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Crossing Union Lines
D.C. zoning allows for rail yard decking.

“Nothing like this has ever happened in D.C.” is how architect Shalom Baranes described the recent rezoning of the rail yards behind Union Station in the nation’s capitol. Baranes has been retained by the developer Akridge to design a mixed-use development across fourteen-acres of platform. Both the developer and the architect have remained relatively mum during the zoning process, preferring to wait until the ink had dried on official documents. The D.C. Zoning Commission unanimously passed the order in April and published it on June 9. The developer has set the bar pretty high for Baranes by calling the project Burnham Place after Daniel Burnham, the hundred year-old station’s architect.

An initial reaction might be to compare the project to New York’s massive Hudson Yards proposal. But it’s much closer in concept to Park Avenue, which united a divided Upper East Side by covering over the New York and Harlem Railroad tracks back in the 1870s. About thirty years later, Burnham’s Beaux Arts station in D.C. brought visitors to the foot of the National Mall but divided the quaint row homes of the Near Northeast neighborhood from the gleaming white government buildings in the neighborhood now known as NoMa. Few pedestrians venture across Hopscotch Bridge, which arcs H Street high above the tracks, bifurcating the Akridge’s air rights. “You’re either east of the tracks or west of the tracks,” said Baranes. “On the west side of the bridge there’s a lot of development, but on the east side of the bridge it’s totally self-sustaining and disconnected. Our challenge here is to turn H Street into real street.” A spokesperson for council-member Tommy Wells, who represents both neighborhoods, said Wells supports the proposal.

In order to fill the three million square feet with offices, residential, and retail, Akridge will need to coordinate with the Union Station Redeployment Corporation, who has its own masterplan that includes revamping the station’s front yard, Columbus Circle, and introducing streetcars to H Street. Meanwhile, Amtrak’s vision for high-speed rail presents opportunities and challenges that Akridge hopes to tap into, literally. By connecting with the transit levels below, the developer hopes to entice travelers to come up above and shop. Akridge vice president of development David Tuchmann said there are also plans for a north-south pedestrian corridor with a visual connection that stretches from Union Station all the way to K Street, the northernmost end of the Akridge property. “Our goal is to be integrated as much as possible into the rail structure beneath us,” said Tuchmann, “or else all we’ll have is a project that floats above the infrastructure.”

As far as the massing is concerned, Tuchmann said much of the volume would shift toward H Street, where the zoning will likely allow for a 125-foot to 130-foot right of way. He added that the project is still far away from the design stage, but allowed that it could serve as a “something of a backdrop” to Burnham’s building and that “from a market standpoint tenants are looking for a lot more glass.”

Akridge must now gear up for financing the project. “We need to look for funding from every sector,” said Tuchmann, adding that with zoning cleared investors will see it as a viable proposal. He suggested that passenger facility fees on ticket prices might provide nice bond leverage and that TIGER grants should also targeted. Being located above one of the nation’s major transit hubs certainly doesn’t hurt.

Tom Stoelker