Aberdeen's Station Square vision could take 30 years to fulfill

After 15 years of planning, Aberdeen could see the area around its Amtrak train station transformed into a green amphitheater with a well-lit underpass between the east and west sides of town, but that vision won't happen for at least two more decades.

State transportation officials told the Aberdeen City Council Monday that the ambitious Station Square project, which would take 20 to 30 years to be fully built, could ultimately include a stepped amphitheater area on the west side with potential retail areas along the top of the steps.

It could also spell out "Aberdeen" along the top of the station, which officials said would anchor the city and the project.

About 25 residents and other community members attended the presentation, which was organized by the Maryland Department of Transportation and included officials from other agencies, including Jim Ports of Harford Transit.

The project is complicated by Amtrak's plans for rail service in the area, which feature a fourth track for the whole northeast corridor and new, handicap-accessible platforms, Harriet Levine, a transportation consultant, revealed.

Because of that, Levine said, "there's plans to expand the platform and station area."

The train platform would be four feet higher, as well as much wider than the existing one, requiring the station to be moved north.

"The existing train station actually can't stay where it is when the platforms are upgraded," she said.

City Councilwoman Ruth Ann Young said she is glad Amtrak's plan were brought up.

"This is the first time it's actually been publicly addressed and it needs to be," Young said.

The Station Square project is part of a "transit-oriented development" plan for Aberdeen that tries to revitalize and focus development on the area immediately around the transit station.

Officials said they hope it will, among other things, bridge the divide between the city's east and west communities.

An updated cost estimate for the project is expected to be finalized in about a month, but a previous estimate for the project was $35 million to $36 million.

Several residents expressed concern about the train station itself, urging the council to continue working to improve it.

Carlos Petzold, a Churchville resident who owns a business called Borghi USA in Aberdeen, asked about including public restrooms, noting the tunnel at the station often smells like urine.

"There's just a ton of problems with the station that I hope with this presentation you will be addressing," he said.

Karen Heavey, a resident and planning commission member, also said she is concerned there is not much focus on the station.

She said it is a commuter station, but trains do not come frequently and the station does not offer amenities for its users, such as information about when a train will be coming.

"One of the complaints I have heard there's no place to get a cup of coffee, no place to get a newspaper," Heavey said.

Levine replied many services typically performed by station agents, such as keeping train schedules, could be less necessary with new technologies, noting riders can pull up the schedules on their phones.

Norman Harrington, another Aberdeen resident, said he worries about his son using the train because the station is dark, dingy and unpleasant to use.

"Make it desirable for those that use the trains," he said.

Mayor Mike Bennett agreed that the tunnel is "deplorable," but explained the station area does not belong to the City of Aberdeen.

"Believe me, we try our darndest to work with Amtrak on those issues," he said, adding that sometimes Amtrak listens to the city and sometimes it does not.

Council members addressed the reality that the project will not come to fruition any time soon.

They noted that small parts of it, however, such as dedicated lanes for bicyclists along Route 40, can happen much sooner.

"We have 30 years to go," Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck said. "That's fine. At least we are building. We may not live to see all this, but our kids will."

Levine pointed out Aberdeen does not sit in an open area, but one with many different property owners.

"The big idea of this moving forward is important to keep in mind but there are lots of small actions," she said.

Landbeck tried to stay positive about the reality of the project happening.

"When people see a grand thing like this, they tend to be naysayers and say, 'Oh, it's never going to happen in my lifetime,'" she said.

Bennett added: "It has to start now. If you never start something, it's never going to get finished."

He said the Route 40 "greenway" process is something Aberdeen and the State Highway Administration have been discussing for years, so that could move forward faster.

"We are just going to have to work the process and make it happen," he said.

Landbeck said doing it in pieces is necessary.

"I think it needs to happen gradually," she said.

The next steps for the area, according to the state officials, include initiating public-private development of a downtown parking garage and continuing to work to get a unique or "boutique" hotel for Aberdeen, which has been an ongoing topic of discussion as the city continues to fight for a hotel tax from the state.

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