As Starbucks exits, D.C.’s historic Union Station struggles with safety and empty stores

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
The Starbucks store days before it permanently closes its doors at Union Station.

Starbucks is departing Union Station on Sunday while citing safety concerns at the iconic Washington, D.C., transit hub. Although crime has fallen in recent years, so too have passenger counts, occupied storefronts and foot traffic, creating a dreary backdrop at a once-vibrant gateway to the nation’s capital.

A D.C. fixture for more than a century, Union Station is the region’s busiest commuter facility, the first stop for many visitors and a dining spot for tourists and local residents. But between its marble floors and 96-foot coffered ceilings is an outdated and deteriorating station showing signs of neglect.

Businesses are closing amid a pandemic that shifted commuter behaviors. As fewer travelers use the station, city officials and nonprofits have increasingly turned attention to those inside who are homeless or suffering from mental illness. Meanwhile, a rise in high-profile incidents in and around the hub has boosted a perception of insecurity.

While transit centers across the United States historically have served as shelters for the homeless, experts say there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that trend is increasing in the pandemic’s third year. Union Station is in line for a multibillion-dollar revamp over two decades, but first must overcome a growing sense of unease as businesses shutter and rail traffic struggles to reach pre-pandemic levels.

In announcing the closure of 16 stores earlier this month, Starbucks cited “a high volume of challenging incidents that make it unsafe to continue to operate,” although the company declined to elaborate on incidents specific to Union Station. A Starbucks spokeswoman said problems at the closing locations mirror challenges within their surrounding communities, including rising drug use, chronic homelessness and mental health issues.

Union Station management and some city leaders challenged Starbucks’s claims, pointing to a downward trend in crime at the station in recent years, a time period that included no major disturbances at Starbucks. D.C. police data show a single reported case linked to the store in the past 18 months, which involved a shoplifter who authorities say assaulted responding officers.

Others say the station, owned by the U.S. government and leased to and operated by other entities, is in urgent need of attention.

“It’s important that our federal partners pay specific attention to the public safety and the social service needs at the station” said John Falcicchio, D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

As plans advance on a $10 billion redevelopment, he said the station also needs immediate investment to improve day-to day operations. City officials say more effort is needed to fill empty storefronts, beef up security and provide resources on-site to help the homeless and those suffering from mental health problems.

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
Empty stores are seen at the once-vibrant gateway to the nation’s capital.

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Union Station, which opened in 1907, is a hub for Amtrak, as well as for Maryland and Virginia commuter trains, Metro and local and intercity buses. The debate over the facility’s future comes alongside a brewing legal fight over which company will manage Amtrak’s busiest home outside New York.

The U.S. government in 1985 authorized the nonprofit Union Station Redevelopment Corp. (USRC) to oversee the property. The USRC has subleased the property to Union Station Investco (USI), a subsidiary of New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition, which maintains and manages the station. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Amtrak subleases the concourse space from USI and is in the middle of a court battle as it tries to take over the station’s leasing rights from it. In an April eminent domain filing, the passenger railroad alleged the station is plagued by poor maintenance and a lack of capital investment. According to the Amtrak filing, about $75 million in deferred maintenance is needed at Union Station, citing a building assessment by USI and the Federal Railroad Administration.

Amtrak, whose police department has jurisdiction at the station, said it is working with other entities at the station to make safety and security improvements.

“We hope our pending litigation will enable us to directly invest in the station in a more efficient and effective manner and make additional improvements and increase the standards of care for maintenance, cleanliness, management and operations at this historic multimodal transportation center,” Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said in a statement.

Beverley Swaim-Staley, who oversees the station as president and chief executive of the USRC, said recent crime data show “incidents of any serious nature are, in fact, down.” Some of the most highly publicized incidents of the past year, she said, happened outside the station, with victims entering the transit hub to seek help.

D.C. police say the number of calls they responded to at and around Union Station that resulted in offense reports dropped from 503 in 2019 to 227 in 2021. But the pace has increased this year, with 149 calls through July 19, up from 119 during the same period last year.

Many of those calls involve D.C. police assisting Amtrak Police, which has the lead law enforcement role inside the station. The bulk of calls to D.C. police were for minor assaults, people who fell, family disturbances, thefts and lost property. Within areas of the station under Metro’s jurisdiction, crime is down about 8% this year compared with the same period in 2021, according to Metro Transit Police data.

Amtrak Police records show year-over-year declines in major crime incidents, such as assaults, thefts and larceny offenses, coinciding with the drop in foot traffic at the station.

In addition to crimes, calls to fire and emergency services offer a snapshot of the range of mental health problems that await responders at the station, including drug and alcohol intoxication, overdoses, panic attacks and suicide attempts. Fire officials also respond to a large number of calls for unconscious or disoriented people.

“We certainly want everybody to feel safe in the station, but a lot of different populations come to Union Station, from tourists to commuters and local residents. Everyone is allowed to be in the station,” said Swaim-Staley, noting that some visitors might be uncomfortable with people asking for money or talking to themselves. “Panhandling is not a crime. People are not arrested for that.”

As foot traffic decreased during the pandemic, the presence of homeless people and cases of mental health became more pronounced. Federal parkland turned into a homeless encampment outside the station until the National Park Service cleared the tents last month. Some recent safety incidents involved tent-dwellers.

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Experts say the situation isn’t unique to Union Station.

Public transportation was one of the few climate-controlled options that stayed opened as the pandemic emerged, a time when public libraries closed and shelters implemented capacity restrictions, said Jacob Wasserman, a researcher at the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies who has studied homelessness in transit environments.

“Transit has to bear the burden of other social policy failures, from housing to public safety,” he said. “And that’s hard for transit hubs because they were not designed for housing people . . . but it has become their issue, their responsibility by necessity.”

As issues involving homelessness and mental health have surged at transit hubs in areas such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, some cities are partnering with homeless advocates to help direct people to shelters, counseling and treatment.

In Washington, the nonprofit h3 Project is working with about 100 people at Union Station and the surrounding area. Its response team is called more frequently than before the pandemic to help people experiencing a mental crisis, who are dressed inappropriately or in need of resources.

Ami Angell, the nonprofit’s executive director, said the group has worked with Union Station and law enforcement, reducing the need for encounters with security or police, which she said can have a harmful effect on the vulnerable population. Angell said mental health issues also appear to have increased because access to medical prescriptions was more difficult early in the pandemic.

“Once an individual no longer was taking the prescription, it was much more difficult to get them back on it,” she said.

Several maintenance and retail workers at the station said they don’t feel unsafe, but echoed concerns about the apparent rise in homelessness and mental health incidents.

Some city social services also are available at the station, including a team with the Department of Behavioral Health, which responds to crisis referrals and conducts routine checkups on some homeless people. City spokeswoman LaToya Foster said there are fewer homeless people at the site since the closure of encampments nearby.

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
As foot traffic decreased at Union Station during the pandemic, the presence of homeless people and cases of mental health became more pronounced

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About half of the food stands in the lower level dining hall are closed, while several storefronts are empty in the concourse area. A bagel shop recently shuttered a few doors from the Starbucks that is closing Sunday.

Union Station and city officials cite the pandemic’s financial blow to businesses across downtown Washington. Even as some foot traffic has returned to Union Station, pre-pandemic lunch crowds and commuters aren’t back, officials said.

Commuter trains from Maryland and Virginia, which terminate at Union Station, are carrying about 30% of pre-pandemic passenger levels, while Metro ridership at Union Station is 25% of 2019 numbers. The station is Amtrak’s second busiest, with passenger counts down about 10% compared with counts before the pandemic, officials said.

Some local leaders rejected Starbucks’s claims that the coffee giant left because of safety concerns.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the locations slated to be closed nationally have been unionizing or moving in that direction,” D.C. Council member Charles Allen said, echoing the sentiments of other city leaders. “We can’t ignore that context and take a press release for the whole truth.”

In a statement, Starbucks denied the closures were the result of labor organizing issues, adding that the decision was “based on the challenging incidents” the company has seen in the stores and its inability to create a safe and welcoming environment.

The only incident reported to D.C. police at the Starbucks in the past 18 months occurred July 9, when authorities said a woman tried to steal two bags of coffee from the store and fought responding officers. The woman was arrested, but prosecutors did not pursue charges.

About a week earlier, police chased a man with a knife through the station after authorities said he pursued a family waiting for a hotel shuttle near the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

Ella McBride, 57, had been at the station’s Warby Parker eyeglass store when she noticed the altercation June 28. She saw a family on a sidewalk and a man staring at them from across the street. McBride, in an account supported by a police report, said the man ran toward the group with a knife in his hand. The family crossed the street, deciding it might be safer to walk to the hotel rather than wait for the shuttle. Police said the man cut them off, and was “walking around them, muttering nonsensical statements,” and making threats.

“I ran screaming all the way to Union Station to get the police,” said McBride, who lives near the station.

Police said in an arrest affidavit that the man with the knife ran into Union Station. Officers pursued the man up the escalator to the main concourse, where people waited to board trains – and where Starbucks is located – then outside.

Police said the man stole a bicycle from a person in the circle and sped down a nearby street. Officers caught him a few blocks away and found a knife in a pocket of his shorts. They did not determine a reason for the attack. No one was injured.

Two days later, D.C. police said a man was stabbed nearby and ran into the station while injured and bleeding. An arrest affidavit indicated an Amtrak Police officer pulled out his gun and ordered a man to drop the weapon. The man complied and was arrested. Authorities said the motive isn’t known.

Some high-profile cases linked to the station have not taken place on station property. Last year, a woman who police believe lived in a tent outside Union Station was found dead in a shopping cart nearby, and the homicide was later linked to a man who police say is a serial killer. In 2018, a man was shot and killed during an argument outside Union Station in an incident that halted trains as police searched for the suspect.

Back inside, police charged a Richmond man in 2020 with shooting a man at the bus terminal.

Allen said there are safety and economic concerns that should be addressed to make Union Station a more attractive destination for visitors and neighbors.

“But a lot of this, I believe, is ultimately driven by the fact that Union Station isn’t woven into the surrounding community like it needs to be to thrive,” he said. “There’s little reason to go inside if you aren’t trying to catch a train.”

After not receiving a major rehabilitation in decades, the station needs a makeover to meet future demand, rail and local officials say. Many of the station’s facilities don’t meet federal accessibility requirements and fall short of modern transportation standards. The Federal Railroad Administration is advancing a multibillion-dollar expansion and redevelopment plan to transform the station by 2040, adding a new train hall and concourses, as well as tracks and retail options.

Falcicchio said the city wants to work with Union Station management to help fill empty storefronts with local vendors. He said a program to subsidize lease rates could help as it has in other parts of the city.

“People like to go places that feel vibrant,” he said, “and right now, Union Station could use an infusion of vibrancy.”