The public should own New London's Union Station

Many citizens deserve great kudos for what they have contributed to the city of New London.

But I can think of none more deserving than the owners of Union Station. If the city had a Medal of Honor it should be promptly awarded to them.

Better yet, at this pivotal time for the future of the city's waterfront, on the cusp of the exciting development of a new National Coast Guard Museum there, the city and state need to move to take responsibility for the great train station, the historic, architectural and aesthetic anchor of the downtown.

The owners, Todd O'Donnell, who manages the building, and Barbara Timken, who has had an investment since the early days of saving the grand Henry Hobson Richardson masterpiece from the wrecking ball, have been remarkable stewards of the property.

They not only deserve credit for saving the building at a time when the city was accustomed to tearing down its architectural history, but they have carefully restored and preserved it.

I can't imagine how much the last major renovation cost, from repairing the brick to installing an entire new slate roof.

The work has largely been selfless, in that it is unimaginable that they would ever expect to recover the vast amount of money they have invested over the years.

The building, after all, is largely an enormous, heated public space, including rest rooms, with some rental income from Amtrak.

Not only does the station receive no general public subsidies for providing a public building - how many train stations are privately owned in Connecticut? - but then they pay property taxes.

So the train station owners have bridged the preservation gap all these years, taking the station from the brink of destruction to a likely featured role in the development of an adjacent national museum.

It is time for the public, with the state's ample resources, to step in, at this critical juncture, to do the right thing.

I don't expect the station owners would be opportunistic on pricing if asked to sell. In fact, I suspect they would welcome a chance to pass the expensive and responsibility-laden preservation baton and recover just some of the money they have spent.

In the world of Connecticut investing in transportation infrastructure, any fair price paid for Union Station would probably seem small.

After all, look at all the federal, state and local money that recently went in to building a $20 million transportation center in Norwich, one without any connection at all to trains or ferries. It's an enormous bus station, really the only one in southeastern Connecticut. Everywhere else, people wait, at best, in sidewalk kiosks.

Just in August, Gov. Malloy helped cut the ribbon on a new $103 million West Haven train station, one that serves only commuter riders. Why can't New London ride that gravy train.

The governor has pledged $20 million in state money for infrastructure improvements to make way for the new Coast Guard museum, including an elevated stairway over the tracks, next to Union Station.

Maybe that $20 million could be goosed up enough to include purchasing Union Station and incorporating it into the development.

Maybe access to the new waterfront museum could be under the tracks, from a lower level of the station. Maybe the grand lobby of the station could become an indoor staging area and welcome center for the many train, ferry and bus passengers who are expected to converge with the museum visitors.

Maybe one of the state's great architectural treasures could be blended into the development of its newest.

Maybe the Coast Guard Museum could buy part of the station and incorporate some of it into the new museum. It would have to be cheaper than building everything new. And the historic context might improve not only the new museum but the downtown New London experience.

Maybe the owners of Union Station will at least get the satisfaction in knowing they helped make it happen.

Maybe no one would have welcomed the idea of building a museum there at all if the great architect H.H. Richardson had not already been holding the spot.

This is the opinion of David Collins


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