Who Killed Union Station?

Most Indianapolites will never set foot in downtown’s most majestic landmark again. And maybe that’s more okay than we think.
Union Station

Union Station has a locomotive-sized perception problem. For perhaps the first time in its history, the sprawling three-block structure isn’t a public space. And since the area around the building is experiencing unparalleled revival and attention (Georgia Street, Lucas Oil Stadium, CityWay), its Sphinx-like status irks people who remember the building’s halcyon days as a busy transportation hub and later as a “Festival Marketplace” full of oddball shops and eateries.

Adam Thies thinks few realize what’s happening inside Union Station right now. Or more accurately, that anything is happening.

“Most people seem to think that it’s just sitting there, empty,” says Thies, who last year left his post as Indy’s director of metropolitan development for a job at Indiana University. “Union Station is not vacant. Most of it is leased. However, it’s been difficult to find a use that both pays for the building’s upkeep and, perhaps, showcases its unique qualities.”

The city, which owns the building, has struggled for years to find a use for Union Station that’s both economically viable and high-profile—a somewhat novel concern, considering that getting people to go there wasn’t an issue for decades. In the building’s original incarnation, as a massive train station, its popularity was assured. Long journeys to or from Indianapolis usually began and ended there.

The Romanesque Revival “head house”—the portion of the complex containing the clock tower and the massive, terrazzo-floored main entry, along Illinois Street—was completed in 1888. The two-block-long, two-story train shed, capable in its heyday of sheltering nine trains at a time, was added between 1916 and 1922. At its peak, the station handled some 200 trains daily.

After World War II, the rise of the automobile eroded Union Station’s passenger rail traffic. By 1980, the place was nearly empty and falling into ruin. The city took it over from Conrail and private investors like a soot-covered albatross, and must have been thrilled when local developer Bob Borns pulled off a privately funded $65 million overhaul in 1986. The immaculately restored head house (rechristened the Grand Hall) featured a slate of tony restaurants, such as Salvatore Scallopini and Norman’s. Approximately half of the vast train shed was converted to the Festival Marketplace, with boutiques on the first floor (remember buying movie stills at The Hollywood Shoppe?) and dining and entertainment upstairs (the Union Station dancers!). The rest of the shed became a hotel. For a while, the new venture drew big crowds.

Then the whole thing derailed.

Theories about why the Festival Marketplace went south are like elbows—everybody’s got a couple. According to some, the tardy debut of Circle Centre mall, which was supposed to open shortly after the Festival Marketplace but didn’t materialize until 1995, hurt the retail side by failing to create a critical mass of downtown shopping. Others think Circle Centre delivered Union Station’s coup de grace. According to Thies, the landmark’s relatively minuscule collection of eccentric, mom-and-pop retailers—Candles by Patricia, Whistle Stop Fashions, Al’s Wicker Imports, and the Magic Shop, to name a few—didn’t stand a chance against the mall’s national chains.

Whatever the reason, the Festival Marketplace closed in 1997, and a great pall fell over Union Station once again.

Or so it seemed.StateofUnionStation (1)

In the ensuing years, the structure, still owned by the city but managed by Indy mainstay Browning Investments, has filled up with a grab bag of tenants. The Greyhound bus terminal. Amtrak. Offices for groups ranging from Music for All to the Japan-America Society.

“It’s pretty much all rented,” says Browning property manager Kristy Carter. “We have only a small vacancy.”

The train shed is now the Grand Hall and a bus station, with few vestiges of its old retail incarnation remaining. To catch a whiff of that era, your best bet is to visit the 273-room Crowne Plaza at Historic Union Station. The hotel has resided in the building since it reopened and still offers 26 rooms located inside 13 authentic Pullman train cars.

“What we don’t have to deal with anymore, which we did until the Festival Marketplace closed, is people coming into the hotel and then climbing all over the train cars to check them out,” says Jim Dora Jr., president and CEO of General Hotels Corporation, the Crowne Plaza’s local management outfit.

Now the company can focus on raking in the dollars. The hotel leases the Grand Hall for events, packing in 123 functions in 2015, including 57 weddings. Friday and Saturday rentals start at a steep $2,500 per day. On the flip side, the building is old as dirt and requires considerable maintenance. Oh, and it’s still an active railroad station, with freight trains trundling through day and night.

The rolling stock isn’t a problem for the Crowne Plaza. There’s so much steel and concrete between the tracks and rooms that all guests feel is, at most, a subliminal rumbling. Which isn’t exactly a drawback for a rail-themed hotel.

Because of development nearby, Dora thinks there could be interesting times ahead. One of the Festival Marketplace’s drawbacks was that it effectively sat in the middle of nowhere. Now Georgia Street and Wholesale District bars once again draw revelers to the area around Union Station. Pan Am Plaza will one day be replaced by a new convention hotel or something just as transformative. Toss in CityWay a couple blocks to the east and the changes around Lucas Oil Stadium to the south, and suddenly Union Station is poised to sit right in the middle of a revived pocket of downtown.

But what, exactly, will that mean for the structure? Dora admits he hasn’t a clue. Perhaps, he theorizes, the part of the train shed not occupied by his hotel could become condos. Or—though he has no plans to do any such thing right now—some portion could host an expansion of the Crowne Plaza.

There are a couple of complications with that last idea, though. Dora says that if he decided to add rooms, he couldn’t just wave a wand and make it happen; the areas adjoining his operation are leased by the city. Plus, the train shed isn’t exactly wide-open territory. A hotel extension (or any project) would have to work around three-foot-thick steel support girders, heavy steel arches, and other impediments. The entire building is in the National Register of Historic Places, adding yet another layer of complexity.

No one is more intimately acquainted with the struggle to repurpose Union Station than Thies, a man with considerable experience rebranding old buildings. His greatest triumph during his years with Indy’s government was finding a use for Old City Hall, another ward of the city, as an art gallery/retail adjunct to the forthcoming 21c Museum Hotel.

Some of Old City Hall’s issues were similar to those of Union Station. For instance, its weird floor plan.

“It has a giant hole in the middle,” Thies says. “That hole, which is the atrium, is absolutely breathtaking and beautiful. But it was built in 1910 as a civic monument. They certainly weren’t worrying about leasable square footage.”

Old City Hall’s issues were similar to those of Union Station.“It was built in 1910 as a civic monument,” says a former city director. “They weren’t worrying about leasable square footage.”

However, City Hall, which cost the city around $60,000 to $100,000 a year just to maintain, did have one thing going for it: It was stone-cold empty, meaning 21c could have the run of the place. Not so with Union Station, to which Thies also gave a lot of thought during his tenure—mostly because the city wanted the place off its books.

The building isn’t cheap to maintain. About 18 months ago, Indy used $4.5 million in tax-increment financing to fix wear-and-tear issues such as falling ceiling concrete and leaky skylights. Which is why the city would really, really like to pass on its landlord duties.

“I imagine the city will continue to support the building,” Thies says. “Heating, cooling, water, and capital improvements for a building that’s 100 years old and has trains going through it 28 times a day. Cool as it sounds—and the architecture obviously is gorgeous—the reality is the thing is still a railroad station. That means noise and rumbling and all that comes with it.”

The current tenants pay enough rent to cover the overhead expenses, but not enough to defray maintenance costs. In 2012, the city spent $290,000 to rebuild a section of the exterior wall that had collapsed. When a portion of the interior ceiling fell, the bill was $60,000.

The ideal solution would be to find something big to take up most of the roughly two-block space the city still manages. But what? The hotel leases the Grand Hall for meetings and events, effectively closing the building’s most visually appealing interior space to the public. What’s left is mostly train-shed acreage.

“It’s not as big and open as people think,” Thies says. “It’s got a lot of tight, unique spaces. That’s what made the Festival Marketplace in the ’80s sort of interesting, but it’s also what makes things difficult now.”

So far, no redevelopment magic bullet has been found. Ideas have ranged from condos to a casino, but nothing has stuck. And don’t look for any hot suggestions from Plan 2020, a high-profile effort to create a road map for future Indy economic development.

“[Union Station] just wasn’t on the radar,” says Brooke Thomas, deputy director of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee and manager for Plan 2020. “It wasn’t anything that the community seemed to have a voice about.”

Now that this corner of downtown has enlivened and promises more progress, will that remain the case? “The biggest opportunity is figuring out how to get Union Station to knit more closely into the little sub-district of the Convention Center, the west block of Georgia Street, and Pan Am Plaza, so that when a tourist comes to town, they really get a chance to see it,” Thies says. “It’s one of downtown’s best pieces of historic architecture, and right now it’s a rarity for anyone to go there unless it’s for an event.”

Changing shopping trends may have made repurposing even tougher, according to urban-affairs critic Aaron M. Renn, Indianapolis expat, architecture blogger, and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York City. The hitch, he says, is that Union Station has never been “street-friendly.” When it was a passenger-train station and a Festival Marketplace, all the action stayed indoors. Trouble is, self-contained, interior public spaces are out of vogue right now, especially for shopping and dining. Nowadays, the retail/entertainment template is Mass Ave, not Circle Centre.

Which poses a problem for Union Station, constructed as a space that looks inward rather than one intended to draw passing traffic to it.

“It was never designed to engage with the street in that way,” Renn says. “As a train station with huge numbers of people going in and out of it, it didn’t need to attract street attention. It was designed for the function it served. Today that function is no longer there, so you need some new catalyst to draw people inside.”

Yet while lots of people consider the old Festival Marketplace a failure, Renn sees it as a phenomenal success. The renovation saved the building, which was on its last legs. And that original downtown retail hub served as a test case for Circle Centre, which Renn thinks wouldn’t have happened without the Marketplace’s example.

Given current trends, it’s questionable if Union Station, no matter its form, could ever be the public destination it once was. But according to Renn, that’s not a deal-breaker. Tastes and technology change, and one has to roll with the punches. The important thing, he says, is that Union Station survived.

“I don’t necessarily believe that Union Station has to be a magnet for people in the way it was in the past in order to be a huge success,” he says. “I already consider it successful based on the fact that it’s still here.”

Fair enough. Whatever nostalgia locals might feel for the Festival Marketplace days, and despite the building’s seeming potential as a crucial link in a  quarter coming into its own, for now it’s reassuring to know that Union Station is chugging along, healthy.