One of the best ways for cities to improve the often-forlorn areas around major infrastructure is by building on air rights. When a street crosses over a major highway, why not put buildings over the highway on either side, turning an empty bridge into a city street with activity along the sidewalks, like they are doing in Boston and Columbus. Covering a big rail yard near a major train station is great, like New York’s Hudson Yards (see proposals for the site and criticism.
Now DC is getting into the act, selling the rights to build over Union Station’s rail yard. This would remove the large expanse of dead space behind Union Station where H Street crosses over the tracks. But it’s too bad the project couldn’t also remove and integrate the ugly parking garage behind the station.
The garage is huge, totally pedestrian-unfriendly, and depressing even to drivers. The parking could have been part of the new buildings instead, underneath or inside, allowing something better to run along the station’s western edge which not only has an entrance to Metro but is also the main walking route between the Greyhound bus terminal and Union Station.
Another disappointing pedestrian experience around Union Station is Columbus Plaza, the half-circle in front of the station with about three separate concentric rings of traffic, for Massachusetts Avenue through traffic and cars and taxis going to the station. With so many routes for cars, it’s not welcoming for pedestrians to cross. Between this and the expanses of parking around Senate office buildings, walking from Union Station to the Capitol feels more like Dallas than DC. The DC government plans to improve pedestrian safety (PDF, page 3.15) in this area, though I can’t find specifics.