Amtrak engaged the Baltimore community for the first time Tuesday night in its massive plans to redevelop the Baltimore Penn Station. A meeting at the University of Baltimore drew 75 people, who peppered staffers with ideas for what they want the project to add to the community. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)
Baltimoreans peppered developers and Amtrak officials with ideas Tuesday for the redevelopment of Penn Station at the first meeting held by the national railroad soliciting community input for the project.
In addition to renovating the century-old station itself, Amtrak’s preliminary plans include adding apartments, offices and retail space on its properties surrounding the station. The work could lead to more than 1.6 million square feet of residential, retail and office development in a 5-acre area around the station.
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Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said the project was a long time coming. He told residents attending at the University of Baltimore’s William H. Thumel Sr. Business Center that he hoped they would speak their minds to developers about what they want to see in the area.
"The Baltimore community has been waiting a long time" for Amtrak to develop Penn Station and the surrounding plots of land, Cummings said. He said seeing the business center filled to the brim Tuesday evening "made my heart glad because this is what democracy looks like."
Brian Traylor, an infrastructure planning manager with Amtrak, said in a short presentation that Tuesday was the first opportunity for stakeholders to put ideas “down on paper” and tell developers: “This is what we want our future to be.”
"This is the kickoff of what we’re calling Next Stop: Baltimore Penn Station," he said. "It’s about reaching consensus on what it is the community wants to see [and] kind of balancing that with Amtrak’s operational needs and what the opportunity for development" looks like.
About 75 attendees rotated from table to table for three, 20-minute sessions during which they gave suggestions in three categories: public spaces, transit and identity. Developers and Amtrak staffers wrote people’s ideas on sticky notes and placed them on big sheets of paper that draped the tables.
Sela Thack lives close to the station in the Greenmount West neighborhood and said she attended the meeting with her husband, David Thack, because "this is our community, and we wanted to have a say."
She said she hopes developers bring cafes to the area to make up for several that she said have recently closed.
David said he frequently rides the trains and wants Amtrak to keep prices low while it expands the station, which is the eighth-busiest Amtrak station in the U.S. He also wants the station and the surrounding area to connect nearby neighborhoods rather than keep them apart, which he said it currently does.
Amtrak will hold two more public meetings, the next taking place sometime in the fall. Traylor and Cummings both urged community members to stay engaged throughout the process.
Amtrak announced in December that a collective called Penn Station Partners is leading the development. It includes Beatty Development, Armada Hoffler Properties, Cross Street Partners and Gensler.
Christopher Rzomp, an associate with Gensler, told attendees Tuesday that Penn Station "feels disconnected from the adjacent neighborhoods" and is practically "on an island" — things the developers want to change.
Rzomp said stakeholders should tell developers how that space can best be opened up. He suggested replacing the confusing "spaghetti"-like pickup and drop-off area with a public square.