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Monday, February 22, 2010

Amtrak asks seven firms to dream up plans for Chicago's Union Station

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Amtrak has asked seven architectural and real estate firms to submit proposals to redevelop a key part of Chicago's Union Station and plans to select a winning proposal by the end of May, the Chicago Tribune reports. The firms include the Chicago office of architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Chicago developer U.S. Equities Realty and the Chicago office of Jones Lang LaSalle, which currently manages Union Station for Amtrak.

The firms are being asked to come up with plans for Union Station's neo-classical Headhouse building, which is bounded, by Clinton, Canal, Jackson and Adams streets.

"This is a pretty blank sheet of paper," said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. "We will be looking for some creative, imaginative and transportation-oriented uses of the building."

The request for proposals comes amid a sputtering economy and the prospect of more people using the already-overcrowded station, which serves Metra commuter trains as well as Amtrak's long-distance and regional routes. The Obama administration recently awarded $8 billion in funds for the development of high-speed rail networks, including a Midwestern network with a hub in Chicago.

"Certainly everything points to us having more service," Magliari said.

In 2006, a joint venture headed by Jones Lang LaSalle won the bidding to redevelop the Headhouse into a hotel, condominiums, office and retail space. The company planned to redevelop the existing structure and to build an 18-story tower on top of it. Amtrak, which owns Union Station, entered into a redevelopment agreement with Jones Lang LaSalle. But the $250 million project never proceeded.

The other firms invited to participate are Boston architects Goody Clancy, Philadelphia architects Wallace Roberts & Todd: the architectural firm of KlingStubbins, which has offices in Cambridge, Mass. and Philadelphia; and New York architects Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn.

The request for proposals contemplates the redevelopment of several vacant office floors above the station's Great Hall, a grandly-scaled, now little-used waiting room that has been employed as a movie set. It also invites the possibility of new uses for vacant retail space around the Great Hall.

The project's scope does not include the crowded concourse area to the east of the Great Hall. Nor will the project use federal stimulus money devoted to high-speed rail, Magliari said.  

Amtrak is requesting the proposals at a time when the real estate market has been battered by overbuilding and a credit squeeze. But the railroad concern wants to have plans in place that can be acted upon once the economy improves, the spokesman said.

Magliari said the seven invited firms would be free to team up with other companies as they made proposals. Jones Lang LaSalle, for example, had worked with Chicago architect Lucien Lagrange on its previous Union Station plan.

In a separate move, the spokesman said, Amtrak is developing plans of its own to provide air-conditioning in the Great Hall. The lack of air-conditioning limits the hall's ability in the summer to serve as a "customer-friendly" waiting room or as a site for special events, Magliari said. That portion of the project won't likely start, he said, until October.

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