is being rebuilt, so I’m guessing that’s the same thing that needs to happen on Canal. I hope they do it and do it as well as they’re doing Wacker right now. It’s not even 50% done and it already looks beautiful and is a pleasure to walk along.

    That’s all I can think of at the moment, anyone care to add on or rebuke some of my points? I’m curious to hear others opinions of these developments.

    Post a Reply
    • Editor

      A few thoughts on your thoughts —

      – I’m not sure why the 222 building would be replaced, though I’ve seen a number of plans for Union Station that have this common element, so it would seem there’s some reason for it. I suppose it could be to accommodate high speed rail, or some other rail service; but I suspect it would be cheaper to tunnel than to tear down and rebuild a skyscraper. As for its design, I’m OK with it, especially if that green roof in the middle is open to the public.

      – I like the Amtrak Tower (I’m calling it that because Amtrak owns the land it’s on, and because the rendering has a giant Amtrak logo on the base of the building). I don’t know why. Maybe because every other building in the area is so boxy, and this is different.

      – It’s impossible to tell from the very very preliminary drawings we have now, but the riverwalk may not necessarily be at river level. It could very likely be at street level, as you suggest. For continuity, it would be better at street level, but it may have elements of both like down the street at the Boeing building. Venting the diesel fumes shouldn’t be a problem, lots of train stations in the U.S. and around the world do it, it’s just not been done in Chicago because it wasn’t necessary before. Noise and vibration are another problem, though. But I suspect there will be some river-level access, since there is a long-term goal of adding connecting water taxi service at this location.

      – The numbers seem to work out for retail at Chicago Union Station. The model for rail station retail success everyone in the industry points to is Union Station in Washington, DC. That station averages 87,000 passengers per day. Chicago currently has 120,000 per weekday, with a projection of 170,000 by 2040. Grand Central Station pushes one million people a day during peak season, so we’re not even in the same league.

      – Don’t worry about the West Loop Transit Center. It probably won’t happen in either of our lifetimes.

      – I don’t see the need for two subways (Clinton and Canal), but I could see one being built. The diagram shows the subway as a north-south route. The Blue and Green lines you cite are east-west routes. In spite of all the transit in the West Loop, unless you’re going to the west side of the city or out to the suburbs, it can be kind of difficult to much of the rest of the city without making two transfers, often by first going into the Loop, which wastes time and adds to congestion. The city badly needs some north-south L service away from the lakeshore, but would probably needs the proposed Gold/Circle Line more than it needs a Clinton/Canal line.

      – The bus terminal can work well, and will hopefully help with congestion. I’ve seen Sound Transit in the Northwest do a very good job with similar terminals.

      – Megabus is its own problem. I have heard from several levels of city government that Megabus has no interest in talking to the city about anything. And from a legal standpoint, it doesn’t have to. It doesn’t want bus shelters, planters, or even garbage cans. Apparently it was like pulling teeth to even get that tiny metal Megabus sign put up on Canal Street. The Megabus business model is to operate on the fringe of regulation, so it does not want any permanent facilities. It is perfectly within its legal rights to pick up and drop off passengers the way it does, no matter how inconvenient it is for its own passengers and the rest of the city. The city can’t force Megabus to build a bus station, and if the city builds something for Megabus that could cause all sorts of legal problems, and I’m sure would not go over well with Greyhound, which chooses to be a better neighbor and operate a proper facility.

      – You are correct, the Canal Street viaduct will be rebuilt soonish. That’s one opportunity Amtrak is going to use to improve access to Union Station.

      Post a Reply
    • “Why do we need subway lines that go 8 blocks between the Green line and the Blue line?”

      What is needed is to complete the subway loop. The blue line currently has 3/4 of a loop. By building a subway under either Clinton or Canal between the existing blue line tunnels that are under Eisenhower and Lake, connecting it with those lines, we would have a full subway loop with stations directly at Union Station and Oglivie. The northwest and west portions of the blue line would operate separately, each turning around in the subway loop, one clockwise and the other counterclockwise. In addition the Pink line would be redirected into this loop and also turn around in it, reducing the congestion on the elevated loop.

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  2. Replacing 222 S Canal would make staging construction on the tracks beneath it much easier, particularly since the train station would remain in operation, and allow a redesign of the cramped and disorienting Union Station concourses and waiting rooms (which are currently in its basement). Plus, pillars holding up 222 might be in the way of some of the track work that’s been proposed here.

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  3. Oh, and there are a few goals that a Canal or Clinton subway would fulfill. Most notable is providing north-south access for the high-rises that are now being built along the river from Chicago south to Roosevelt — as well as future office towers in the West Loop. That’s far higher density development than Ashland Ave/Circle Line will ever see, and right now it’s all not even served by any north-south buses. Existing transit options, like the Green Line and the Blue Line at Clinton, don’t have the capacity. There’s also the issue of where you’d put Circle Line trains, since the State Street subway doesn’t have enough capacity for another line.

    Looking at the phasing charts, I’d guess that redeveloping the basement station is the primary reason why 222 would be replaced.

    Post a Reply
    • Editor

      I think both the Circle Line and the Canal Street subway lines have merit. What the western portion of the Circle Line lacks in density, it makes up for in distance. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see mini-skyline pockets of density develop along the Circle Line. If there’s one thing developers in the South and West have learned in the last ten years, it’s rail+cheap land=high rise condos.

      I know that right now the Circle Line plans include routing trains through the State Street subway, and I agree that this is impractical. A third north-south subway is required in the area that can handle both the Circle Line, and serve as a base for high-speed rail to both airports. In my dreams, it would be a Lakeshore Subway, running under Grant Park, serving Bronzeville, the Prairie Avenue District, Grant Park, Lakeshore East, Streeterville, and Lincoln Park before turning west. On the south end, it would turn west across Bridgeport.

      You mention Ashland Avenue as a route for the Circle Line. I thought it was supposed to go up Western Avenue. Has that changed, or am I outdated?

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    • Regarding Circle Line and State Street subway, the State Street subway has capacity for about 20-24 trains per hour before congestion-induced train delays start to become a problem. Given that CTA currently runs about 16 trains through there in the peak hour, and has run up to 18-20 in the recent past, we’re not quite at capacity yet. Furthermore, the south red line has less than half the peak ridership demand as the north red line (about 4,500 passengers per hour passing through northbound at roosevelt during the peak hour vs nearly 10,000 southbound at Chicago). This means that if every other peak southbound red line train were to go up to the circle line route after passing through downtown (and then turning back once it circles to a new lower-level platform at North/Clybourn) there would be no capacity problem at all (and in fact, more efficient operations as these “every other” trains would be serving a new market rather than running nearly empty out to 95th Street).

      It may also be noted that this type of operation is exactly what occurs today in London (look at the Tube map and think of the Hammersmith & City Line as the red line and London’s Circle Line as “every other CTA Red Line train” (you pick the new color).

      Then, someday, when the Clinton subway is built, this “every other Red Line train” could be routed into it, while the Circle Line routed full circle – essentially back-filling that removed red line capacity between North/Clybourn and Roosevelt. It’s not that hard of an operational problem to solve. The problem, of course, is the funding to build and operate any new train lines (although the CTA circle line plan again helps in that regard by more intensively usinig a lot of existing CTA trackage – much more cost effective than building a whole new line from scratch).

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