by Daniel Schere | @Daniel_Schere

The planned restoration of Winston- Salem’s former Union Station building will soon reach its design stage, with construction potentially beginning next summer. East Ward residents and community leaders gathered in United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church Dec. 11 for a town hall forum held by councilman Derwin Montgomery. The meeting informed citizens of projects that will soon get underway in the city thanks to the passage of five bond referenda on Nov. 4.

The Union Station renovations are financed in part by a limited obligation bond, in which the building’s value is used to generate revenue for the project, explained transportation director Toneq’ McCullough.

“The limited obligation bonds use the building as collateral, whereas the general obligation bonds that the public voted on use the tax base as collateral,” she said.

According to the Forsyth County GIS database, the building and land are worth $492,900. Union Station was built in 1926 and at one point saw 500 passengers and 18 trains pass though every day. After the station ceased operations in 1970, Harvey Davis operated a mechanic business out the building for 30 years. In 2012, the abandoned building was purchased by the city of Winston-Salem.

The city has hired the architecture firm Walter Robbs Callahan & Pierce to conduct a feasibility study, which they have almost completed. McCullough said once that is complete, the council will decide on a final plan and will then hire a consultant. She estimates this happening in either January or February. The final plan must first be approved by the public works committee before going to council.

At the meeting Rence Callahan, an architect with the firm, presented different options for the building’s use.

Because the city is receiving money from a federal transportation grant for the project, half of the building must be used for a transportation purpose. A public input session was held June 17 to discuss possible uses for the section of the building that is not used for transit. Ideas that have been proposed include using the building for office space, putting in retailers and partnering with neighboring Winston-Salem State University to create a resource center for students.

McCullough emphasized to the crowd that the station will not serve as a replacement for the city’s main bus station downtown.

The building consists of three floors, each 12,000 square feet with the top floor likely being used for bus transit. PART will stop there in addition to city buses, and there is the potential for a streetcar stop, Callahan said.

He added that they concluded using the entire building for DOT-related functions would not be the best use of the building.

“What we heard in the community meeting was that wasn’t really a good idea from a community perspective,” he said. “It would be a waste for this entire building to just be filled up with city offices.”

Callahan said one option would make moderate use of the DOT portion and maximize the amount of space used for nonprofits and businesses on the third floor. It would leave the middle and lower floors open for tenants to locate in the future.

“At a time when Winston-Salem State may be more ready to put a bookstore in that space, there would be some available funds to assist in that development specifically for their use,” he said.

This option would also restore the station’s original rail platform in case Amtrak or commuter rail begins operating out of Winston-Salem.

Callahan described the other option as “pushing the envelope,” in which the building would be used as a retail supplement to the university, with a possible upscale restaurant.

“Most universities have within walking distance of their campuses, a pretty nice kind of edge private sector development,” Callahan said.

This second option, which Callahan said they will likely recommend the city adopt, would put some DOT offices on the bottom and middle floors and leave the rest of the space available to be leased out.

Callahan said one of the station’s goals should be to bridge the divide that exists between the WSSU campus and the area to the north on MLK.

“It’s been sitting there for decades, not being used as it was originally intended,” he said of the building.

Norfolk Southern owns the adjacent railroad track, but Callahan said they would not need to have any conversation with them in order to complete the restoration. He said negotiations would only be necessary if passenger trains were to begin running on the line.

“Norfolk Southern wouldn’t be running Amtrak trains from Greensboro to Charlotte, coming through Winston without feeling that they could stop in Winston and unload and load,” he said.

Robin Chapman, a regional spokesman for Norfolk Southern said the section of track between Greensboro and Winston-Salem typically gets four local freight trains per day, according to data from their Greenville, South Carolina division office.

“They’re not through trains going from one city to another, they’re just local service,” he said.

Councilman Montgomery said the most important takeaway from the discussion was making sure the building is used for a purpose that benefits the largest number of residents in the area.

“What we need to continue to make sure is that what use is going to the facility, what meets the standard that we have to have in terms of the transportation use within the facility,” he said. “But then also make sure that it meets the needs of the immediate and surrounding community and gives us an opportunity to bring more individuals in there.”

Montgomery said he has continued to hear input from citizens, but overall favors an ambitious plan that fosters economic development and investment. He is open to the possibility of a partnership with the university.

“With Winston-Salem State it’d be a great opportunity, it’s right there,” he said. !