Flying Kite: all aboard: urban train stations redeveloped as neighborhood amenities

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

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by Rachel Kaufman

Even as the economy recovers, Americans are driving less. Across the country, in urban areas, we're instead choosing to walk, bike or take public transit.

On a larger scale, there's strong evidence that the Great American Roadtrip is also on the wane. Amtrak set ridership records in 10 of the past 11 years, with 2013 being its best year ever; 31.6 million passengers rode the rails.

With all that demand comes congestion and backups at major rail hubs, but smart cities are anticipating and adapting, making sure the train station of the future is full, but not crowded. Bustling, but not packed. And, in lieu of designing spaces that commuters hurry through, cities are renovating train stations to be neighborhood amenities.

A city's front Porch

Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, on the banks of the Schuylkill River, is the nation's third busiest train station, with over four million Amtrak passengers passing through per year. Add in the local SEPTA trains and New Jersey Transit, and that's seven million riders. Thousands of people see Philly for the first time as they exit the train station.

And, until a few years ago, the view from the main entrance was a parking lot.

"It was my first impression of Philadelphia," says Prema Gupta, director of planning for the University City District, an organization dedicated to revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood. "I got off the train, and you get out of the station and there's this magnificent view of the skyline, but then you're in this concrete jungle and surrounded by automobiles."

When the city decided to turn the parallel parking in front of the station into a pedestrian sidewalk, Gupta and UCD argued that it should not be just a pedestrian thruway, but a place where "people close their eyes and put up their feet … [a place where] we can civilize five minutes and encourage people to linger." In 2011, The Porch was born. UCD installed plants, tables and chairs, and set up space for events like a farmers' market, outdoor concerts, fitness classes and even mini golf.

During the first summer, almost 25,000 people visited the space. And they didn't just pass through -- UCD surveyed the space every hour, every day of the week to determine how The Porch was being used. UCD wanted to "demonstrate that there's a huge amount of demand to justify future investments," explains Gupta.

With 11 acres of nearby surface parking under study by Amtrak, Drexel University and Brandywine Realty Trust for redevelopment, and with 30th Street Station itself scheduled for a future renovation, investing in a flexible, pedestrian-friendly green space seems like a no-brainer.

The idea of a train station as a community gathering place has also had an impact across the state. In the capital, the iconic brick-front Harrisburg Transportation Center has undergone a decades-long renovation. Since 1983, $7.68 million has been invested in the station (which serves Amtrak and bus traffic).

And you don't need distance travelers to spur investment. Long-neglected historic stations in the SEPTA regional rail network have found new life. In Philadelphia's Mt. Airy neighborhood, Allens Lane Station houses High Point Cafe, a charming space that lures passengers and locals in for fresh coffee and house-made baked goods. And in Elkins Park, a suburban neighborhood north of the city, a transit-oriented development philosophy has led to renovation of the beautiful train station. Reimagined as "Elkins Central," the space serves as a community gathering place for concerts, meetings and classes.