Sunday, March 1, 2015

Rebranding 30th Street Station

With University City becoming Center City's western skyline, 30th Street Station's soot stained and aging facade is finding itself a relic amongst sleek skyscrapers, enhanced pedestrianization, and a neighborhood that's finally starting to look like the city it should be. 

But it's not all bad. Philadelphia's 30th Street Station is unique. Unlike New York's Penn Station or D.C.'s Union Station, 30th Street is still exactly what it was when it was built in 1933. 

Commuters are mesmerized by 30th Street Station's historical uniqueness, whereas Manhattan and Washington greet them with sterile pragmatism that echoes an early 90s Greyhound Station. 30th Street Station is a train station first, its retail presence second. 

But that could soon change. Senator Bob Casey recognized 30th Street Station as the welcome mat it will become during the city's upcoming Papal visit and Democratic National Convention, and its need for a makeover. Unfortunately he did so with a nod to Washington's Union Station, a train station both loved and hated for the same reason. 

Union Station is by no means subtle. Its grand in the most European or Gilded Age of ways. But it's also been reinvented. It is a grand shopping mall with an incidental train station at its uninspired rear. 

There is no question that 30th Street Station could benefit from better - even more - retail. The retail experience is basic, it serves the needs of those looking for fast food and a newspaper. But it doesn't do much more than that. 

Is Union Station's mall-like experience the answer to 30th Street's necessary improvements, or is the suggestion a dated quest to fill a need that died thirty years ago? Union Station succeeds, thrives even, because commuters are stuck with an infrastructure established three decades ago. They shop at its stores because they're saddled with what's in front of them.

But people - especially savvy rail commuters - aren't looking for Express and Barnes & Noble on their layovers. They're walking outside to soak up the skyline and the local flavors. Downtown train stations like 30th Street, Penn Station, and Union Station offer that. But inside, if 30th Street wants to maximize its potential, the answer isn't a shopping mall full of predictable chains. It's a train station that happens to be full of the retail synonymous with Philadelphia. 

New York did this.

Here, that means a nostalgic shoeshine stand with an Urban Outfitters backdrop. It's a Rosa Blanca express and kiosks full of local vendors. Maybe even an Amish pretzel stand. 

Turning 30th Street Station into just another Amtrak mall is a shortsighted solution to an urgent need, and it doesn't need to be. If you want to generate revenue by enhancing the retail experience at 30th Street Station, great, it needs it. But there are enough innovative businesses and entrepreneurs in Philadelphia to offer commuters a truly unique experience. 

Let's be honest, the only reason people shop the shops at Union Station is because they're waiting for their train. If we want to do the same, why not offer them a uniquely local experience?

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