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Amtrak and developers push ahead with multimillion-dollar transformation of Baltimore’s Penn Station

Amtrak and developers are pushing ahead with a multimillion-dollar transformation of Baltimore’s historic Penn Station into a mixed-use, high-speed rail hub with the potential to spark large-scale investment in nearby neighborhoods in coming years.

Work is expected to start later this spring, representatives of Amtrak and the development team said Thursday during a virtual presentation organized by the Greater Baltimore Committee.

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Improvements to the station are long overdue, said Donald C. Fry, the GBC’s president and CEO.

“The plans ... are impressive and will transform an iconic Baltimore landmark into a modern-day regional transportation hub and gateway to the city,” Fry said.

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The station, a central stop along the Northeast Corridor serving 3 million passengers a year, is the eighth busiest in the U.S. for Amtrak, which is investing $90 million in improvements.

A rendering of the St. Paul Street entrance to the new high-speed rail platform planned as part of Amtrak's redevelopment of Penn Station.
A rendering of the St. Paul Street entrance to the new high-speed rail platform planned as part of Amtrak's redevelopment of Penn Station. (Handout/Courtesy of Gensler)

Those include refurbishing the more than century-old “Head House,” the station building on North Charles Street, building a new high-speed rail platform to the north of the tracks and constructing a modern, glass-walled passenger concourse above that platform. Space will be renovated or added throughout for shops, eateries and offices.

A rendering of the interior of the passenger concourse planned for the high-speed rail platform as part of Amtrak's redevelopment of Penn Station in Baltimore.
A rendering of the interior of the passenger concourse planned for the high-speed rail platform as part of Amtrak's redevelopment of Penn Station in Baltimore. (Handout/Courtesy of Gensler)

Amtrak is reviewing bids for construction of the high-speed rail platform.

For the rest of the station overhaul and expansion, Amtrak entered into a master development partnership in 2019 for those projects with a team that includes Baltimore-based firms Cross Street Partners and Beatty Development.

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In February 2020, investment firm Blueprint Local contributed an undisclosed amount to the project in Opportunity Zone funding.

Amtrak is pouring tens of millions of dollars more into its next-generation fleet of Acela trains, allowing Baltimore to benefit as a key high-speed rail hub and giving passengers shorter travel times between the city and destinations such as Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

In the existing Head House station, developers plan to add offices to the now-vacant two upper floors and retail to the ground floor.

Besides the station itself, Amtrak also controls parcels along the track right-of-way that have development potential, including two parcels to the east and west of the station, in the valley below Interstate 83, said Tim Pula, vice president of community development for Beatty Development.

A rendering of the proposed redevelopment of Amtrak properties just north of Penn Station, looking across Charles Street.
A rendering of the proposed redevelopment of Amtrak properties just north of Penn Station, looking across Charles Street. (Handout/Courtesy of Gensler)

For those parcels and an existing parking lot north of the station at Lanvale Street, the team is considering uses such as offices and apartments. Developers envision about $400 million worth of total development over time.

Housing would be attractive to commuters working in Washington or Philadelphia, while office tenants would benefit from lower rents than other East Coast cities yet have direct rail access along the corridor, Pula said.

About two-thirds of Penn station’s current passengers are MARC train commuters, mostly heading to jobs at or around BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport or in or around Washington.

“Predominately these are people from Baltimore who are going to D.C. or BWI for jobs and bringing income back to Baltimore and generating economic activity in Baltimore,” said Pula, who said both Amtrak and MARC project ridership growth. “Obviously, COVID has had an impact on that, but I think we all ... see the light at the end of that tunnel.”

“There’s the opportunity then for more people to live in Baltimore and have quicker access and better access to jobs in D.C. and the D.C. suburbs,” he said.

From the new high-speed concourse, passengers will be able to watch trains coming and going and have a view of the Beaux-Arts-style Head House, said Peter Stubb, a principal and design director for Gensler, which is working on the project design.

Plans also call for adding public spaces outside Penn Station for gathering, he said.

“Coming out of COVID, of course, we’re all feeling that these outdoor spaces are more important than we would have imagined before,” Stubb said.

Work is expected to start later this spring with exterior renovations of the Head House, including a new roof, adding or repairing windows and adding exterior lighting. Interior renovations will come next, toward the end of the year. Station expansion likely will start by the middle of next year.

Bill Struever, managing partner and CEO of Cross Street Partners, said he hoped Penn Station’s transformation would lead to future transit improvements for the city, ideas such as connecting the city’s light rail system to Penn Station and improving MARC commuter train service between East Baltimore and West Baltimore.

“One of the most important factors for economic growth of cities is to have a reliable, accessible, functioning regional transit system, and I think that is the opportunity here,” Struever said.

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