PHOENIX — The last Sunset Limited passenger train rolled out of Phoenix’s Union Station, once a bustling hub for people and commerce, on June 2, 1996.
Twenty-six years later, a developer has plans to transform the vacant building in downtown Phoenix and the 10 acres surrounding it into an events venue, with restaurants and potentially a brewery or distillery, office space and a film studio.
Aaron Klusman, founder of Zoyo Neighborhood Yogurt and several other Valley brands, including film studio Rivulet Media, bought Phoenix Union Station in late 2021 for $4 million from Sprint Communications, according to real estate database Vizzda.
The purchase included the old train station near Fourth Avenue and Jackson Street and the land surrounding it, including the historic ice house to the north of the station. The Icehouse already is being used as an event venue, and Klusman plans to hold events at the train station as well.
“Aaron is committed to working with the city to keep Union Station,” Mo Stein, principal and director of HKS Architects, the project designer and architect, said.
“Union Station used to be the entry point into Phoenix for many, many years,” he said. “It won’t be the entry point again, but we have the chance to bring it back for people, and to recognize it as historically important for our city.”
The project’s first phase will renovate the Union Station building into a combination of event space, restaurant uses, and potentially a brewery or distillery, Stein said.
Offices of Klusman’s film company, Rivulet Films, are also planned to locate there and use the space as a production studio and headquarters.
“It’s like our own little modern-day Warner Brothers studio lot … done with some edge and grit while keeping true to Phoenix’s unique storyline,” Klusman said in a statement, “which I absolutely love.”
Most of the existing 30,000-square-foot building has been kept in good condition, Stein said. However, the western portion had been used as a data center, which significantly damaged the building. That portion will likely become the office space. The main building is two stories, which Stein said would function best as a public-facing space, like a food hall.
The plan also includes creating a plaza-like lawn for event space outside the central building.
Restoration and preservation work to the existing buildings is planned to begin this summer, Stein said. Some upgrades, like bringing safety systems and restroom facilities up to code, are needed before the building could be used for events or dining.
“We think this project brings a very authentic opportunity within the core of our city to bring something people know and love,” Stein said. “We can use a lot of the building exactly the way it is.”
Beyond the station, Klusman is in the early planning stages for future phases of development on the site.
On the east end of the site, Stein said they are considering a 14-story or more residential building. The new construction would not touch or affect the existing train station.
On the western portion, near Fifth Avenue, they are considering an 11-story hotel that would have parking and amenity decks.
On the southwest of the building, on the side where the building was damaged by the data center uses, the project could include a four-story office building.
Stein said there is no timeline for the new construction and no developer chosen, and any new buildings will be driven by market demand. For now, the attention is on restoring and reusing the existing building.
Christine Mackay, community and economic development director for Phoenix, said the project gives a chance to restore life to the place where people got their first looks at Phoenix about 100 years ago, as well as the driver for much of Phoenix’s commerce.
“Phoenix Union Station is where people arrived to,” she said. “It was where people came and had their first experiences of Phoenix arriving on the train. It is intimately woven into the history of Phoenix.”
Mackay said the train station was integral in Phoenix’s commerce activities, and was the way produce and other goods made their way from the city to destinations throughout the country.
“The whole Warehouse District was formed because of Union Station,” she said.
And just as the station was a driver for development in the 1920s, Mackay said it could be a catalyst for the area again.
“This really can be the center point of redevelopment in downtown,” she said, adding that there has been some public sector development, like the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office’s adaptive reuse of the former jail building, but there has not been much new development from the private sector in the area.
When touring the building with potential buyers before Klusman bought it, Mackay said she always had the fear that someone might want to tear it down instead of preserving it. Klusman’s plan to have public-facing amenities in the building has been very exciting for her.
“It got into the hands of someone who would revere the building and restore it to its original grandeur,” Mackay said.