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Union Station Panel Says Area Could Be Downtown's Next South Park

By Eric Richardson
Published: Friday, December 09, 2011, at 03:26PM
Union Station and Surroundings Eric Richardson / blogdowntown

A panel of land use experts spent the week studying potential uses for the 500 acres around Union Station, which Metro bought this year.

Union Station could be the center of Downtown's next big development boom, a panel of land use experts told the city and Metro on Friday morning.

The team of eight planners and development experts had spent the week studying the 500 acres around the historic train station, looking for ways in which the city can maximize the benefits it receives from Metro's ownership and development of the station site.

In presenting their results to an audience that included two city councilmembers, the head of the city's Planning department, Metro CEO Art Leahy and top planners from the transit agency, the panel said that the publicly-owned land that surrounds the station presents a tremendous opportunity because it creates a "land bank" for future development.

The nexus of all the transportation options coming into the station and the historic neighborhoods nearby could create a major destination, the panel said. Several talked of the potential for the Union Station area to be Downtown's next South Park, citing the mass of development that sprung up on Downtown's southern edge over the last ten years.

The current uses for that public land, however, is a challenge. Northeast of the 1939 station, roughly 75 acres are dedicated to two jails and a bus maintenance facility.

"The jail's got to go," said Bill Kistler, a senior client partner with Korn/Ferry International in London.

The county, though, will vote later this month on moving forward with a $1.4 billion project to rebuild the Men's Central Jail. While other locations are being studied, current plans call for the new facility to be built on the same site. The three ten-story towers would have 5,040 beds for male inmates.

Councilman Jose Huizar, whose 14th district includes Union Station and the jail site, said that after hearing the experts speak so highly of the area's potential, the city needs to get involved in that conversation.

"Now we have a number of experts telling us, after their review, that it makes sense to look at other options for that jail because of the tremendous opportunities that exist," said Huizar. "This is the beginning. It sounds like we as the city and Metro are on the same page, now we need to lobby the county supervisors to find another location for the jail."

"Right now we're at one of these pivotal points for this region where we're planning and looking ahead 50 years."

"What will this area look like in 50 years? With everything we're seeing and the demand for housing and jobs and transportation in this area—a key hub for that transportation—it makes sense to move that jail somewhere else."

In the short term, the panel advised that the city focus on finding ways to partner with the county to create development on the surface parking lots between Union Station and Hill Street, and that it focus on improving the connectivity between Union Station and the neighborhoods around it.

"We can't just streetscape and put in signs, we need development," said Mary Smith, a senior vice president with Walker Parking Consultants/Engineers in Indianapolis.

The panel also advised the city to push ahead with the development of above-ground retail at the L.A. Mall, a site that has long proved problematic.

Long-term, higher passenger volumes would likely create opportunities for higher-density residential, office space and hotels.

The group, which was put together by the Urban Land Institute, gave the local planners in attendance plenty to think about.

"The value of having outsiders come in and look at a problem is really important," said Martha Welborne, Metro's top planner. "We gave them a list of questions to address, but other than that they had to discover the problems and come up with solutions on their own."

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