Freighthouse Square vs. Amtrak abomination

Tacoma has gotten a good scare from the state Department of Transportation. We hope the department will get a good scare back from Tacoma.

The shocker came Monday when WSDOT unveiled a proposal – tentative, officials say – to butcher Freighthouse Square, a century-old landmark in the Dome District.

Background: The Amtrak station on Puyallup Avenue a couple blocks away is being relocated to the Freighthouse location. It’s part of a scheme to send Amtrak’s passenger trains directly south through South Tacoma and Lakewood, bypassing Point Defiance to shave a few minutes off Seattle-to-Portland trips.

Train stations have specialized needs, such as waiting and baggage handling areas. The Dome District’s landmark Freighthouse Square would require substantial retrofitting to accommodate those needs, including electrical work and compliance with modern fire codes.

But few – outside the bowels of WSDOT – imagined that 150 feet of the building would be transmogrified into a plug-ugly pig. The entire front end, including its iconic face, would be demolished and replaced with an architectural abomination.

A group of citizens devoted to the Dome District has long been working with WSDOT to keep the bypass project from wrecking the neighborhood. The department has made good faith efforts in the past to keep the community in the loop.

Hence the utter surprise and dismay Monday when WSDOT officials gave neighborhood advocates a PowerPoint overview of its plans. Some gasped when they saw the architect’s conception for the new station. It is an insult to the district and the city.

It’s a glorified shed. It lacks style, character, distinction and any discernible visual connection to the Dome District and its industrial history. It’s a drab, ugly misery – a squalid clash of vertical and horizontal lines. Many car dealerships would put it to shame.

VIA Architecture, which hatched the design, is a respected firm based in Seattle. This is not its best work. It may be its worst. The VIA rep at the meeting dismissed Freighthouse Square as an “old, wood building,” but no one appears to have done any serious analysis of what it would take to restore it.

The WSDOT people who are handling the bypass and station relocation say the PowerPoint itself was botched – that the VIA image was just one alternative, and that they will be working with the community to come up with a satisfying solution in the months ahead.

That’s good to hear. Still, somebody chose to single out that cheap, ugly design as the only option to show the community Monday. It shows an appalling lack of respect for Tacoma and an equally appalling indifference to aesthetics.

Let’s save Freighthouse Square. If that proves absolutely impossible, let’s replace it with something equally distinctive – not with an architectural slap at a great city.