Tacoma-based architecture firm Merritt Arch has been selected to partner in the integration of the city’s new Amtrak station to the Freighthouse Square shopping complex.

Merritt will work with stakeholders — City of Tacoma, Freighthouse Square, WSDOT, Amtrak and the community — to complete space analysis, conceptual feasibility analysis, siting of live-work units, preservation of retail and façade enhancement.

Robert Thoms, City Council member for Tacoma’s District 2, pushed for better coordination between the Washington State Department of Transportation after a meeting last month. Thoms and State Rep. Jake Fey, D-27th District, met with WSDOT leaders last week to emphasize the need for more local input on the project.

“Many were at first excited by the news that the State decided to relocate Tacoma’s passenger rail station at Freighthouse Square,” said Thoms. “However, after a December meeting to share initial design ideas, it was clear that we needed more of a Tacoma voice and vision for this project.”

That Tacoma voice now comes in the form of Merritt, which was selected last Friday after the City decided to forgo a competitive selection process.

“We had a very short window of opportunity,” said City of Tacoma urban planner Ian Munce. “Basically, we’re looking at a $18,000 project  … The idea came up that, could we generate enough resources to hire a local architect? I contacted the state and they were agreeable to putting up part of the money, and (Tacoma Community and Economic Development Director) Ricardo Noguera said that he would put up part of the money. But we didn’t have a lot of time, so we just made the decision.”

City purchasing procedure, according to Munce, contains a provision that allows officials to do so if there isn’t time to conduct a formal 60-day solicitation process.

Merritt Arch, rooted in 1975 when principal Jim Merritt first established his own practice, has been a mainstay of the South Sound’s architectural community for decades. Merritt has several high-profile Tacoma projects in his portfolio, including the 1987-1992 restoration of Union Station and involvement in the 1981 site selection process for the Tacoma Dome.

Merritt’s name was suggested to Munce by Freighthouse Square property owner Brian Borgelt, who had previously worked with Merritt on a variety of projects. Munce, who had also worked with Merritt before, happily accepted the recommendation.

“He [Jim Merritt] did the Bellingham Amtrak station and the Kelso train station,” said Munce. “He has a lot of local experience with historic buildings, so when Mr. Borgelt mentioned his name, it seemed straightforward. He’s a natural choice.”

Several involved in the project lauded the selection of a local architect.

“This news is a tremendous victory for the Dome District and Tacoma. Our voices were heard. Council Member Thoms and the City engaged our state partners to ensure this station meets our community’s needs. After all, we will be the ones using and living with the Amtrak station every day,” said Dome District Association President Janice McNeal.

Preliminary renderings from Seattle’s VIA Architecture, unveiled at a public meeting in December, had 150 feet at the western end of the existing, 104-year-old wooden Freighthouse Square building demolished and rebuilt in the existing structure’s contour, but with glass and exposed steel. The concept was met with mixed reviews from locals seeking to preserve more of the landmark’s iconic architecture, prompting Thomas and Fey to lobby state officials for more Tacoma input.

Merritt will now participate in upcoming community forums regarding the design and function of the station. The first meeting to gather further public review and engagement with WSDOT is on Thursday, Jan. 23; a follow-up design report is due in March.

Amtrak operations at Freighthouse Square are tentatively projected to commence by 2017, with the 200,000 riders annually passing through the station. Rail traffic’s re-integration into the building is one of 20 projects funded by an $800 million statewide package focused at slashing rail travel times between Seattle and Portland by 10 minutes. Moving Tacoma’s Amtrak Station alone, according to WSDOT Amtrak Cascades program manager David Smelser, could shave six minutes off the total time.