If you’ve ever been to Grand Central Terminal in NYC or Union Station in Washington DC, you’ll see that they’re not just homogeneous train stations but a dynamic destination filled with a wide range of shops and restaurants that attract both locals and tourists. (Have you experienced the beautiful Apple flagship store inside Grand Central Terminal before?) In fact, both stations are considered top tourist destinations in their respective cities. Over here in LA, it’s good to see that we’re finally starting to add businesses into our beautiful Union Station, which has been improving and becoming better and better almost every year.
The chances of getting a peaceful ride aboard Metro buses and trains are similar to that of winning the lottery. And on that rare occasion that you do get that enjoyable experience riding in a quiet car, do savor it as there’s bound to be someone at the next stop who’ll decide to ruin the ride for everyone else.
Los Angeles Metro. It stinks. Literally.
Step into a train or bus during rush hour and you’ll find yourself gasping for fresh air by the time you get to your destination. If you’re lucky enough to grab a seat, that comes with its own gross factor. Why? I’ve never really understood the concept of upholstered bus and subway seats. A public transportation system is supposed to get you from Point A to Point B quickly, safely and efficiently; comfort should only be considered as an added bonus, but cleanliness should never be left out of the equation.
If you haven’t been to Union Station lately, you’re totally missing out! The grandest rail station on the west coast just got so much grander. The 76 year old Spanish Revival/Art Deco masterpiece recently underwent a much needed extensive restoration and upgrade as part of Union Station’s short and long-term master plan (that you can read all about on Metro’s official blog The Source). The short-term changes are pretty much completed now, which included not only restoring the station’s amazing architectural features — like the dozen magnificent 3000-pound bronze chandeliers that hang in the main waiting room and grand ticket concourse — but also upgrades like new beautiful signage and wayfinding signs, digital information screens that dramatically improve the transit users’ experience, and even bringing back an old fashioned shoe shine stand. And for Amtrak lovers, a new metropolitan lounge was introduced in late 2013 you have to check out.
Third wave coffee bar Barista Society soft opened today inside the beautifully renovated Union Station in Downtown LA — the transit hub of the west coast. Having gained a loyal following of coffee fanatics with his first location at Library Tower, which opened in May 2013, owner Charn Bak is now planning to ramp up more openings this year — potentially three more — starting with his second location here in the eastern wing of Union Station near the Red and Purple Line subway entrance and the Patsaouras Bus Plaza. The third location will be located at California Plaza with another fourth undisclosed location somewhere in the Financial District.
More eateries are coming to Union Station in Downtown LA! A very popular crepe restaurant from Santa Monica located on Third Street Promenade called Cafe Crepe (they’re originally from Canada with locations in Vancouver and Toronto) will be opening later this year taking over a space once occupied by Union Bagel, which shuttered three years ago in 2011. According to a manager at Cafe Crepe I spoke to, the lease was just signed and they are hoping to open before the end of this year. The new eatery will sit directly across from the much revered fine dining Traxx Restaurant, which has been operating since 1997. Cafe Crepe will also have patio seating like Traxx and add to a growing number of new businesses opening inside LA’s landmark train station including T & Y Bakery opening soon.
Over the last two months since we found out that some very exciting upgrades were coming to Union Station in Downtown LA, work has been humming along with construction upgrades to the station including: the addition of new wayfinding signage; major touch-up work like fresh paint on walls and floors getting a beautiful shiny glossy polish; and other restoration work that’s really producing some very exciting and dramatic results. Part of the wayfinding signage program being implemented even includes a new towering interactive kiosk in the east portal section of the station and new large digital schedule screens for Amtrak and Metrolink.
A very, very exciting mixed-use project is in the early planning stages over in El Pueblo just north of the 101 freeway and south of Chinatown, which is the historic birthplace of Downtown LA, and to a greater extent, the birthplace of Los Angeles itself. In fact, the oldest residence still standing in Los Angeles, Avila Adobe built in 1818, remains one of Downtown LA’s main visitor attractions located on historic Olvera Street within El Pueblo. Now, exciting plans are taking shape to further enhance and strengthen El Pueblo allowing for both visitors and Angelenos alike to embrace and appreciate the historic value of the district. A non-profit foundation based in El Pueblo called LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is currently in the process of selecting a developer to build two mixed-use projects, named “LA Plaza Cultura Village,” on two county-owned parking lots just west of the foundation’s headquarters on Main Street that will connect El Pueblo to its surrounding communities including Chinatown and Union Station.
Last week, I got an awesome tour of Union Station from Metro’s Deputy Executive Officer of Countywide Planning, Jenna Hornstock. I learned about some very exciting changes coming to the busiest rail station west of the Mississippi. Basically, you have two different timelines for planned improvement projects: short term and long term changes. Both are very exciting because it means Union Station is going to get better and better and play a much more prominent and vital role in our region’s growing mass transit network.
Always good to see more new businesses opening at Union Station. T & Y Bakery is coming to the west coast’s busiest rail hub by this spring. The Russian-style bakery with currently two locations — one at Farmers Market at 3rd/Fairfax and another in West Hollywood — is planning to build-out a brand new 258 square foot food stall next to Ben & Jerry’s and across from the Amtrak ticketing counter and exciting brand new Amtrak Metro Lounge. T & Y, which stands for “Tbilisi & Yerevan” (the capital cities of Georgia and Armenia respectively), will bring to Union Station the same yummy selection of pastries (like baklavas) and paninis that they’re known for in their other locations.
For a city known mostly for its embarrassingly robust driving culture and clogged freeways, it’s no surprise that LA lagged behind other large urban cities (i.e., New York, DC, Chicago, Philly, etc.) when it comes to train travel even though we’re the second largest city in the country. However, we are making great strides as the Pacific Surfliner — serving LA and San Diego up to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo — is now the busiest Amtrak route outside the northeast corridor with 2.7 million passengers in 2013. And now another symbolic sign that LA is getting its “train mojo” back is the opening of the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge at Downtown LA’s Union Station.
I just got back to LA after spending a week in New York. Every time I visit America’s largest urban center, I am inspired by the incredible urbanism that defines the city. The infrastructure and built environment, mix of architecture, diversity of businesses, and strong pedestrian culture never ceases to amaze me. For us in LA, as we continue to press for change — improving our own urbanism in a city still dominated by a suburban, car-oriented mentality — it would behoove us to look at successful models and examples from other cities that could be applied to Downtown LA. One of those prime examples is Grand Central Terminal in Midtown at 42nd Street, which has experienced an amazing turnaround from irrelevancy and near demolition in the 1960s to one of the greatest rail stations in the world today.
Back in 2007, Megabus — an economical bus service popular on the East Coast and Europe — started their service in California and Nevada offering their ridiculously low $1 fare (obviously in limited quantities, of course) to popular destinations like Las Vegas, San Francisco, and San Diego. I was one of those who took advantage of the dollar fare taking the new bus service from LA to San Diego for a weekend getaway. You can’t beat a dollar. That’s why I was pretty disappointed to learn when they discontinued their service only about a year later due to low ridership numbers.
Last month, we found out that Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream was opening soon inside Union Station within the passenger concourse area. It was exciting news for those of us (urban transit geeks) who want to see Union Station open up more businesses, becoming more of a destination itself rather than just a transfer point. Many cities around the world have shopping and dining inside their major rail stations (you can see some examples here).
Ice cream lovers rejoice. A new Ben & Jerry’s is coming soon to Union Station in Downtown LA adding to a mix of new businesses that have been opening inside the rail hub. Construction began on the ice cream shop in May 2012 inside the passenger concourse and will be wrapping up very soon. According to B & J’s Facebook page, it should be opening up “early summer.”