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Communities reclaim passenger-rail stations and create new landmarks

As Amtrak train No. 171 pulls into Westerly, R.I., a most pleasing sight comes into view: a good-as-new station that dates to 1912.

This is no time-machine fantasy. The once-derelict brick-and-concrete facility has been restored to its original glory, a project celebrated with a black-tie "Function at the Junction" two years ago.

Westerly has something to crow about with this alluring Mediterranean-style structure, but it's far from alone in seeing the potential in dilapidated and sometimes-deserted railroad stations.

Take a far larger community like Tacoma, Wash., where Union Station remains as visually impressive as it did in 1911, when it opened and was hailed as the grandest building north of San Francisco.

The station was vacated in 1983 when Amtrak moved its operation east of downtown. A Save the Station effort, however, eventually led to a $50 million face-lift and conversion into a federal courthouse. The rotunda, decorated with the single largest exhibit of sculptured glass by acclaimed local artist Dale Chihuly, is a tourist attraction sometimes used for weddings and trade shows. The station has sparked a wave of urban renewal.

What Westerly and Tacoma have realized is the irreplaceable beauty and prime location of these landmarks.

"The train station was once the center of the community, and in a lot of communities it represents some of the finest architecture that the city has to offer," says Erich Strebe, director of planning and economic development for the Great American Station Foundation.

The foundation, formed in 1996 and based in Las Vegas, N.M., helps to facilitate community revitalization through new construction or conversion and restoration of rail passenger stations.

"Train stations are something people can get their arms around," says Ellen Taylor, director of station programs and planning for Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corp. "If I'm living in Paoli, Pa., I have a much more realistic chance of trying to do something at my local station, even if it's on a very small scale, than I do trying to make a change at the Philadelphia International Airport."

Some remodeling projects, of course, are huge public efforts. Take Washington D.C.'s much-heralded makeover of Union Station, for example. Or in the Midwest, where adaptive reuse has driven lavish restorations of big stations in St. Louis, now primarily a marketplace, and in Kansas City, where a science center is the main tenant.

These are significant tourist attractions and landmarks. Yet such projects are not uniformly successful.

Stations that attempted to cross over into the world of retail have faced problems. Indianapolis and Cincinnati both failed at attempts to go that route in the 1980s, when a bunch of stations were converted into festival marketplaces and shopping centers with no transportation use. "What they found is that you have to keep putting money into these stations," says Hank Dittmar, president and CEO of the Great American Station Foundation. "Retail use gets tired. You have to do something new to keep getting people there.

In Indianapolis, $50 million was spent to turn Union Station into a marketplace, only to have its doors close in 1997. Today it's making a comeback with a mix of tenants, including go-kart racing and a banquet facility. A similar situation has occurred in Cincinnati, except the Art Deco-style Union Terminal has reopened as the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Stations are community assets

Rehabbed stations, regardless of their size, can benefit from even a modest amount of passenger service.

"Transportation is an important part of keeping a steady flow of people through the facilities," Mr. Dittmar says. But, he adds, it doesn't all have to be train travel. Local transit service counts too.

Just as in big cities, rehabbed stations in small towns can be just as important as community assets, whether used for transportation or to house museums, offices, restaurants, or shops.

In Westerly, the objective is twofold: to create an anchor for downtown redevelopment and showcase an increasingly attractive mode of transportation.

Raymond Lamont, the editor of the Westerly Sun, says the station serves as a gateway to the city of 25,000 people. "It's a beautiful, historic-looking building on a modern transportation line," he says. "I think it shows Westerly might be a community that offers the best of both worlds."

Stationmaster Bob Allard says that Amtrak now makes 12 to 14 stops a day on its Boston-to-New York runs.

State Sen. Dennis Algiere, a major player in the station's conversion from eyesore to repolished jewel, continues to watch over the facility.

When this reporter disembarked in Westerly, Mr. Algiere was busily checking the lights in an underground passenger walkway with the stationmaster.

"People were just delighted to see the station restored," he says. "It's a building that people recognize. Some remember relatives going off to war from here."

Passenger volume, the senator says, has increased at the station, but its lobby can seem oddly quiet between trains.

Westerly sits on the Rhode Island-Connecticut border and is considered a tourist-friendly community because of its nearby beaches and quaint, walkable downtown. The center is only a five-minute stroll from the station. Along the way are signs of commercial renewal.

Facing the station, on Railway Avenue, a row of historic storefronts is being renovated. On the opposite corner, the stately Savoy Hotel awaits remodeling by the same developer who plans to revive the movie theater a block away.

What railroad stations offer, it's been said, is an "architecture of hope."

In Westerly, says Barbara Blycker, executive director of the Westerly Pawcatuck Joint Development Task Force, the station is "a symbol of what the prosperous times were all about. And the restoration seems to signify that the prosperous times are again available to us."

Overall, the project cost $3.5 million and represents a partnership among the town, Amtrak, and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which actually owns the station.

Where the money comes from

One of the reasons Westerly and other smaller communities are willing to consider such a project is because of federal monies available through the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. The bill was designed to encourage development of nonhighway travel, and includes a pool of money for initiatives such as station restoration.

A federal grant may pay 80 percent of the cost and state governments another 10 percent, says Mr. Strebe of the Great American Station Foundation. "So if you, as a community, can put up $100,000 to get a $1 million restoration of a building done," he says, "well, it makes a lot of sense. It's a great thing to do."

This, he believes, is a major incentive at the moment, and probably a needed one given the crazy-quilt of station ownership.

One might think that Amtrak, which began in 1971, would own many of the stations. In fact, Amtrak's Ellen Taylor estimates the company actually owns less than 10 percent of approximately 500 passenger stations it services, with about 20 percent owned by freight railroads, about 11 percent by cities, and the rest in the hands of private owners, commuter railroads, or state agencies.

At one time there were about 80,000 operating stations of various kinds in the United States. However, after "two-thirds of a century of relentless neglect," only 12,000 to 20,000 have survived, according to a report, "The Second Heyday of The Great American Railway Station: Seed Pearls of the 21st Century," written by Tony Hiss and published by Amtrak.

Mr. Hiss describes stations as the front doors of communities. After World War II, railway travel dwindled as the Interstate Highway System took shape.

Communities that still want to upgrade stations on less-well-traveled lines face an uphill battle. Ask the townsfolk of Marshall, Texas.

"One of the motivations for redoing our station was that passengers had no good place to wait; they had to stand outside in the heat and cold," says Mayor Audrey Kariel. An upgraded station was also viewed as important in efforts to revitalize the town square and commercial district.

The restoration project took nearly a decade and posed "one obstacle after another," says Mrs. Kariel, including a decision by Amtrak to eliminate the Texas Eagle line that runs through Marshall. She and others formed a coalition that fought the decision and saved the service.

"Now the Texas Eagle is alive and well and leading Amtrak in revenue and ridership increases," says the mayor.

Strebe talks about how the buildings once drew people of all social classes and still retain that potential.

"People feel a sense of community about a train station that they might not feel about anywhere else in town," he observes.

The road to train-station renovation can be rocky

Trying to salvage a historic train station can be immensely frustrating.

Just ask Teresa Zielinski, who has reached an impasse, if not a dead end, in her efforts to save the brick station in Wilmington, Ill.

"It's very emotionally draining," she says disconsolately.

Ms. Zielinski sees what other small towns have done to preserve their heritage and worries that Wilmington, despite its numerous antique shops, is going to lose an architectural treasure.

"This is not just a little wooden depot," she says. "It's all brick, with all the gingerbread. It's very Victorian."

If the station, built in 1869, goes, Zielinski says, the town will have little more than the old Eagle Hotel and pictures to remember the past.

When a city worker found Union Pacific making plans to raze the station in 1997, people looked to Zielinski to mount a save-the-station effort. A legal assistant to a defense attorney and a member of the local historical society, she helped establish the Wilmington Depot Association.

Union Pacific, which has no use for the station or the liability associated with it, donated it to a neighboring business owner, who in turn gave it to the association. The company, however, wants it removed from the property.

If the station were wooden, as many are in towns of this size (population: 5,200), moving it would be a big but not necessarily complicated job.

A brick station is more difficult. Because the structure could crumble en route, movers would have to build a wooden frame inside and out to hold the building together, and even then the chances for the station surviving a short move are estimated at 50-50.

"I can't risk moving it two or three miles," says Zielinski, who has received a $50,000 bid to do the job. "I wouldn't want to move it a mile or two out of town anyway. It needs to be by the tracks."

The logical location, she believes, is a deserted lot across from her house and only two blocks from station's current location. Her neighbors, however, strongly object, citing concerns that contaminants (lead paint and asbestos) would become airborne during the move. Furthermore, gas tanks on the vacant lot would first have to be removed and the ground cleaned.

Zielinski says if she could find a way to address these problems, the community would be supportive of the plan to convert the rehabbed station into a railroad museum.

Even if Union Pacific helped foot part of the moving bill, though, Zielinski says there would be no money left to restore the station. Just ensuring it wouldn't become an eyesore while awaiting renovations could require a grant.

Zielinski's greatest worry is that all the money raised for saving the station might have to go to demolition.

"I'm just kind of sitting and waiting," she says, hoping no one forces her hand.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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