New train sta­tion site is needed, and only 1

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - METRO - Michael Paul Wil­liams mwilliams@Times­Dis­patch.com

If you’ve ever felt a tinge of em­bar­rass­ment at greet­ing an Am­trak vis­i­tor at our shabby rail sta­tion gate­way, you can re­late to this story by ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian Calder Loth.

“I had a vis­i­tor from Rus­sia one time, and she was go­ing to come down from New York,” Loth re­called. “I said I was go­ing to meet her at the sta­tion.”

The vis­i­tor, un­aware of the mod­est di­men­sions of Sta­ples Mill Sta­tion in Hen­rico County, asked Loth: “How will I find you?” He ad­vised her that she needn’t worry.

Upon meet­ing her at the sta­tion, Loth said he hus­tled her into his car “and rode her down Mon­u­ment Av­enue to try to re­gain her sense of aes­thet­ics.”

Hav­ing re­cently trav­eled via Sta­ples Mill Sta­tion — and stepped out­doors to use its up­scale por­ta­ble bath­room be­cause of con­struc­tion in­side — I un­der­stand Loth’s im­pulse. In Hen­rico, we have one of the busiest and home­li­est Am­trak sta­tions in the South.

In Rich­mond’s Shockoe Bot­tom, we have a stately, Vic­to­ria-era train sta­tion with a sig­na­ture clock

tower sit­u­ated on a route that would re­quire ex­pen­sive up­grades and pos­si­bly a new bridge over the James River for high­er­speed rail.

The Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Rail and Pub­lic Trans­porta­tion rec­om­mends new plat­forms and a park­ing deck at Main Street Sta­tion and a new sta­tion build­ing, park­ing and plat­forms at Sta­ples Mill Road Sta­tion. At a pub­lic hear­ing Tues­day, sev­eral speak­ers gen­er­ally sup­ported the idea of two full-ser­vice sta­tions.

I don’t get it.

If ma­jor cities along the Eastern Se­aboard can get by with one Am­trak sta­tion, why — be­yond our re­gion’s usual ju­ris­dic­tional and po­lit­i­cal games­man­ship — does metro Rich­mond need two?

As a Hanover County res­i­dent, I can drive to North Boule­vard as quickly as I can travel to Sta­ples Mill Sta­tion. Chesterfield and South Rich­mond res­i­dents might fare even bet­ter. A pro­posed North Boule­vard train sta­tion site sits be­tween the other sta­tions.

The as­so­ci­a­tion that rep­re­sents the Boule­vard and neigh­bor­ing Scott’s Ad­di­tion is po­si­tion­ing this area to be the site of a com­muter rail sta­tion on the Boule­vard, as pro­posed by for­mer Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity Pres­i­dent Eu­gene Trani and for­mer state Sen. John C. Watkins.

I can un­der­stand want­ing to sal­vage Main Street Sta­tion as a vi­able rail­road sta­tion. Be­yond the amount of in­vest­ment in at­tain­ing that goal, we’re talk­ing a lot of his­tory.

Where rail­road sta­tions were con­cerned, Rich­mond once had an em­bar­rass­ment of riches: the ar­chi­tec­tural gems of Main Street Sta­tion (1901) and Broad Street Sta­tion (now the Sci­ence Mu­seum of Vir­ginia, built in 1917), both on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places. Both were built when rail was the na­tion’s pri­mary mode of trans­porta­tion, be­fore be­ing sup­planted by au­to­mo­biles, buses and air­planes.

“They were gate­ways to the city,” Loth said of or­nate train sta­tions na­tion­wide. “It was your first im­pres­sion, and it be­came a great tra­di­tion to make them im­por­tant.”

I thought Loth, re­tired from the Vir­ginia Depart­ment of His­toric Re­sources, would be all-in for the re-es­tab­lish­ment of Main Street Sta­tion as the main rail de­pot of the re­gion. But he thinks the pro­posed train sta­tion on North Boule­vard is a great idea.

He ac­knowl­edges that there will be push­back from sup­port­ers of the Sta­ples Mill and Main Street sta­tions, “but if you re­ally want to serve the pub­lic, that is the best way to do it.”

“I wish Main Street Sta­tion were more ac­com­mo­dat­ing,” he said, “but it just doesn’t serve well the main (rail) traf­fic coming through Rich­mond, which is the North-South line.”

For some, Main Street Sta­tion em­bod­ies the long-stand­ing mis­giv­ings about Shockoe Bot­tom that made folks leery about build­ing a ball­park there — its prox­im­ity to slave trade his­tory, its rel­a­tive con­ges­tion, its spasms of vi­o­lent crime. Per­haps the up­grades, or the pres­ence of The Pulse bus rapid tran­sit, would be a game changer. But for now, the site does not seem user-friendly.

Yes, we’ve sunk a lot of money into Main Street Sta­tion (though the elab­o­rate train shed ren­o­va­tion was sub­si­dized mainly by fed­eral and state dol­lars). But an aw­ful lot more will be re­quired to bring the sta­tion up to snuff for higher-speed rail. This project has the fa­mil­iar whiff of the Rich­mond long shot that inevitably throws good money af­ter bad.

I don’t say this lightly. I’m a sucker for grand old train sta­tions. Weary of the usual slog of a drive up In­ter­state 95, I’ve been trav­el­ing Am­trak more of­ten to Wash­ing­ton’s Union Sta­tion and Philadel­phia’s 30th Street Sta­tion.

Their rel­a­tive grandeur made Sta­ples Mill Sta­tion feel even shab­bier. We can build a new build­ing on Sta­ples Mill, but the en­vi­rons will re­main un­der­whelm­ing.

As for Main Street Sta­tion, it’s nice hav­ing a rail de­pot in the heart of town, but how many of us have ac­tu­ally used it?

Part of the rea­son both of our grand rail­road sta­tions failed is be­cause de­clin­ing rail trav­eler traf­fic ren­dered these large spa­ces im­prac­ti­cal. Main Street Sta­tion is a lovely build­ing, but find another use for the build­ing and the glit­ter­ing ren­o­vated shed, which as a re­tail site would never re­ceive enough trav­el­ers to be sus­tain­ing. The shed — an event space in a city with a glut of them — sym­bol­izes the folly of pur­su­ing this course.

Our rail­road sta­tion be­longs in the re­gion’s hub. But Main Street Sta­tion’s hey­day as a train sta­tion can­not be repli­cated. For Rich­mond or Hen­rico to cling to ei­ther or both of these flawed sites seems stub­born.

We need a gate­way that’s both aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing and prac­ti­cal. We don’t need two train sta­tions. A fresh start on the Boule­vard might put us on the right track.

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