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Norton berates Union Station reps over photography, intermodal plans

Eleanor Holmes Norton is not especially happy with the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, the nonprofit entity created by Congress to oversee the station (and which, in turn, contracts with private entities to operate the station). It's not only the overreacting to photography. Norton feels USRC hasn't taken advantage of opportunities to make Union Station more of an intermodal center, as Congress has asked.

Photo by theresa21 on Flickr.

For example, according to the Congresswoman, USRC cites "business relationships" as the reason it can't accommodate intercity discount buses like Megabus in the garage, "forcing them to load an unload on already crowded streets." Norton laid the blame on station officials. "Union Station could be an intermodal center right now," she said, "if only those in charge had the vision to do so."

Back to the photography issue. Photographer Erin McCann testified that she continues to get contradictory information from Amtrak employees, security guards, and Union Station management about the legality of taking photos or what the policy is. Just last Friday, An Amtrak employee told McCann that the building was private property and refused to give her name.

New York's Grand Central Terminal has its policy (allowing and encouraging photography) posted prominently on the Web. Meanwhile, Union Station's posted rules state that their guards can prohibit photography at any time for any reason; Norton argues the courts would take a different view, and calls this an "outrageously pathetic non-policy."

Below, more notes live from the hearing.

Next up is David Ball, President of USRC. He argues that there isn't room in the garage to accommodate private parking, intercity buses, and tour buses, all of whom would like to use the parking area. Bryan Chambers of Jones Lang LaSalle, which operates the retail areas, gives a long litany of ways Union Station cooperates with the city, participates in local merchant's associations, etc.

Daniel Levy of Ashkenazy Acquisition, which leases the building and subleases to Jones Lang LaSalle and other merchants, talks a little bit about the future plans for the station, including the new Amtrak concourse, expanded auto area for buses, and Columbus Circle reconfiguration. He also complains about a proposed tax (Possessed Reinterest Tax? Assessed Interest Tax?) from the District of Columbia that would "undo decades of revitalization" and create a "downward spiral."

Norton asks the three Union Station reps to respond to the photo issue. Ball: Surprised there isn't a standard policy and thinks it should be a very simple matter to devise one. There was some confusion after 9/11 but they should be able to work it out. Levy: Never been formally presented to him. His legal opinion is that the federal government conveyed a leasehold interest to USRC, which conveyed it to Ashkenazy. Norton is absolutely incredulous.

Chambers: Has been taking steps to fix the problem and has redrafted the standard to make it more clear that photography is permitted. Norton goes back to Levy, since he is the only lawyer, and argues that Levy or another lawyer should be involved with drafting the new policy. She also admonishes Levy to familiarize himself with "an unbroken line of court cases" in favor of photographer's rights on public property even when that property is leased to private entities.

Some discussion about the redevelopment follows. Management is considering replacing the now-closed possibly to-be-closed movie theater with a walkway to connect to the platforms; losing some retail rental revenue would be offset by greater foot traffic in the food court area.

Transportation ranking member John Mica (R-FL) is also attending the hearing. He insists that the future new Amtrak concourse should connect to the future bus concourse, and suggests that the bike station should fit in better with the building's architecture. He also complains about panhandling, having been panhandled four times while eating lunch waiting for a train. Mica jokes that the security guards seem too preoccupied with photographers to address panhandling. The now more apparently stupid Mr. Levy suggests perhaps if it's considered public property for photographers, then it's public for panhandlers too. Norton reminds them that the law isn't that simplistic.

Chambers jumps in, again with a voice of reason to Levy's unhinged behavior, admitting there's a problem and arguing that they lack arresting power. Mica suggests they hire Officer Thompson who's about to retire from the Capitol Hill Club nearby. At this point, we might be veering into absurd levels of Congressional micromanagement.

Norton, coming back to photography, points out that these guards who can't solve panhandling because they can't make arrests seem very willing to threaten photographers with arrest. She asks them to produce, within 30 days, a plan for retraining every security guard.

Next they argue about something concerning the movie theater lease, which isn't especially relevant to me other than the entertainment value of Levy continuing to piss off Congresswoman Norton every time he opens his mouth. It's good to see Norton leaning on these guys, especially for the terrible and illegal photography policy.

Will her browbeating solve the problem? Will they really send her a plan for retraining security guards? Will they really retrain them, and will guards stop harassing photographers? We'll be watching.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Last time I was in Union Station (just a few months ago), that movie theater was open (or so I thought). Now, I don't go down there too often but... huh?

by Adam on Jul 22, 2008 12:33 pm • linkreport

You're right, I think it's still there, but apparently its lease is up for renewal and there's a good chance it won't be renewed.

by David Alpert on Jul 22, 2008 12:37 pm • linkreport

I've been harassed by guards are Union Station multiple times. If it happens again I'm not backing down.

by BeyondDC on Jul 22, 2008 12:37 pm • linkreport


For taking pictures, I mean.

by BeyondDC on Jul 22, 2008 12:38 pm • linkreport

I was just in the Union Station food pit and hour ago... the theater is still there and operating.

by mikej on Jul 22, 2008 12:51 pm • linkreport

I'll be in Union Station tonight. I'll try taking a photo and see what happens...

by Bianchi on Jul 22, 2008 12:57 pm • linkreport

I frequent the Union Station "food pit" (very accurate, mikej!) and I'm having trouble picturing this "walkway to connect to the platforms" that was discussed at the hearing. Do they mean connecting the food pit to the Metro platforms, or to the Amtrak platforms? The Metro connection seems superfluous, and the Amtrak connection would face the wrong way. Maybe they mean to install the connection opposite the theater, and then force the vendors who are opposite the theater to move to where the theater currently is?

by tom veil on Jul 22, 2008 1:42 pm • linkreport

Tom, I agree with you. Seems as if any connection via the movie theatre space would have to go over up and over, or down and under the food court to reach the Amtrak train platforms. The vedors could beneift from extra foot traffic on non-lunch hours.

by Tim on Jul 22, 2008 2:29 pm • linkreport

I've been harassed far more times by panhandlers than by photographers. When I was attacked by a panhandler, to the point where one of the food court kiosks let me come behind their counter to wait for the security guards so I would not be hit, it took at least five minutes for the security guards to come down and pull this guy away so I could leave.

Did they arrest the man who attacked me? Of course not. One can only assume that it took them five minutes to get there because there were dangerous terrorists making art.

by Melissa on Jul 22, 2008 2:58 pm • linkreport

Don't you just kinda wish that the ImprovEverywhere folks behind the Union Station "freeze" would stage some sort of photographer invasion, flooding the place with hundreds of photographers and huge flash bulbs? Let the security guards deal with THAT.

by TheLadyV on Jul 22, 2008 3:30 pm • linkreport

I realize this is an absurd detail to focus on, but would it be possible to compell someone to fix the doors? The door handles on the doors near the Corner Bakery entrance to the station have been missing for a while. It seems like a safety hazard.

by Elmhurst on Jul 22, 2008 3:33 pm • linkreport

I'll photograph the missing door handles tonight!

by Bianchi on Jul 22, 2008 3:37 pm • linkreport

@TheLadyV: I love it! Can we please organize this?

by Melissa on Jul 22, 2008 3:39 pm • linkreport

You could try to recruit people at Improv Everywhere's worldwide site, Urban Prankster Network.

by David Alpert on Jul 22, 2008 3:42 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the informative and entertaining report. I'm going to make some popcorn and watch the video this evening. Despite the fact that the issue is profoundly disturbing, I'm looking forward to enjoying righeous indignation.

by David on Jul 22, 2008 3:57 pm • linkreport

I've taken photos in and out of Union Station many times. It's one of the most beautiful spaces in the city. But I can't understand why Union Station is tied up over this. Just watch for a moment, and in the space of a few moments you can see tourists, many tourist, snapping away, some running camcorders.

by kob on Jul 22, 2008 10:59 pm • linkreport

I don't agree with Ms. Norton on some/most issues, but I'm glad she is looking into this. Thank you Ms. Norton.

by Randy on Jul 23, 2008 8:12 am • linkreport

I'll be very sad if that movie theater closes -- that's the only option for us northeasterners, unless we want to schlep to Gallery Place.

The food pit, on the other hand, can go.

by SueDoc on Jul 23, 2008 10:06 am • linkreport

As director of a photography workshop program (Washington Photo Safari) that trains amateur photographers in the DC area, I am delighted to see this fine activity in promoting the rights of photographers at Union Station.

We take groups of photographers there twice a week, teaching them how to shoot architectural interiors without flash or tripod. Security guards have told us we can photograph in the Main Hall but not in the Food Court or other areas of the station that have some lovely architectural details.

Thanks for putting the heat on Congress and Union Station to looosen up their regulations.

David Luria

by E, David Luria on Jul 23, 2008 10:34 pm • linkreport

While I applaud Rep. Norton for looking into what should not be a problem with photography at Union Station, it is only a small part of a much bigger problem. Try setting up a tripod on the Capitol grounds (outside) and a Capitol Policeman who is so full of himself/herself is likely to advise it is illegal without first obtaining a permit. Try taking high-speed film though the inspectors at the Liberty Bell in Philly and you will discourteously be told it must go through the X-ray machine, even if it is 3200 ASA. Try taking photos anywhere inside the fence of the Truman residence in Independance, Mo. (even without a flash) and a National Park Ranger will tell you to stop. However, if you go down the street to the Truman museum, you can take all the photos you like.

Why the differences in policy? Because every federal agency has its own rules. Some, like the Archives which runs the Truman Museum, have enlightened policies, while others, like the National Park Service and the morons who run the Capitol, do not. Ms. Norton needs to introduce a Bill seeking a uniform policy for all federal places frequented by tourists and photographers.

by Bruce Shulman on Sep 22, 2008 4:15 pm • linkreport

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