Yesterday the Washington Post published a story about the decline of Union Station in Washington, DC. Back in the 90s the station was a happening place with about 100 different businesses including a movie theater and some high-end restaurants. But the site has been on a long steady decline which got a jolt from the pandemic. Now most of the shops at Union Station are empty and people who used to spend time there say they don’t anymore for reasons that aren’t difficult to understand.

A commuter through Union Station for more than two decades, [Thomas] Porter said he has felt more threatened at the station amid its surge in mental health incidents, homelessness and high-profile crime. Amtrak officers have responded to 47 assaults this year, up from 32 in all of 2021. Burglaries, robberies and vandalism are also up.

Back in the early2000s, he would frequent B. Smith’s on the East Hall for business lunches, until it closed about a decade ago. He moved to the Center Cafe, a two-level bar in the middle of the main hall that closed in 2016. Starbucks was the only reason leftto stop. He recently began avoiding the lower-level food court as harassment grew increasingly intolerable.

“Every single time, someone has approached me asking for something,” he said. “If people are getting harassed just while they’re trying to eat their Taco Bell or Chick-fil-A, they’re not going to want to spend any time there.”

This summer Starbucks announced they were closing their store inside the station because of safety concerns.

Starbucks is closing 16 stores around the country because of repeated safety issues, including drug use and other disruptive behaviors that threaten staff…

A Starbucks spokesperson said, “We are closing one high-incident store in D.C.; we look forward to continuing to welcome customers at the many company-owned and licensed stores in the city…

In a letter to employees, Starbucks’ senior vice presidents of operations Debbie Stroud and Denise Nelson said the company’s stores aren’t immune from problems like rising drug use and a growing mental health crisis.

“We know these challenges can, at times, play out within our stores too. We read every incident report you file — it’s a lot,” Stroud and Nelson wrote.

You have to read between the lines a little bit but the incidents Starbucks’ employees are complaining about involve drug use and mental health. It’s pretty obvious these are references to the homeless. The company doesn’t want to be too blunt about that for fear of offending homeless advocates. The Post story is more forthcoming with the type of incidents taking place at Union Station these days. They spoke to long-time janitor Ana Julia Fuentes:

“People pee and poop here,” she said.

Her job of three decades can be demanding. That morning, she responded to clean broken glass bottles in front of the taxi-stand area. She’s seen people pass out and vomit. She’s cleaned fecal matter by the pizzeria on the second floor. She’s had to scrub the smell of urine with soap at various locations…

The most striking change came during the pandemic, she said, a period that has seen more incidents involving panhandlers as the list of shuttered business grows.

Perhaps to give equal representation, the Post also spoke to a homeless man who now spends most of his time at Union Station. Robert Wade says you’re not allowed to spend the night inside but the rest of the time the cops mostly leave you alone.

Security and police will leave the homeless alone if they aren’t causing trouble, Wade said. He feels safe at Union Station, he said, although he feels better protected when police are around.

Wade stays mainly for the shelter and the services, but he has also formed a sense of community with others who spend hours each day under Union Station’s elegant roof.

Union Station now has about 40 businesses left and seems to be on a downward spiral. There is a plan for a $10 billion renovation which would almost be starting over from scratch.

It certainly looks nice but Matt Yglesias makes a point about all of this spending: It’s not really aimed at improving train service.

The project looks great in the renderings, but that raises similar questions. Amtrak is not saying this will allow them to provide new service to and from Union Station. They’re not saying it will increase the frequency of the trains that serve the station. Nor will the trains pass through, into, or out of the station faster. Because the renovation is not actually a renovation of the functional part of the station.

They’re also not talking about touching the historic Union Station building, a gorgeous architectural gem. Instead, the plan is basically to build a nicer shopping mall between the historic building and the platforms.

Even if you make the area nicer and bring back the businesses, what’s to keep the same thing from happening to the new station? There will still be lots of homeless people spending most of their days inside. They’ll still be using the station as a bathroom and scaring people with their drug-addled behavior. What happened to progressives wanting to address the root causes of the problem?

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