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There are a lot of Union Stations in America—-that’s just what they were called when a bunch of railroads pooled their efforts in a central train depot. And D.C.’s own Union Station isn’t the only one undergoing a master planning process, as cities look to their transit hubs for an alternative center of gravity within the urban core. In fact, a couple others may be doing it better.

Consider our own Union Station Redevelopment Corporation. Since Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton pitched a fit a few years ago over the fact that there was nothing in writing to guide the Station’s expansion, the USRC has tried to at least put all its projects in one place. Its draft master plan, issued in June 2010, is basically a list of improvements, how much they’ll cost, and who’s in charge of implementing them. USRC promises that another, fuller plan is on the way.

But with the exception of the participation of select citizen groups in the process of renovating the Main Hall—-which is required by law for historic federal properties—-there’s been pretty much no public input on USRC’s overall master plan. Just internal negotiation between “stakeholder groups” (i.e. Amtrak, WMATA, the District Department of Transportation, Akridge, and Ashkenazy, which manages the station’s retail), which tends to limit the vision of what people need and what Union Station could become.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As Richard Layman points out this morning, Chicago has put serious ideas on the table and is opening them up for public comment before issuing a final master plan next year. Importantly, it’s not separate from Amtrak’s master plan, as USRC’s is, but rather an overall vision for all the transit services in and around the station.

Los Angeles recently bought its Union Station, and is embarking on an even larger master planning process, bringing in an Urban Land Institute panel to generate some big ideas for the station and 500 acres that surround it (initial presentation here). They’re inviting bids from the nation’s best planning firms, and are also inviting public comment from the get-go with a website that offers real information, not just scattershot planning documents.

That’s what D.C.’s Union Station master planning process could have looked like. Instead, you won’t know much about it until it’s all said and done.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery