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This hall isn't your hall

Union Station, built as a grand gateway to Washington DC, is today more of a beautiful big hall with a bland train station stuck on the back. A mall operator runs the station with an eye more toward shopping than transit. And inauguration planners saw it first as a great place for a ball, with its transportation role an afterthought. That's why Union Station was possibly the inauguration's greatest fiasco.


Photo by selected pixels on Flickr.

A Huffington Post article analyzes the debacle. Reporter Matthew Harwood quotes a Greater Greater Friend's parents who were stuck outside the station for hours, missing their VRE train home, while the Secret Service closed the station and food court hours before the Eastern States Ball.

Why would the Secret Service, the lead agency securing the Inauguration, allow an inaugural ball in one of the District's most critical transportation hubs during an day anticipated to bring record crowds flooding into the District? ...

In the end, average rail travelers using Union Station got the same treatment they always do when their interests cross those of our nation's elite: They were told to be patient and calm and to wait in line.

"And for what," asked the New York businessman, "so someone could have champagne tonight?"

If you were lucky enough to get into the Eastern States Inaugural Ball, according to the Boston Herald, you could see a few Kennedys, Congressman Barney Frank, and the Senator John Kerry's brother and sister, before the Obamas made their entrance.

Enthusiasts and critics of Obama are right: maybe this is the new Camelot.

Union Station is our city's grand entrance hall. It's not a private ballroom for Congressional leaders that we use with their forbearance until they kick us out when they need the room.

Eleanor Holmes Norton has been a great advocate for Union Station. She should take a close look at how the decision was made to take away our space for this ball. The station's policies should allow rentals only when the public isn't likely to need the space. As for future inaugurations, they can pick someplace else.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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I've been to a (non-inaugural) ball at Union Station. It is one of the best venues for a black-tie ball you will ever experience. If you have a chance to attend such an event, I highly recommend it.

That being said, it was built as a train station. Its use as a train station should come first. It functions quite well as a train station. Is Union Station under pressure to support itself financially? It's not right that the ball took precedence to the building's primary use. Yet another example of the Inaugural Committee's lack of understanding of scope of the event.

by Cavan on Jan 22, 2009 4:39 pm • linkreport

It's not that they had a ball in the Great Hall. That is indeed a fantastic location for an event. The security required to host the event was the problem. You can't simply shut the station down at any time, yet alone when the entire transportation system is under extreme stress.

by Alex B. on Jan 22, 2009 4:48 pm • linkreport

When I first landed in Washington, the good folks who run Union Station's events office hired me to do some odds and ends for some of the big events that they hosted there. I was there, working, for Bill Clinton's second Inauguration.

The Event people do everything they can to make sure that the station and most of the shops continue to operate as normal when they close off portions of the great hall. The problem is the Secret Service. Any time the President enters a building, the Secret Service shuts down entrances and exits for the whole building.

The problem is not that the Secret Service did or did not allow Union Station to be a location for a ball. The problem is that the Secret Service takes such a heavy hand with its approach to security. In addition to those VRE trips, let's also chalk up the following:

Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th Street

Various Streets around Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court

by Phil Lepanto on Jan 22, 2009 4:53 pm • linkreport

This was assinine planning. What numbskull on the inauguration committee thought this was a good idea? I'd like to know. No one with a leadership role could see the problem beforehand? What collection of numbskulls was this? Can we get names and accountability?

by Bianchi on Jan 22, 2009 5:18 pm • linkreport

As noted elsewhere, there's a facebook group for people who were stuck in the "purple tunnel of doom". Perhaps it would be appropriate to create another for people caught in the Union Station fiasco? I'm really sorry for the people who got screwed over by this, maybe there's some good if it draws national attention to how bonkers security has gotten in downtown DC.

by Steve on Jan 22, 2009 5:36 pm • linkreport

Phil,

You make a good point. Lots of transportation options got closed down for everyone that day. Why should that "New York businessman" have thought his options should have been left any more unscathed than everyone else's? Roads were closed, bridges closed, Metro stations, etc. What happened at Union Station had zilch to do with whether the mall part of Union Station or the station part of it should be given preference. If David had seen Union Station before the mall renovation I suspect he'd be heartily thanking the mall operators. Without them we'd be looking at another strip parking lot near the Capitol. "Mall" people did a similar good deed in San Francisco with the Embarcadero terminal. I remember walking through those scary empty halls to reach the ferry terminals before commercial interests came in and turned it into a wonderful farmer's market. Should we be angry at the market there for making the best of what was otherwise a bad situation? Should they have left the ferry terminal to rot so that someday the ferries could grow back to the levels they were at before the bridges were built? Moral of the story ... causation and effect. The mall at Union Station is no more the cause of the problems with the train station behind it than the farmer's market at the Embarcadero is the cause of the problems with the ferry terminal. When/if the day comes that people turn back to trains and/or ferries, the free market (and politicos) will see to it that those edifices return to their original uses (or even finer ones get built.) In the meantime, the mall operators and farmers market are at least ensuring that a piece of our history is preserved.

by Lance on Jan 22, 2009 6:12 pm • linkreport

These posts remind me of some of the trips to Union Station that I experienced over the years, arriving at a magnificent station with crowds marching on Washington, later, during the Bicentennial, when I lived in Washington but traveled frequently to New York, getting off the train and seeing the dismal “pit” which was intended to be a vibrant, multimedia visitor center, shocking in comparison to the glory that I had experienced earlier. Then, on a later trip, I was stunned to get off the train greeted with plywood pedestrian mazes to get through the deteriorating station to the Metro or cabs out front. While the station was being restored, I had the opportunity to take a tour and watch the portions of the restoration, and it was wonderful to see the building transformed. But for the addition of the commercial portion of the station, we would probably not have the beautiful building we have today, and certainly, I have considered it a destination, even if not traveling by train, and have appreciated being able to pick up a sandwich to eat on the Amtrak or shop on my way to or from New York. If the rental income is part of what has made this possible, I think you need to consider what had preceded the restoration.

by JR on Jan 22, 2009 6:37 pm • linkreport

Union Station was of course built to handle the huge crowds of railroad passengers for inaugurations, but that building no longer exists, at least not for railroad use. It's largely been given over to retail uses. The original concourse area ended where the Amtrak ticket counter is now. The entire wide concourse are would have afforded direct access to the platforms and plenty of room for a surge in foot traffic such as what happened on Tuesday. Now all those passengers are squeezed through the much more narrow "Claytor Concourse." The building's "through-put" capacity was severely compromised in that process, and the platforms were shortened by at least three-to-four car lengths. The facility also lost tracks 1 thru 6 completely thanks to Metro. While it is still stunning architecturally, it has a fraction of the rail passenger capacity that existed when it was built. If High Speed Rail network were built from the south (the Southeast Corridor to Charlotte), to say nothing of a significant increase in commuter trains, we will need to take a serious look at Union Station's capacity issues.

by Paul on Jan 22, 2009 6:41 pm • linkreport

Obviously, the Union Station snafu and the Purple Tunnel of Doom will be filed under lessons learned, hopefully never to be repeated.

But I'm surprised GGW hasn't trumpeted the most positive lesson learned: the closing the bridges from Virginia and banning private cars from large areas of Wards 2 and 6 was a complete success. Nearly two million people made it into town without gridlock...and those who were injured or needed medical care - including Senator Kennedy - were quickly and safely transported to hospitals.

And how great was it to see thousands of people walking up 18th Street after the swearing-in? No cars, no massive traffic tie up, just an ocean of people!

The transportation plans crafted by local, state, and federal officials were bold and risky. By and large, they paid off and provide a template for future events.

We can - and should - point out the failures. But we should also take pride that planning, enormous effort, and luck made it the greatest day in Metro's history, and an enormous success for mass transit and alternative forms of transportation.

by Mike Silverstein on Jan 22, 2009 7:26 pm • linkreport

A solution to the problem of getting more throughput might be solved by adding an entrance to the north of the station, essentially turning it around. Taking out the shopping center might work, but to really add access, adding an entrance on H Street would be necessary. A streetcar line and possibly a subway would run there, so access would be as good as at the current main hall. Also, this way events wouldn't get in the way and parties could go on.

Paul, at the time adding shopping seemed necessary, as Amtrak had just been formed to keep trains running at all, and was expected to die out too. Are you upset about Metro too?

by цarьchitect on Jan 22, 2009 7:38 pm • linkreport

I would hate to see shopping taken out of the station. The stores are really nice, and it adds to the experience of arriving in to a nice place. Wasn't the closure of the station known well in advance? I was there Saturday night, and a shop worker told me about it.

by Jazzy on Jan 22, 2009 7:46 pm • linkreport

The entire rear side of Union Station needs a major do-over, including a demolition of that asymmetrical parking garage...

by Douglas Willinger on Jan 22, 2009 8:11 pm • linkreport

Union Station was possibly the inauguration's greatest fiasco.

Come on. My friend with a valid, hard-to-get ticket to the inaugural ceremony was stuck in the purple tunnel to hell, along with many thousands of other people. You can't possibly claim that some people missing their train is worse than that.

by David desJardins on Jan 22, 2009 10:35 pm • linkreport

Judging from these photos there must have been plenty of body heat in the jammed I-395 Center Leg Tunnel:

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2009/01/i-395-3rd-street-tunnel-jammed.html

by Douglas Willinger on Jan 22, 2009 10:44 pm • linkreport

I agree that Union Station should not have been used for one of the 10 official inaugural balls (since a Presidential appearance apparently requires shutting down the building for security sweeps well ahead of time). But planners (both the Inauguration committee, Secret Service, and those who run Amtrak, VRE, etc) should have known this ahead of time and planned for it. I do hope that Eleanor Holmes Norton demands an investigation into the poor planning choices made during the Inauguration which negatively impacted her constituents and visitors -- I don't get the sense that Feinstein actually cares. And this doesn't mean that a future non-official inaugural ball shouldn't be held at Union Station, it is a great venue.

by DC_Chica on Jan 23, 2009 3:13 pm • linkreport

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