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Preservation alert: Phoenix Union Station

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Rogue columnist

Preservation alert: Phoenix Union Station

The most precious treasure of old downtown Phoenix is in flux. This could provide the city a long-overdue opportunity. Or it could go sideways in a hurry. I'm writing, of course, about Union Station.

According to CBRE, the big real-estate services firm "has been retained as exclusive representative to offer qualified investors the opportunity to purchase fee interest in the iconic...Union Station site in downtown Phoenix at 401 W. Harrison Street." It goes on, "Depending on the vision of a new owner, the Property may be eligible for a myriad of monetary and tax advantaged programs..."

Sprint, which has used the station to house switching equipment since the late 1980s, intends to move out before the end of next year. The Union Pacific Railroad's ground lease ends in March 2023, a century after the building was completed. Now what?

One of the most popular columns on this site is my history of Union Station (with photos) — you can read it here. The Spanish revival building brought together the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads in one full-service station. Three years after its completion, the SP finished its northern main line and routed most of its passenger trains through Phoenix. The city was served by multiple intercity trains a day through the 1960s.

The last Amtrak train called here in 1996. The state refused to partner with the SP (merged with Union Pacific the same year) to maintain the west line between Phoenix and Wellton to passenger-train standards. Phoenix became the largest American city by far with no intercity rail service. Sprint — which was started by the SP — using the depot for switching equipment helped protect and save it. Being on the National Register of Historic Places wouldn't have stopped Joe Arpaio's jail-building mania and other losses in the Warehouse District. Mesa lost its lovely SP depot to one cared.

Who will care now?

The future of Union Station will be a useful marker for the new City Council.

City leaders with vision and vigor would purchase Union Station or partner with a private-sector developer with historic-reuse expertise. The goal: Return Amtrak to Phoenix (in a fit of sanity the state purchased the west line) and begin commuter service to such suburbs as Buckeye, Goodyear, Glendale, Peoria, Surprise, Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler. A slight rerouting of the south light-rail line would place it conveniently next to Union Station. High-speed rail should be in a future worth having.

A public-private partnership could yield the benefits of Denver's highly successful restoration of its union station. (Indianapolis provides a cautionary counterpoint, especially if a treasured building loses its public space). Stations have also been saved in such places as Cincinnati, Kansas City, San Jose, and Dallas. Seattle's King Street Station has been meticulously restored (even though it never lost its trains). Portland's depot is another gem.

In other words, Phoenix is the outlier — and not in a good way. But will City Council act — or notice? Yes, Arizona law has seriously affected the ability of governments to use eminent domain. But this doesn't preclude purchasing a historic property, especially of this importance.

Side note: I am somewhat less concerned about the future of the Luke-Greenway American Legion Post (where my Scout troop met and where I was introduced to Medal of Honor recipient Silvestre Herrera). According to a source, the volunteer heroes I call the "Preservation Police" are working to bring in a developer who would adaptively reuse the building and retain key functions for the Legion.

But nothing can be taken for granted. Call your council member and mayor's office. Get involved.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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