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Baltimore’s historic train station will essentially be replaced by a modern terminal that will serve as the primary new arrival and departure spot for passengers heading to and from the city by rail.
Amtrak and a development team called Penn Station Partners unveiled plans today to construct a three-level train terminal just north of Penn Station, the Beaux Arts landmark that has served as Baltimore’s main train station since 1911.
The new terminal is part of the first phase of a mixed-use redevelopment project planned to revitalize the existing station and the area around it. In April of 2019, Amtrak announced plans to spend up to $90 million to renovate the historic train station and build the new terminal to accommodate increased passenger traffic expected from the installation of a high-speed rail line and other upgrades.
Construction on that phase of the development is expected to begin in late 2020 or early 2021, starting with repairs to Penn Station, and take 24 months to complete.
The development team, headed by Beatty Development Group and Cross Street Partners, has been hinting for more than a year that its master plan calls for most of the passenger-oriented functions inside the current train station, such as the main lobby and ticket sales, to be relocated to a new structure that will be built on the north side of the tracks that bring passenger trains to Baltimore, and that Penn Station will be restored for other uses.
Today, the team provided more detail than ever before to show how the transition will occur and how passengers likely will be affected.
Spoiler alert: There appears to be a good chance that Jonathan Borofsky’s controversial Male/Female sculpture in front of the historic train station will remain. Although the designers didn’t specifically mention the artwork, they presented a proposed site plan showing a black dot labeled “art feature” in the spot where the sculpture currently stands.
The plans were presented to Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP) as part of the design review process required before the team can get permits to start construction.
Although the master plan has been shown several times, this was the first meeting in which designs have been presented for an individual building within the redevelopment area.
The presenters said the new station will be the first building constructed as part of the larger development and will be linked to the historic station by the concourse that now spans the train tracks.
In their presentation, they referred to the proposed building variously as the “north station,” “north annex,” “expansion” and “new station.” But the gist of the presentation was that the team is planning to build an entirely new terminal to accommodate rail passengers and contain what’s now inside Penn Station.
The existing station will remain in place and will be restored, and people will be able to walk through it to get to the new station. But it will no longer be the primary departure or arrival point for rail passengers in downtown Baltimore. The developers have said the upper floors likely will be converted to office space, with restaurants and shops on the first level. A nearly identical train station in Scranton that was designed by the same architect, Kenneth Murchison, has been converted to a luxury hotel with a white tablecloth restaurant where the main lobby used to be.
The new station will be constructed on the “Lanvale lot,” a triangular parking lot bounded by Charles, Lanvale and St. Paul streets and the train tracks. The architect for the new station is Gensler, with Peter Stubb as design principal, and the landscape architect is Mahan Rykiel Associates, headed by Jingpeng Gu.
Also planned for the Lanvale lot is a large commercial building containing two towers, one for offices and one for apartments. The commercial building will be close to Lanvale Street, and the new train station will be south of it. The commercial building is expected to come after the train station.
In terms of design, Gensler presented drawings that show the new station would contrast with the 1911 station in several key respects. It would be low-slung and glassy, almost pavilion-like as seen from St. Paul Street, compared to the imposing stone exterior of Penn Station. It would be asymmetrical in plan compared to the symmetry of Penn Station. It would have three levels: a floor at track level, a floor at the concourse or street level, and a mezzanine level. On the south side will be a mostly glass wall that will give people inside unobstructed views of the train activity and the station across the tracks. The roof will be a green roof.
One of the most significant changes to the area would be the way people drop off and pick up train passengers. Under the current arrangement, people can drive close to Penn Station from Charles or St. Paul street, and enter the station from the south or west. Under the new plan, the area bounded by Charles, Lanvale and St. Paul streets would largely become a pedestrian zone, and new drop-off areas would be created along Charles and St. Paul streets.
The circular plaza in front of Penn Station would be reconfigured and landscaped to make it more pedestrian friendly, with just one lane of traffic in front of the station since it wouldn’t be the main station entrance anymore. The main entrances for rail passengers would be off St. Paul Street near the new north station, with secondary entrances off Charles Street and from Penn Station. Once the commercial building is finished, the station would be connected to it.
The design panel members said one of the potentially best features of the new station is the glass wall that provides close-up views of the train tracks and the historic station. They encouraged the designers to make the most of that.
“I think the most powerful drawings you presented and talked about were [the ones that showed] the building as basically a glassy platform to look at the activity of the trains and to enjoy and celebrate the existing station.,” said panel member Cheryl O’Neill. “The idea of the glassy pavilion and the swooping roof to me were the most powerful things about that idea…It’s very much like National Airport, right? Throw everything to the window and then celebrate the activity of the trains. That’s the really important idea about it.”
Design panel member Pavlina Ilieva said a key issue for the architects is deciding whether they want the new station to “read” as part of the future commercial building, an extension of the historic train station or an iconic, freestanding building on its own.
“What I’m worried about is that, in the end, this train station will feel like just some kind of an extension of the podium of the commercial building and it would never read like a train station…We want to avoid that at all costs,” she said.
The Penn Station redevelopment is expected to add 1.6 million square feet of commercial space in phases, including offices, housing, stores and restaurants. Other members of Penn Station Partners include Armada Hoffler Properties, WSP USA, Network Rail Consulting and Mace Group.
In December of 2019, the Maryland Historical Trust awarded $3 million in tax credits to help finance restoration of Penn Station, with Quinn Evans as the architect. The area has also been designated a federal Opportunity Zone, providing incentives for certain types of development.
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