Suburban Station Is In For An Overhaul Three Levels Of Government Will Join In A $42 Million Plan To Make The Sweltering Terminal A Clean, Cool Transport Hub.

Posted: May 12, 2000

More stores, brighter lighting, modern bathrooms, and an end to summertime swelter are in store for thousands of commuters who use Suburban Station every day under a $42 million renovation plan announced yesterday by SEPTA general manager John K. Leary Jr.

SEPTA, in partnership with U.S. Equities, the Chicago real estate firm that oversaw retail renovations at 30th Street Station, is scheduled to complete the project in four years. The goal is to turn the dated, dingy underground commuter terminal - the region's busiest rail hub - into "a bright, modern retail gateway for Center City Philadelphia," Leary said.

The $30 million for SEPTA's portion of the project will come from federal, state and local governments, with federal authorities contributing 63 percent, the state 33 percent, and Philadelphia and its suburbs the remaining 4 percent.

Work is to start this fall, when SEPTA replaces the station's grimy restrooms with airport-caliber facilities and begins building an atrium-style headhouse entrance and redesigned courtyard at 15th and Market Streets.

In coming years, elevators and air-conditioning will be added; signs, floors, lights and the public-address system will be improved or replaced; the 16th Street entrance will be redesigned; and the number of stores will be nearly tripled to 60, with an emphasis on food, office supplies and women's fashions.

With its dim lighting and scarred floors, the concourse now has a look of perpetual gloom. Retailers are scattered hodgepodge through the maze-like terminal, and commuters are just as likely to encounter empty storefronts as they are thriving businesses.

"The Planning Commission did a study showing that this quadrant of the city has the most people and the least amount of retail space," said Gerald Maier, SEPTA's director of real estate. With more office space being developed nearby, the demand for services will grow in coming years, he said.

SEPTA estimates that 100,000 people pass through the station every day, on trains and on foot.

Service on the 470 trains that pull into and out of Suburban Station every day will not be disrupted during renovations, Leary said.

"I can see it all now, people getting out at Suburban Station and walking to a Phillies stadium at 12th and Vine," Mayor Street quipped at a news conference at the station, referring to the controversial site he is advocating for a new ballpark.

Street also used the occasion to push city-regional cooperation.

"When this city does well, this region does well," he said. "We need to have the links between us improved."

Karen Grayson of Germantown is one of 25,000 regional-rail riders who take the train into and out of Suburban Station every day, and she broke into a smile when she heard about the planned renovations.

"It's dark and dingy in here, and they don't have many stores," said Grayson, who was passing through on her way back to work, having spent her lunch break at nearby Liberty Place. "And what about healthier food?"

Plans call for a greater array of quick-serve restaurants, geared to time-pressed commuters, including a sushi shop that is to open in the next couple of weeks.

Jarrard Smith, who has suffered through four stifling summers in the concourse as an employee of Passero's gourmet coffee shop, said the improvements "should have been made years ago."

Suburban Station is a destination not just for commuters, he said, but also for senior citizens who live nearby. With the renovation, he said, it could become a gathering spot for seniors, "where they can feel safe and find a good price for products."

The planned improvements have been in the works for more than three years and came to fruition after a series of "long nights, long lunches, and worried phone calls," said Robert A. Wislow, chairman of U.S. Equities, SEPTA's partner in the project.

Completing the deal entailed complex negotiations involving SEPTA, the city, and nine or 10 office-tower owners who also own pieces of the station, Maier said.

Suburban Station, which was built in 1929, runs from 15th Street to 18th Street and from Market to Arch.

Since 1997, its retail shops have been operated by MetroMarket, a joint venture of U.S. Equities and Philadelphia's Rubin Organization. They include stands selling hot dogs and pretzels, pizza and greeting-card shops, drugstores, a newsstand, a shoe-shine stand, and the U.S. Postal Service.

Tony DeAngelo, MetroMarket's general manager, said the company had added tenants steadily and yesterday finished fixing up an area near the 16th Street entrance, which now has tables and plants, new floors and ceilings, and brighter lights. That work was done with a $300,000 grant from the city.

"We want to make this concourse once again the place it used to be 25 or 30 years ago," DeAngelo said.

Maribel Mendez, who manages the Beneficial Savings Bank branch - a concourse tenant for 27 years - said that since the 16th Street improvements began, customers had been asking when her area, near 15th and Market, would get attention.

"We're into the 21st century," she said. "We need to improve what we look like."

Julie Stoiber's e-mail address is jstoiber@phillynews.com

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