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Transit Hub Back on Track

Rail commuters have Union Station, once the gateway to postwar L.A., thriving again. Planners see it as the centerpiece to the area's revival.

May 22, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Is this Los Angeles, the land of the Jetta and the Jaguar, the freeway interchange, the molasses-thick traffic? You couldn't tell it, at least on weekday rush hours, by going to Union Station.

The place is full of commuters. None in a car.

They pile out of subway stations on their way to work. They run, shoulder to shoulder, to Metrolink trains. They sit on leather seats waiting for Amtrak and stand -- with briefcases and baseball hats and book bags -- waiting for buses that shuttle to points all over the region.

To wade through the foot traffic at this historic terminal is to sense that what Los Angeles transit planners have long desired -- mass transit that is easy to use, comfortable, even alluring through its beauty -- is at least partially becoming a reality.

"You are beginning to see that this region has a transit hub," said Jim de la Loza, planning director for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "It's taking shape. This goes back to the vision that people like Mayor [Tom] Bradley had 20 and 30 years ago when they started talking about building a stop at Union Station."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Union Station -- A photo caption with a May 22 Section A article about Union Station incorrectly identified a marble plaza as being part of the station. The plaza is part of the nearby Gateway Transit Center.

Since it opened in 1939, the terminal, on 51 acres at the northeast edge of downtown, has seen both boom and bust.

Union Station was a major gateway during Los Angeles' rapid post-World War II development. In those peak years, about 40 trains a day arrived at the station. But as Los Angeles International Airport began handling more long-distance travelers, the station turned increasingly desolate. By 1971 as few as seven trains used it each day.

The downward spiral began to reverse in the early 1990s. Santa Fe Railroad, which owned the station, spun off its real estate division into a new company, Catellus Development Corp., in 1990. Catellus began refurbishing the station, with the goal of turning it into a magnet for new development.

In quick succession the Metropolitan Water District and the MTA bought sections of the station's property and built new headquarters there, spending about $425 million in taxpayer money in the process. The MTA added a bus terminus and opened up a Red Line subway stop underneath the station. Metrolink inaugurated regionwide commuter service, eventually connecting Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties.

Because most rail tracks in Southern California already flowed into downtown, Union Station by 1995 had become the fulcrum of a burgeoning passenger network. By 1998, transit officials say, an average of 20,000 people were using the station each weekday.

This year, with use of the Red Line, Amtrak and Metrolink growing, more than 200 trains and an average of 40,000 people pass through it on weekdays.

Most use the terminal as a transfer point. A suburban commuter can take Metrolink to Union Station, transfer to the Red Line subway and end up at a job on Wilshire Boulevard. Others work at offices on the station site or within walking distance.

Although the total number of daily visitors is smaller than at many East Coast rail terminals -- Union Station in Washington, D.C., handles about 70,000 people a day, including on weekends -- local transit officials foresee a time when Los Angeles' Union Station will be just as busy.

Sometime around July, the 14-mile Gold Line railway will open, connecting Pasadena and Los Angeles, with its busiest stop expected to be at Union Station.

Within the next decade, planners at the MTA hope to extend the Gold Line east to Claremont and add a southeast spur to Boyle Heights. If those extensions happen, about 20,000 more riders are expected to use Union Station on most days. And thousands more could join them if regional or state plans to build high-speed rail, set for a public vote next year, come to pass.

"This place is going to look very different," said Roger Snoble, the MTA chief executive, as he walked through the station recently. He noted that the station's use significantly slows at times other than rush hour, a situation that will probably change in coming years. "It's already a wonderful place ... but now it's going to be active all of the time."

Though public officials hope for more commuter use of the terminal, private builders have their eyes on what Union Station can do to spur development of downtown's northern end.

Catellus is poised to develop large swaths of terminal property that are now unused or serve as parking lots. The city will soon build a 32-acre park within a mile of the station. Parts of Chinatown that draw artists and clubgoers seem ripe for new restaurants and apartments. And the nonprofit California Endowment will soon build a new headquarters on six acres about a block from Union Station.

"It is inevitable. More interest and building is going to happen there," said Dan Rosenfeld, whose firm, Urban Partners, is developing the California Endowment building. "The proximity to great transit and a great building is one of the drivers."

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