Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

There are essentially two routes into Union Station by foot: The bad way, and the worse way.

The bad way starts in the Metro station, or along First Street NE, where the subway entrance is chiseled into a massive stone wall abutting a narrow sidewalk. Push your way through the commuters and tourists pouring on and off the Red line and shove yourself up whichever escalator to the main floor is in service when you happen to arrive. The first thing you see when you get into the train station proper is probably a line. It might be for the post office. Or maybe it’s for the train departing Gate A. Or for Sbarro. There’s no way to know, really, until you squeeze your way past it to see where it ends.

But you don’t have time for a prolonged investigation. You’ve got to hunt down a working ticket machine so you don’t miss your train. There are a few in the middle of the station, nestled between more lines, and some a longer walk away, past the shops by the Amtrak ticketing counter. So you keep pushing through the crowd. It’s loud, and getting louder; the next MARC train is boarding, so the PA system is blaring about stopping in “Savage”—which sounds about right. The lighting is of an institutional fluorescent variety that seems designed to stress you out, especially as you squint to see arrivals and departures on faraway monitors.

Finally, you stumble out into the historic section of the building, and the drab tile floors give way to shiny marble. Things might be looking up. But all you see are tour bus kiosks and tchotchke shops. Freestanding blue signs offer no direction. You spot a line ending by the stairway down to the food court, though, and sure enough, there’s the Quik-Trak unit you’ve been looking for. You print your ticket and look for your train. If you’re leaving from Gate K, way over at the eastern end of the station by McDonald’s, you’ve got to struggle your way through the fluorescent lights, the noise, and the crowds—all over again.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

That’s the bad way. The worse way starts out by Columbus Circle, where your reward for scrambling across six lanes of traffic on Massachusetts Avenue NW is another few lanes of cars, taxis, and buses. There are tiny little curbs to stand on before venturing onto a barely visible crosswalk. If you make it through without giving up, you’ve got some big concrete security barriers to navigate. Then you’re in the main hall of Union Station, the part with the marble floors where travelers perch uncomfortably on granite planters. Your train, or the shop you’re looking for, is somewhere in back, through the crowds and the din.

Aren’t you glad you’re here?

For at least a decade, the plaza in front of Union Station, which should be Washington’s welcome mat, has been a national disgrace. Granite blocks fell out of their sidewalks, and pedestrians heading to the Capitol complex from the Metro wore dirt tracks in the grass where no paths existed to accommodate them. Traffic lanes had been added over the years, making it impossible to navigate for anyone other than the buses and taxis that careen around Columbus Circle. Inadequately shoveled in the winter, barely tended in the summer, it seemed to announce, “Welcome to D.C., America’s broken capital city.”

Finally, the plaza is getting a makeover. By next year, it’s supposed to re-open as a functional public space for the 100,000 people who come through every day, with expanded space for pedestrians, better lighting, and security bollards instead of concrete blocks.

But why was it allowed to get so bad in the first place?

The answer is a story of inertia and bureaucracy. Just look at its exterior for a lesson in Union Station’s dysfunctions: Columbus Plaza is no man’s land, and everyone’s. Owned by the National Park Service, it also falls within the purview of the District Department of Transportation, as well as the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation (the federally-chartered nonprofit that runs the station). All those parties hashed out an agreement back in 2004 to fix the plaza, but the details took another six years to nail down. Three different agencies—the National Capital Planning Commission, Commission on Fine Arts, and the Architect of the Capitol—had to approve the agreement first. Then, they had to figure out who would pay how much of the $7.8 million the proposed renovations would take.

That’s more or less the tale of Union Station as a whole. Five or six years ago, traffic through the station started to strain at its capacity, and changes came quickly. Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation bought the lease to most of the station’s retail and launched a major overhaul, kicking out downmarket tourist shops and eateries and bringing in chains like Chop’t and Chipotle. Intercity bus companies wanted to start operating from the Union Station parking deck rather than city streets. In 2006, local developer Akridge won the rights to the air over 15 acres of train tracks, and started planning a 3 million square foot complex of offices, retail, and apartments.

Now, the District wants to renovate the entrance to the Metro, which hasn’t changed since it opened in 1976, and find a way to tie in the streetcar that will eventually run on H Street NE. Amtrak and Maryland’s MARC commuter service have projected massive ridership increases in future years, and are thinking about how to expand service.

That’s a lot to handle with a historic, federally-owned building that has no one boss, and only a non-voting representative in Congress to fight for the funding it needs to grow. In 2008, billions of dollars in stimulus spending finally became available for improvements, and Union Station landed some of it to replace escalators up to the parking deck. But there was no overall master plan to guide the station’s redevelopment, which would make a better case for bigger grants—or resolve conflicts, such as when the District wanted its streetcar line to run through an underpass beneath the station, and Amtrak wanted that space for itself.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Those close to the discussions are very hesitant to talk publicly about intra-station turf battles. Several say relations are a lot better today than they were a year ago. On the record, all the interested parties dwell on the station’s enormous potential, and indeed, it’s hard to overestimate. In 15 years, Union Station could be something much more catalytic: a portal for high-speed rail service that will get people from here to New York in 90 minutes, the hub of a streetcar system that stretches from Oklahoma Avenue NE to Washington Circle, the beating heart of a new mixed-use neighborhood that knits NoMa together with H Street. It could be a place you don’t just go to in order to get somewhere else. But all that has a price tag that hasn’t even been determined yet. It’s likely north of a billion dollars—and only $80 million is currently accounted for.

“The vision for the city is huge,” says Ken Sparks, the former Federal City Council president who conceived of the USRC in the ’80s and is consulting for it today. “I think it’s probably the most exciting thing happening in Washington.”

That’s the future, though. The recent past and present look a little drearier.

No matter how inhospitable Union Station can seem today, it’s a Swiss airport compared to 1981, when the building shut down as a public hazard 74 years after it first opened. The station had fallen with the city, as train ridership decreased and facilities went into severe disrepair. A National Visitors Center required a constant stream of federal subsidies, and Union Station didn’t do a very good job of introducing tourists to the city right outside.

That sad state of affairs demanded a drastic response. Congress set up the USRC in 1982 with a mandate to preserve the building and create an indoor mall that would make the station financially independent. They allocated $180 million to make it happen, and by 1988, it had: The resulting restoration was widely celebrated as the renovation Daniel Burnham’s majestic train station deserved. (A heavy metal cube in a glass case, the Urban Land Institute’s 1991 award to USRC for executing the turnaround, still holds pride of place in the main hall.)

USRC president David Ball witnessed the station’s first rebirth, having started at the corporation in 1984. Now, he’s the guy in charge of the next one. The USRC office is tiny, with only four staffers in an office on G Street NE, in the station’s shadow. Ball himself is placid and polite, and on the morning we meet in the station’s main hall, wears a D.C. baseball cap like you might get at one of the tourist shops nearby. It was a rainy day, and netting spanned the hall to keep plaster from falling on peoples’ heads, further darkening an already shadowy space. I wonder aloud if it’s typical for the interior to be so dim.

“Nothing’s typical in this building,” Ball responds wryly. Greeting the shoe shiners and maintenance guys by name as we stroll through the station, he knows every quirk of and tweak that’s been made to the building over its 104-year lifespan. There are, for example, the pilasters in the east hall that look like marble, but are only painted. “They were always cutting costs,” he says.

Ball, who made $183,000 in salary and benefits last year, has been under some pressure lately. USRC collects rent from Ashkenazy and the parking garage to the tune of $10 million per year for maintenance, planning, and improvements. But its financial statements don’t include an itemized budget, prompting D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to ask the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General for a yearly audit, citing “increasing evidence that USRC may not be able to meet its mandate to be self-supporting.”

“I don’t feel like I know anything about Union Station,” Norton says. “I don’t recall that we had any hearings on Union Station after the renovation of Union Station in the ’80s. And that was a big mistake. You never leave a massive government property with the feeling that nobody’s watching it.”

Union Station management first ticked Norton off in 2008, when photographers complained of being hassled after trying to take pictures in the main hall. She held hearings in 2008 and 2009, and was irked by the realization that nobody could articulate a cohesive vision for the station’s future.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Ball says things were moving forward. “The stakeholders were all conscious,” he says. “There may not have been a formalized master plan, but the stakeholders all understood the importance of what we were trying to develop here.”

That might be true. But it’s not enough to make the case to anyone else that development should be supported. Union Station has already missed out on grants that would have redone the Metro entrance and built elevators to a new streetcar connection. USRC estimates its wish list will cost a total of $450 million, and right now, it’s unclear where most of that money will come from.

“Without Union Station looking like it is spunky and raring to go, as the new destination spot for transportation and mixed use, it’s going to be difficult to get the attention of the federal government, and a lot of the money has to come from the federal government,” Norton says. “So Union Station needs to be a centerpiece in order for Congress to focus on it like they did when they renovated it. Congress is used to people who want to get something done saying, ‘Wow, this is what we want to get done, isn’t this terrific? What do you think of this?’ Instead, we had to push them, to do what should have been obvious.”

Even after its renovation 25 years ago, Union Station was torn between its various identities. Was it mostly a train station, or mostly a shopping mall? Did it cater to visitors, or to people who lived in D.C.? The stands selling state flags and historical Americana seemed aimed at tourists. The basement movie theater, which closed two years ago, drew boisterous crowds of locals.

That split sense of purpose is still evident today, even if the stalls selling knicknacks to folks from out of town have been replaced by higher-end shops like Aerosoles and Oakley. Take a look at the food court, which is practically the official dining destination of every Future Farmers of America delegation that visits Congress, but which also draws workers from the newer office complexes in NoMa.

Which is why a building serving as many different constituencies as Union Station should have one underlying master plan that takes into account the needs of all the station’s tenants. As visions evolve for new renovations, the station’s finite size inevitably creates conflicts: intercity buses vs. tour buses, retail vs. Amtrak waiting areas, train tracks vs. streetcar tracks.

Just this year, the station took on a whole new role by serving as an intercity bus terminal. A few weeks ago, a small cluster of executives and public-relations types huddled together with a dancing mascot on the parking deck, where lines of travelers now shiver on the open tarmac. The suits were there for speeches and a ribbon cutting to celebrate the arrival of Megabus, now officially housed at the station after having been shunted from various Washington curbs to the old convention center site to a parking lot at North Capitol Street and K Street NW.

The pomp was justified. Getting all six intercity bus lines housed on the parking deck had required years of browbeating from Norton and “countless” meetings in her office. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood himself was in on some of them, and his deputy John Porcari—a Marylander who sits on USRC’s board—attended those LaHood couldn’t make. “It was really Union Station administration that really made it slow for many, many years,” says Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association. “It was really the involvement of LaHood and Porcari that made it happen quickly.”

Solving one problem, though, created another. The arrival of Megabus and Bolt squeezed out the charter tour buses who’ve long paid $20 per day to park there while their charges got lunch in the station and wandered Capitol Hill. Come spring tourist season, they’ll have to drop people off at the station and go to some as yet undetermined other spot. The only options now, RFK Stadium and the Crummell School lot on New York Avenue NE, are both far enough away that bus drivers might choose not to go there at all, but rather drive around on D.C.’s streets. On top of that, USRC is talking about hiking the fee to $50, and it’s driving the tour companies batty. Worldstrides, an educational tour company that runs 2,200 buses through the station each spring, sees no good options on the table. “To lose 20 minutes, half hour, just to pick up at Union Station, is going to be a killer for us, just logistically,” says Rob Teweles, Worldstrides’ director of sightseeing.

Then there’s all the stuff to buy. In a city that doesn’t have many malls, Union Station is as close as it gets. Ashkenazy, which is trying to make good on the $160 million it paid for the 84-year lease in 2007, has been systematically repositioning the retail to turn it into more of a Ritz Carlton than a Holiday Inn. The British chain Pret a Manger and a peppy frozen yogurt shop now occupy the former home of Union Wine & Liquor (which reopened downstairs this fall).

Currently, the biggest question is how to deal with the former movie theater, which is now a huge lost revenue stream for Ashkenazy. To lease it, they need more foot traffic to the food court, which means creating a vertical passageway from the main floor. Cutting holes in historic buildings, though, is no easy task, as Ashkenazy found out when they proposed two glass elevators going up through the elevated café in the middle of the main hall, twined in spiral staircases.

To those familiar with the station’s history, the plan was a reminder of the visitors center “pit” that had existed even before the movie theater. Preservationists revolted, burying Ashkenazy with negative comments. The issue died down, until the developer came back with a modified plan that would get rid of the center café entirely, freeing up sightlines by uncluttering the hall, and only cutting two modest holes for escalators to the basement. It didn’t completely mollify opponents, who still question why any holes are necessary.

Preservationist-esque worries extend further than aesthetics, though. Over the years, Ashkenazy and its predecessor added a lot more retail than Union Station had decades ago, when it handled 50 percent more people than it does today. If bus, streetcar, and train traffic reach the level that’s expected, things could get rather cramped.

While packing the floors full of as many shops as possible, Ashkenazy is also trying to avoid paying taxes on them. For the past several years, USRC and the developer have asked the D.C. Council to waive its “possessory interest tax,” a way of charging property taxes on federal land that amounts to about $3 million per year. During Norton’s hearings, an Ashkenazy executive—who didn’t return calls or emails for this story—forecasted an “inevitable downward spiral” if the tax stayed in effect, calling it “the largest threat to the future success to Union Station [with] the potential to unwind two decades of revitalization.”

The D.C. Council hasn’t heeded the firm’s entreaties. It’s pretty hard to buy the case that retailers like Victoria’s Secret and Express can’t pay property taxes like they would anywhere else in the city (and if they can’t, maybe Ashkenazy is charging them too much in rent). But Ashkenazy isn’t giving up. This spring, USRC sued the District in federal court, claiming the tax was unconstitutional. USRC and Ashkenazy say they plan to chip in $80 million for the station’s renovations, and they’d rather not have to pay the District as well.

Litigation doesn’t make it easy for the city to work with the station management on other projects. DDOT, for example, would like to push for legislation that would enable it to pass on federal grants to USRC—but councilmembers tend to remember that Union Station is trying to get out of paying taxes. “It would be great to get it settled, because it is a problematic thing that holds back relations,” says Steve Strauss, DDOT’s point person on the station.

As much as Union Station’s future is multipurpose, it’s still fundamentally a train station: The driving force behind redevelopment is Amtrak.

The administration of Barack Obama—and his famously Amtrak-dependent vice president—has talked big about passenger rail. Last fall, Amtrak came out with an aspirational plan for high-speed rail along the Northeast corridor, with trains traveling from Boston to Washington at 220 miles per hour. That’s still fantasy for now; this year’s federal budget includes no money for high-speed rail (austerity and bullet trains don’t mix easily). Nonetheless, Amtrak is almost ready to release its own sweeping master plan that would provide for Japanese-style locomotives in the future, as well as increase capacity for regular train service. Trains with more cars would move in and out faster, waiting areas would be refinished, and platforms would be rebuilt so passengers could board on either side. More entrances to the station would open it up to the surrounding neighborhood. All of that could be great news if it comes together, but until then, the station’s future is tied to Amtrak’s, and to Congress’, willingness to put money into passenger rail.

While that plan coalesces, USRC has a list of things that can be done in the station if funds become available: replace the escalators up to the parking deck, build a new passenger waiting area and ticketing center for Greyhound buses, complete a pedestrian passageway from the Metro station to H Street that’s sat unfinished.

But despite Amtrak’s best intentions, many of the critical components are beholden to their timeline.

One such thing was the streetcar. Until Amtrak got enough money for new tracks through the underpass that comes out through a door in the stone wall on H Street, DDOT wanted to use it for a streetcar stop. (At the time, nobody was sure who owned the wall; USRC had to dispatch a consultant to do a title search, which concluded that it belongs to the feds.) Amtrak indicated that would be possible, but later decided it would need the area as a staging ground for realigning the tracks above, forcing DDOT to scramble for inferior alternatives.

Another is better signage. The station desperately needs this to help people find their way around, and USRC has retained a team that includes Lance Wyman, the guy who designed Metro’s map. But it’s difficult to tell people where to go when it’s unclear where things will be.

The third thing is vastly bigger: Akridge’s plans for the air rights over Amtrak’s tracks, for which they paid $10 million in 2006 and have been trying to advance ever since. Called Burnham Place after the station’s original architect, this is the project that would really make Union Station into something special, connecting Capitol Hill to downtown.

“If we do our job right, Burnham Place becomes a crossroads,” says Akridge project manager David Tuchmann. “If you go out the south side, you’re at the seat of power. If you go the other direction, you’re in an H Street neighborhood.”

There’s lots to do while Amtrak straightens out its plans. This year, Akridge got a whole new zoning district called Union Station North, which involved fighting the preservationists who thought having tall buildings visible behind the station would somehow insult its grandeur. It took hours of testimony to work out whether the height of the new buildings would be measured from the ground or from the top of the H Street bridge. With the help of density advocates like planning director Harriet Tregoning, Akridge won the right to take the higher measurement.

But Akridge’s architect, the prolific local firm Shalom Baranes, can’t get started on designs until there’s some certainty to Amtrak’s vision. Building a deck over the tracks, for example, will have to be done bit by bit, so Amtrak can keep trains in service during construction. If Amtrak adds more tracks that go under the H Street bridge, it might have to be elevated, which would throw off their calculations. The newly realigned tracks will determine where Akridge can sink pillars on which to build their deck.

“The sands are shifting beneath our project,” says Matt Klein, president of Akridge. (The company’s founder, Chip Akridge, had offered to push the process quicker by putting together a Union Station master plan, Norton said, but it wasn’t his job.) “So until the sands settle, it’s hard to get down to the nitty gritty of architecture.”

Walk into Union Station’s main entrance sometime after Columbus Plaza is finally finished, and the chaos that makes it such an unpleasant place now should be a bit calmer. But even if all goes well, it’ll be succeeded by a more ordered chaos: Thousands more people coming in and out of a new office complex behind the tracks, onto trains that will whisk them anywhere on the eastern seaboard in hours, or aboard streetcars bound for newly revitalized areas east of the river. A modern, new concourse will funnel commuters onto lower level tracks on their way home to Maryland and Virginia. Bus riders will wait in an enclosed structure, shielded from the drafts that slice across a parking lot elevated high above the ground.

You might go there just for dinner, or to buy some pants, or spend an hour chatting with a friend. Instead of a way of dividing the city into east and west, it’ll be a place where the two halves mesh.

You can almost see it, too, from the very top of the parking deck, looking down to the vast area of tracks below. Ball, who observers say seems energized by the quicker pace of change over the last year and a half, tries to explain something that hasn’t even been fully designed yet.

“If you’re looking down there, that’s not Union Station today,” he says. “But it could be Union Station tomorrow.”