Urban Land Institute advisory panel shares vision for Union Station area

A crack team of urban design and development experts from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) descended on Los Angeles last week to help Metro and the city of L.A. develop its vision for the area surrounding Union Station. After several packed days of interviews and site visits, the panel presented its findings this morning to a crowd of community members, local elected officials and planners who gathered at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum in Little Tokyo.

Attentive readers will recall that Metro bought Union Station earlier this year, along with the rights to build roughly six million square feet of development around Southern California’s largest transit hub. Since then, Metro has begun soliciting concepts from a number of design firms for a master plan for the Union Station property itself.

The ULI panel’s job, then, was to help Metro envision how a present and future Union Station can better integrate with the surrounding areas of Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Olvera Street, the Arts District, the Civic Center and the Los Angeles River.

Each of the panelists presented different components of the vision, so rather than summarize what each said, here’s a distillation of some of the key points, and hopefully we can post the PowerPoint presentation later on:

  • In the long run, the panel thinks Union Station and the surrounding community are a very good bet for becoming an economic and cultural hub in the region. Union Station could serve as a “model” for sustainable transit-oriented development.
  • Looking at a 25-50 year time horizon, Metro should work to bring in highrise commercial development — after the commercial real estate market rebounds — because employment centers are great drivers of transit ridership. In the short run, Metro should focus on more residential development to bring more people into the area.
  • Young professions more and more want to live in walkable, vibrant, urban communities that are accessible to transit. The Union Station site has the transit component down — and will only grow stronger in that regard — but Metro should work to improve the pedestrian experience around the station site.
  • The whole area needs to work on developing a coherent character and experience, so that travelers from around the region think of Union Station as a destination, a place where they can spend a day walking around and visiting the nearby cultural attractions. Current conditions don’t really support that, because places like Olvera Street and Chinatown are somewhat disconnected.
  • Part of the problem is public infrastructure: major roads and highways like Alameda Street and the 101 Freeway create barriers to comfortable pedestrian flow between these communities.
  • Metro should work to develop a coherent vision for the various publicly-owned parcels surrounding Union Station and consider trying to move some of the infrastructure — i.e. bus maintenance facilities, the county jail, etc. — to other locations further from Union Station.

With those ideas out there, what do you, Source readers, think the Union Station area needs in order to fulfill its potential?

15 replies

  1. As others indicated, capping the 101 with a park (maybe even something more than a simple grassy field) should be a =significant= part of the planning for the Union Station area.

    The Cal-HSR line should be elevated as it come into and exits the Union Station area. Keeping it on a dedicated platform that is not tied down by the loca switching and traffic will keep it moving. Also, by keeping it above the other lines it can stop over top of the Gold line and Amtrak and have an exit to the bus plaza.

    There needs to be better parking and signage for parking garages in the area, as a whole. A downtown wide (or city or region wide) policy of marking entrances to off-street parking should be in effect. An example of this would be a 3 color system of signs as follows:
    Signs indicating the entrances to, or direction to off-street parking would be a minimum of 18″ square with an uppercase P (in a standard font) in a circle(like the Metro M). Arrows below the square can point to the entrance or direction. The color of the circle would indicate if it is an open public lot (like those of Union Sta., those operated by the City, etc.), these would be green; a private or building specific lot/garage, but open to others, these would be blue; or a lot/garage that is restricted to a particular building/site, these would be red and have the name or address of the building or business below the circle. The signs would be perpendicular to the flow of traffic (not flat against the building) and be either near the edge of the street or adjacent to the building. Rates and hours would not be attached to street side poles, rather these would be flat against the fence or building opening. These along with big M signs for metro stops and T (for taxi stops, like outside of Union Sta. or at Dodger Stadium, the Music Center, etc.) would help make LA into an even better ‘world class’ and international friendly city.
    (Local street parking pay stations would have a smaller sign, no larger that 10″ square, with the same P in a grey circle. A dollar sign could be below it.)

  2. Isn’t there already lofts next to union station? What you need are more connections. The Greyhound should be closer to the station. Maybe this might be a bad idea but why not put one big transit center across the street from Olvera Street.

  3. Pedicabs should be allowed in Downtown LA. This would be a form of “bike sharing” that would not cost the city anything, in fact it would generate revenues from the fees associated with pedicab licensing.

  4. Move the Greyhound terminal somewhere near Union Station. Union Station should become a transit hub for not just metro, but for private bus companies as well. As it stands now, the Greyhound bus terminal is in a very shady area to the South of Little Tokyo. It only makes sense to bring Greyhound closer to Union Station so that a full Amtrak/Metro Rail/Metro Bus/Metrolink/proposed CAHSR/Greyhound link can be established in a singularized area.

    In that light, I also propose to build a new “West LA Union Station” near LAX. It only makes sense to link rail and air travel together as well, instead of the half-assed solution that we have with the Green Line today.

  5. I don’t think a ban on chain stores is the right way to go.

    For one thing, grocery stores, supermarkets and convenience stores tend to be chains. Famima!!, Fresh and Easy and Trader Joe’s are chains, but they have not ruined the neighborhoods where they are. I love the Famima!! at Union Station.

    Nijiya and Marukai in Little Tokyo are chains. Kinokuniya book store, Pinkberry and Curry House are chains. These businesses are very appropriate for the neighborhood.

  6. Cap or demolish the 101 for starters, then add a glass canopy for the whole station. New retail, local businesses should be recognized. Open nearby, underutilized areas for new open space, or high rise development. Add more bays for future high-speed rail, or even an underground tunnel (Expensive, I know). Include public art and grand new architecture to accompany the already beautiful station.

  7. I second the addition of “you are here” type and “i” (info) signs to the area under consideration. The tourist magnet central cities in Europe have these. They are like an overlay announcing, “We know tourists are here, and we welcome them”.

    Has anyone noticed that in the Union Station area, other than the new fast food shops inside, there are NO chain stores or chain restaurants? Chinatown, Olvera Street and Little Tokyo are all small businesses. This is essential to their charm. Put in one Gap or one Acapulco restaurant and you’ve ruined the whole area. This planning has to be delicately done so that the areas are somewhat integrated without turning it into either a theme park or a gentrified Times Square.

  8. Actually, REM, many of those who are not “Tapping” or other wise “paying” their fares have paper or legacy media, so there aren’t nearly as many fare beaters as you think.

  9. until a couple years ago, i owned a car. since then i only have access to the terrible public transportation system in los angeles.

    i go to nyc and its terrific. people in the finest neighborhoods even take the bus.

    the best thing LA did transportation-wise is THE DASH SYSTEM.
    and its getting more and more ridership….instead they are cutting dash routes out. this prevents people like me without cars from even considering working or living in some areas.

    the second best thing is the ORANGE LINE which is CONSTANTLY PACKED. my understanding is that has almost from the beginning its ridership has significantly exceeded the predictions.

    one of the main reasons people don’t use public transportation in la is because it is so limiting and takes so long to go anywhere.
    a normal 35-minute car ride takes 2-3 buses and as much as 2 hours. NOT CONVENIENT.
    my new job is a 20-minute car ride away….but a long walk to the bus & 2 buses, one of which appears to be perpetually late, takes me more than 1 hour. most of the time spent waiting for the next bus.

    i wanna move….but i can’t move to more affordable housing because the buses don’t run in those areas on the weekends and holidays. stranding hundreds of people.

    LIGHTING: we have solar panels on so many things. why can’t we have lights at bus stops that run this way?

    WI-FI: why don’t we have WI-FI on the buses & subways already????

    DOWNTOWN LA/the city center is an incredibly inhospitable place for tourists and even angelenos who come from outside the city center to do business only once in a great while.

    1. SIGNAGE ALL OVER DOWNTOWN. increase the size of the bus & dash signs. have signs pointing the way to various bus & subway stops along with their significant destinations.
    unless you know where you are going, it is hard to even figure out where the entrance to the subways are downtown.
    MAPS: you need maps on all the sidewalks showing “YOU ARE HERE” and the names of the streets and many of the buildings.

    1A. HAVE HAND-OUT MAPS OF DOWNTOWN both in union station, at the bus terminal area, and all the subway stops. they should be at all the hotels both in the city center AND OUTSIDE OF IT.

    1B. SIGNAGE IN AND AROUND UNION STATION: you get off the train/subway and there are so few signs to tell you where you are and where you can go. just awful. and awfully confusing.
    immediately outside each entrance to the union station AND inside at several locations there should be “YOU ARE HERE” maps that also show major buildings, etc. that people are most likely to be coming to downtown to get to, like the courts and various governmental buildings.
    in this day and age, interactive touch screen maps should also exist.

    2. INFORMATION PEOPLE: there must be more people around the station to provide information. you have to go all the way to the front of the station to get assistance. just terrible. the info people should be dressed in distinct apparel so they are easily spotted. also more smaller info booths should exist….one at least at the end of each of the corridors.

    3. THE SUBWAY ARRIVAL/DEPARTURE AREA: a nice looking area poorly utilized. make this more friendly. TOTALLY INHUMANE. have someone play piano in the middle ala nordstrom’s. have fashion shows, entertainment. make that area a “destination” spot rather than a walk-thru area.



    4. MAINTAIN THE DECOR OF UNION STATION: while parts of it could be “modernized” it can be done without destroying the ambiance. HONOR/CONSERVE OUR HERITAGE.

    IT IS PERFECT FOR A FOOD COURT with some small shops around parts of the perimeter. and the station certainly could use more food outlets! AND LET THE RENTS BE LOW ENUF SO THE PRICES AREN”T JACKED UP. most people using the station are low- to middle-class and don’t have the big bucks.

    6. VISIT THE AIRPORTS HERE & IN NYC. ALSO PENN STATION IN NYC. look at all the restaurants and shops. why is LA doing this with union station?

    7. PEOPLE MOVERS: why aren’t there more escalators and people movers in the station??? people are coming in with bags and they are also leaving tired after a days work…..where are some creature comforts for them???

    8. SUBWAY FARES: at the entrance to the trains, the gates are usually open. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE ARE NOT PAYING THEIR FARES TO RIDE THE SUBWAYS. so the city is losing MILLIONS OF DOLLARS which could be used to improve the wretched city bus system.

    PLEASE START THINKING OF LOS ANGELES AS A PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION CITY not a freeway city. until you do that, its a dead zone.

  10. I don’t see what’s wrong with getting professional, expert advice on a project of this size. Public input should be included, but that doesn’t have to come first. Indeed, it may be in the public’s best interest to have the basic framework be developed first, and let public input fill in the details.

    Public/ private partnerships of various types have been used in other places to create train and subway stations where retail and rail transit really mesh together, rather than just having a subway stop “in the general vicinity” of local attractions.

    The Little Tokyo regional connector subway station, for example, will be close to the middle of Little Tokyo, with the Mangrove/ Nikkei Center property across the street. I would love to see the new subway station grow in a way similar to how public transit and community development work together in Tokyo, where the divide between public and private is often invisible.

  11. “Since then, Metro has begun soliciting concepts from a number of design firms for a master plan for the Union Station property itself.”

    Metro is a public agency. Why is Metro soliciting concepts from design firms before is has solicited input through public outreach such as design forums, charettes, surveys, etc.?

  12. Chinatown, Olvera Street and Little Tokyo all have very definite cultural and ethnic identities. Union Station also has a very clear “personality” to it.

    If positive changes and improvements are to be made in these areas, I think we ought to be careful to consider the character of these communities.

    That said, I do think that the 101 Freeway represents a huge dead zone between Union Station and Little Tokyo, which is not helped by the fortress-like atmosphere of the buildings on Alameda between Temple and the freeway.

    I would start by capping the freeway to make crossing it more welcoming.

    When the Regional Connector is built, I’m hoping the new Little Tokyo Station is built in such a way that it blends together well with the existing community.

  13. Steal these ideas to prepare Union Station Los Angeles for the next century.

    Complete street elements: Pedestrian improvement like wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes, more trees, transit first bus lanes

    Adjacent iconic shopping similar to Westfield Horton Plaza in Downtown San Diego but also includes mainstream domestic tenants too like a grocer, dry cleaner/fluff n fold, and there isn’t a first-run movie theater in the area, it may well be near Union Station.

    New intersection design to more closely integrate Union Station with Olvera Street, include public art

    Cap the immediate section of the 101 freeway to create a park and continuous experience to transition to Little Tokyo and Arts District areas

    A transit project: an aerial tramway to Dodger Stadium much like the Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York.

    A combination of mainstream and unique sit down restaurants to balance out the counterweight of the busy fast food and quick stop stores in Union Station.

    Retail kiosks and boutique shops.

    A permanent Los Angeles railroad heritage museum and gift shop to pay homage to LA’s long streetcar, intercity, freight history.

    New platforms and canopies for all boarding platforms are in the works, the design should be iconic and fresh with a postmodern touch

    New canopies for the Gold Line with full rain/sun protection and a unique design

    **I have plenty more where these came from**

  14. This development needs to happen in a way that is accessible to people with low incomes. I once checked the rents on the current apartments that are adjacent to Union Station and they were pretty darn expensive. If you can afford to live in those apartments, you can also afford a car.

    How sadly ironic would it be if the housing around Union Station were unaffordable to the average person who rides Metro?